Senior Vice Presidents, Smith Barney
Careers Began: 1985
Home Base: Berkeley, Calif.
Harper’s Civic Affiliations: Glaucoma Research Foundation, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Downtown Berkeley YMCA
Koren’s Civic Affiliations: Junior League of Oakland East-Bay, Girls Inc. of Alameda County
A Dow Jones reporter once dubbed Gena Harper and Carla Koren “the odd couple” of the investment world. Not surprisingly, the label stuck.
Harper, almost totally blind, is the risk-taker — a downhill skier, rock climber, wind surfer, rafter and backpacker. Koren describes herself as “kind of a wimp” whose attachment to her job triggered a “no lunch rule” she adhered to for years. “If they had a TV show about extreme workaholics, she’d win,” says Harper about her longtime business partner.
The big-picture Harper loves marketing and business development. Koren, more analytical, is drawn to details. “I’ll say ‘Let’s have a big gala,’ and Carla will think of the 92 things that have to get done before the gala happens,” says Harper. “We’re like yin and yang. A lot more happens that’s good because of the synergy we have with each other.”
Harper and Koren, both 43, bring a remarkable chemistry to the advisory engagement.
As one client, Susan Schlicht, notes: “These two just don’t let up until they’ve done the best they can for you. Their dedication, their passion, their intelligence — they’re the complete package. They have a can-do approach. There’s nothing that can’t be accomplished.”
Schlicht, 69, says she was in desperate need of help when she hooked up with the two advisors four years ago. Her family business, a manufacturer and importer of piping products, was in financial flux; her personal finances needed attention as well.
“When I finally found them, I had no idea the resource they would be,” she says. “They’re both whirlwinds, marvelously accomplished women.”
Harper and Koren formed their partnership 20 years ago, long before teams were the rage. Today, their support staff includes a third financial advisor, Jose Zavaleta, two client service assistants and a technical analyst. With $470 million under management, Harper and Koren work with 300 households, primarily couples in their 50s and 60s who are business owners or independent consultants.
“We just knew we’d really complement one another and our clients have benefited from that,” says Harper, who travels to their Berkeley, Calif., office with her guide dog, Asia. “In our case, versus other partnerships, there is a dichotomy in our strengths and interests. I could be a fine broker without Carla and she could be a fine broker without me, but we wouldn’t be as happy. We wouldn’t enjoy the job as much. And I don’t think it would be as good for our clients.”
Typically, both advisors attend client meetings. Koren then does the number-crunching and creates a strategy that she and Harper later discuss. At the next meeting, Harper delivers the advice.
“Carla is the Steady Eddie. She’s all about detail. I like the part where I get to explain the strategy and ask for the OK to go ahead,” says Harper. Adds Koren: “Clients like it. They kind of feel better if we’re both at a meeting. We always tell people straight up that we don’t always agree on everything but that we’ll work on it together. They see the value in the different perspectives and styles that come to the table. And they’re upset if one of us is not around. They really view us as a team.”
Harper and Koren are highly involved in client care — routinely accompanying clients to meetings with attorneys and accountants, as an example. It is on that feature, they say, that they stand apart.
“We are simple and plain Jane. We are thorough. We do go above and beyond. I think people like that simplicity,” says Harper. “And I think people take comfort in our team approach. While we may differ on risk tolerance from time to time, for example, we agree completely on ethics. We believe it’s one of the keys to our success.”
Harper and Koren, both married with three children between them, come from modest beginnings. Harper, born with congenital glaucoma, had her first surgery when she was four days old. Raised by a single mother, Harper is one of only a few legally blind financial advisors in the U.S. She has limited vision in one eye and uses special equipment to help her read. Koren’s father sold tools over the phone and her mother was ill when she was growing up. She put herself through UCLA, and obtained an MBA from U.C. Berkeley.
Hugely philanthropic in their off-hours, both advisors devote large chunks of time to a variety of causes. Harper is currently chairing the annual fund-raising benefit for the Glaucoma Research Foundation. Koren oversees an after-school literacy program for 50 at-risk children at a local elementary school.
“I’d save the world if I could. It’s why we get very involved in every level of planning with our clients,” says Koren. “I think we have a unique team. We’re not so much smarter than the average bear, but we do know what we’re doing — and we like doing it. Clients can feel that.”