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Practice Management > Building Your Business

The Road Less Traveled

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With almost 200 colleges and universities now offering registered programs for financial planners and investment advisors, the ranks of the profession will increasingly be augmented by eager young professionals who have chosen this corner of the financial services field as their profession. But the advisory profession is also likely to continue to benefit from the experience of those who choose to be an advisor as a second or even third career. Those who have succeeded in another field can bring a wealth of personal knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the advisory profession.

The subjects of this year’s New Faces in Planning profiles are two such women. Deon Blaney could have started a new retail business after she and her husband sold the chain of seven high-end women’s clothing stores in Las Vegas (with additional stores in Arizona and Texas) that they had spent more than 20 years building, but she didn’t. Ursula Robinson Daley could have remained an attorney and through diligence and applied effort likely would have continued climbing the corporate ladder, but she didn’t. Instead, by following their personal detours and sidetracks they’ve wound up in the driver’s seat of their own advisory practices.

Although they are using different business models, these two women have plenty in common. Chief among those commonalities is that what turns both on the most about their new careers is the joy they get from helping someone else understand the complexities of today’s financial world.

Ursula Robinson Daley

There were a number of stops along the road to becoming a partner in a Des Plaines, Illinois advisory practice for Ursula Robinson Daley, 34. After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of New Hampshire, she attended Pace University Law School in New York. While still a law student she went to work in the legal department of Boston Financial Data Services, a transfer agent, which provided her first exposure to the financial services industry and securities law. After graduating from law school she went to work for Fidelity Investments, not as an attorney, but as a product manager. From there she was recruited by one of the largest law firms in the country–Morgan Lewis in Philadelphia. While on staff there she represented mutual fund companies, helped to bring some mutual funds public, represented boards of trustees, and did general mutual fund administration work. She also worked in the firm’s securitization practice group where she represented underwriters and issuers of mortgage-backed securities and worked on credit financing.

Then in February 2001 she moved back to Boston to accept a position as an in-house counsel for LPL Financial Services. “While I was at LPL, I worked in the financial institution services division, primarily in negotiating contracts with banks and credit unions around the country, but it also involved a lot of close contact with advisors on a daily basis,” she recalls now. “That was my first introduction [to the profession] and I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I’m really interested in.’ I got to see how these guys and ladies practiced. I got to know them very closely, and I got a strong appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.

From Attorney to Advisor

“I was with LPL in house for about two years, and about a year and a half into it, I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” Daley continues. “I saw that my background would allow me to add a huge value to what I was bringing to the table.”

By mid-2002, Daley knew she wanted to become an investment advisor and that she was going to be moving to the Chicago area for personal reasons. Although she interviewed with several firms and had a number of offers to choose from, she felt most comfortable joining a practice that was affiliated with LPL. “I had the benefit of knowing what high integrity LPL’s back office had and how they treated their advisors. I knew how they followed the rules and how strict they were,” explains Daley about her decision. “As an attorney I took that very seriously.”

Where she found the right fit was with Bob Shambora, who had founded Athena Investments in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines and was looking for someone to help him with his portion of the practice. “I tutored under Bob and after a year I bought a portion of his business,” she says. She also bought a book of business from another retiring LPL advisor and says that as a result her business right now is concentrated around two specific groups–retirees or individuals planning for retirement and small business owners.

The Athena Investment Group is an ensemble practice with six advisors, each of whom own their own piece of the business and are in alliance with two other independently owned businesses–Athena Accounting Group and Athena Insurance Agency–that operate out of the same building to provide complete wealth management.

“We wanted to create an environment where a client could come in and take care of everything in one location,” explains Daley. Moreover, she says, “We also felt that being on the same team for the client enables us to do our job more effectively. We can walk down the hall and talk to someone about the client’s taxes or insurance.”

She adds, however, that there is no pressure on clients to use Athena’s accounting or insurance adjuncts if they have a professional with which they are already comfortable. “If someone has an established relationship with an accountant, I’m not going to come in and disturb that,” Daley says. “I’m definitely open to playing whatever role on their team they want me to play.”

Since she no longer practices law (passing the bar exam in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts was enough for one lifetime, she says), Daley has also created alliances with several different law firms to facilitate estate planning for her clients. She uses her background as an attorney to help interpret the legalese for her clients during these meetings, reducing the intimidation factor that she says many people feel when dealing with lawyers. “I see myself as a liaison between the client and the legal language barrier,” she explains. “And sometimes people just need a friend. They just need someone to sit with them during the process so they feel comfortable.

“People first come to me for investment advice, but ultimately we partner in what I refer to as life management,” she says of her approach. “The first part is investment advice, but the second part is being more like a partner in that client’s life business, because it crosses over into many different areas.”

First, a Teacher

For all her clients, though, Daley stresses the importance of having a basic understanding of the financial world and having a grasp of where they have their money invested. Having seen the world of mutual funds and bonds from the inside, combined with her legal background, gives Daley what she feels is a base of first-hand knowledge that many advisors will never be able to accumulate. She says it’s essential, too, in communicating with her clients.

“I feel that I have a responsibility to educate my clients,” she states emphatically. “Through that education I hope to empower my clients to believe in what they own. People find the financial industry very intimidating when they don’t have any exposure, so I try to give my clients a baseline of education and say, “This is what our plan is and let me empower you to understand what it is you’re going to own. Do you know what a mutual fund is? Do you know what the S&P 500 stands for? It’s baseline economics information.”

So far, all of her client education has been very personal, taking place in a one-on-one environment, but that’s likely to change later this year, when Daley launches a seminar series geared specifically toward women.

“The idea for the seminars goes along with my theme of empowerment through education,” she says. “When I was in a law school, I was a third-year student taking a securities regulation class and I didn’t understand what a mutual fund was. I didn’t want to be intimidated by the industry, so instead of just learning about it, I decided to throw myself into it and make it my career. I have met many women over the last nine years in the industry who were in the same position as me. I’ve also worked with a lot of women attorneys, very bright women, widows and new people starting out in their careers, and we all need the same information. I’ve found I connect very well with women in similar circumstances.” As her practice continues to develop and she relies less on the books of business she’s purchased, Daley says she expects women to become a much bigger part of her clientele.

Like many advisors, it’s the personal contact and the ability to make a difference in people’s lives that Daley finds most exciting about her third career. “I gained a lot of experience from [working as a corporate lawyer], but I wanted to change people’s lives,” she says. “That was the driving force behind becoming an advisor.

“I love the challenge that the securities industry is always changing. I love being able to learn as things evolve. It’s definitely a career where you’re never going to get bored.”

Deon Blaney

Like Ursula Robinson Daley, Deon Blaney, 47, didn’t plan on a career in the financial services field. Born and raised in Las Vegas, she began working in the retail clothing business as a teenager. As a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she had a 3.8 GPA in her first three years, although she never finished work on her degree. “My husband and I were so active in our business that it began to consume my time,” she explains. “And to tell you the truth, nobody ever asked about it until I got into this business.”

After more than two decades in the retail business, in 1993 Blaney and her husband sold their high-end women’s clothing stores. The transition to retirement was easy for her husband, who she says became a full-time golfer. “I’ve always worked, so I felt like a fish out of water,” she says, noting that for the first four years she devoted herself to charity work. Then she ran into a friend with Primerica Financial Services who asked if she’d be interested in doing something part-time in financial services. Since she was still raising children, the flexibility of the arrangement and the challenge of a new endeavor appealed to her. In that first job, Blaney got her first financial licenses–Series 6, Series 63, and those to sell life, health, and property and casualty insurance. Three years later she was recruited to a full-time position with Merrill Lynch by the husband of a woman she had met through her involvement with the National Charity League, a mother/daughter philanthropic organization.

At Merrill she entered into the company’s professional development program, and spent two years training to become an advisor. She also continued the licensing process, receiving her Series 7, 65, and 31. “That’s where I got my foundation in the business,” she says of her time with the wirehouse. “Merrill Lynch was a great experience; they were great to work with.”

Her next move was to Bank of America, which recruited her away from Merrill Lynch. She stayed there for almost two years and makes it very clear that it wasn’t any kind of dissatisfaction with Bank of America that ultimately caused her to set up her own shop.

Some longtime friends had sold their businesses and come into a large sum of money and asked Blaney to help them manage it. She initially brought the assets to the bank, but both she and her friends felt that they would be better off managing them outside of a bank or wirehouse environment. “It was more cost-effective for them and it was much more advantageous for me,” she recalls.

Even though she was handling this client privately, she continued as a B of A advisor. “My colleagues encouraged me to explore the independent channel,” she says. “It wasn’t something that I had considered on my own or had a burning desire to do. But the more I learned about it, the more appealing it became. I couldn’t have designed a better business than what I have right now.”

A New Firm

She set up that business in September of last year and it’s one that she runs as a truly solo practice. Her office is in her home and she has no staff, both of which she says allows her to keep overhead low and pass on the savings to her clients. She handles some 33 accounts for 15 households, a few of which are very high-net-worth individuals. Unlike most established advisors, she hasn’t yet set a minimum account size for new clients. Although she was prohibited from soliciting past clients for her new business, a number have tracked her down (Blaney says they told her she could run, but she couldn’t hide) and requested that she handle their investments. “I’ve taken on anybody that contacted me that I felt was the type of client that I wanted to work with, not necessarily based on their account size, but more the clients themselves,” she explains. “With my average account size being $1.6 million, I certainly want to keep larger clients in mind, but it depends more on the individual rather than the account size. The ideal client for me is one who is open to ideas, is coachable, and regardless of their investment knowledge appreciates my input. They know that I’m looking out for their best interests.”

One of the unique aspects of Blaney’s business is that a number of her largest clients are those longtime friends who found themselves in situations similar to her own in 1993. Since they’ve sold their businesses, they are now much more concerned with preservation of their hard-earned capital than they are in continually growing assets. “We have a lot of common ground,” she says. “I feel that it’s important to establish that rapport with clients. We’ve been able to compare our transition from being a business owner to selling a company.

“Although these clients were very successful in their businesses, they have not for the most part had a lot of experience in the investment world,” Blaney says she’s discovered by working with them. “I think they appreciate the time and patience in helping them learn. It’s uncomfortable sometimes for a high-net-worth individual to sit down with an advisor who maybe expects that their level of knowledge is higher than it is.”

Going It Alone

Many advisors who are affiliated with a wirehouse or independent broker/dealer question whether they’ll be able to make it on their own, but Blaney says it hasn’t been a problem. “As a business owner I’m used to doing things myself, so being an independent now is really no different than anything I did at the bank or the wirehouse,” she says.

In making the transition from an advisor employed by a bank to one who is truly independent, Blaney says she relied on help from TD Waterhouse, which provides a number of services to advisors looking to go it alone. “There was a team of people that was assigned to me and they made the transition so smooth and were so helpful in every area. Every time I had a question it was answered. I looked at a number of broker/dealers and had to make a decision between the RIA and independent broker/dealer [model]. It was TD Waterhouse’s going above and beyond the call of duty to provide me with the information that I was looking for [that clinched it].” Blaney also worked with Beverly Hills Regulatory Consultants in setting up her RIA and continues to rely on that firm for legal issues.

“We’re led to believe that we need the name of a big bank or a large wirehouse behind us, but I’ve had an excellent response from clients when I mention that I own my own investment advisory firm,” says Blaney. “The TD Waterhouse name is the name recognition that perhaps they’re looking for when I mention that the assets are custodied” there.

Having worked at both a large wirehouse and a major bank, Blaney is quite happy to be a one-woman operation. ” I cater to a finite number of clients,” she says. “ I don’t want to be everything to everybody, but I do want to be everything to a few


She’s a self-described “people person” and enjoys nothing more than sitting down with new clients and working with them to achieve whatever the clients’ goals might be. Although Blaney doesn’t want to get too big, she does have plans to expand her business, relying both on referrals and the contacts she has from being involved in the Las Vegas community.

“I couldn’t be happier being back to being an entrepreneur, a business owner, really having control over my business,” she says. It’s a statement that more and more advisors in the channels she comes from are likely to be echoing in the coming months and years.

Managing editor Robert F. Keane can be reached at [email protected].


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