Nancy Coutu studied finance and economics in college, but she never imagined that more than 30 years later she would find herself in the financial services field. “I was always very interested in it and thought I would pursue something in it, but never dreamed I would be in this career,” she admits.
Yet like so many in the financial planning business, her path to the industry was a circuitous and serendipitous one. It came through her former husband, who, after retiring as a police officer, took at a job at what is now Ameriprise.
A shy person, he was having a difficult time going out and meeting prospects. So Coutu helped coach him on how to better approach his potential clients and as she did, she learned more about the business. The more she learned, the more she became interested in it.
It was around that time there was a change in management at the company where she sold computer services. Though she was uncomfortable with the changeover, she was at first reluctant to give financial services a try even after a peer of her ex-husband’s suggested she was a natural fit for the profession.
“I said, no, no, no,” Coutu recalls. “I was used to calling on bank presidents, high-up corporate executives at big professional offices. He was meeting people at kitchen tables. I could never do that. After we talked I decided, I might as well try it, this is the perfect timing. I want to leave. Who knows? I tried it and the rest is history. I fell in love with it.”
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On and off the corporate path
So Coutu joined Ameriprise, rising from agent to supervisor to head of a district, winning “Rookie of the Year” and “Representative of the Year” honors along the way.
When she first started at the firm some 30 years ago, having a woman in the ranks wasn’t unusual. But a woman like her was new to her male counterparts.
“To have a woman that really had big goals and was really striving to hit and exceed those goals was something they had never seen before.” Coutu says. “So I was kind of a novelty. No one took me seriously, the manager didn’t take me seriously. He had me competing with another man in the office, but I surprised everyone by exceeding every target they gave me.”
Yet she is quick to add that she never wanted to compete against her colleagues. Rather, she sets goals for herself to achieve.
“I never competed with other individuals, my manager made me do that,” Coutu says. “I only competed with myself. I still do. I have goals for myself and I get satisfaction from achieving my own personal goals. It could be business goals, it could be personal health goals, or family goals. I tend to be goal oriented.
“I’m also very much a relationship person,” continues Coutu. “Can you do both simultaneously? Absolutely. If I want to bring on 50 more clients this year, I set that goal. It’s still a relationship in that I might see 150 people to get to that 50. It’s something you can do simultaneously very easily.”
Ultimately, it was that preference for building relationships that led her to step away from the corporate world and into her own practice. In 1987, she and a former Ameriprise colleague, John Gajkowski, launched Money Managers Ltd., a securities and insurance firm, in Oak Brook, Ill. A year later, they opened an advisory firm offering fee-based planning and portfolio management.
What drove her — and what still drives her — is her passion to help people save for a secure, comfortable retirement, something her own parents didn’t do very well.
“They lived day to day, had five kids, were always on tight budget and never saved for themselves,” Coutu says. “As a result they were very financially strapped. I was committed at a very young age to not be like that.”
She was also committed to succeeding in a field dominated by men. As a trailblazer 30 years ago, it was sometimes difficult convincing potential clients she was actually the Ameriprise advisor. She would call to make an appointment, only to be asked when they were going to meet with her male boss.
Yet being a woman could have its advantages. She found that prospects were more likely to open their doors to a female. (“Back in those days, we did house calls,” she says.)
So she never got into the habit of thinking, “Oh, poor me, I’m the only woman.” Instead, she maintains it has helped her in her career. “I don’t see any barriers. Never have, never will.”
Consequently, she is somewhat at a loss to explain why more women aren’t in the industry. When she was at Ameriprise, she recruited women into the firm, only to see them eventually leave.
“I don’t see an incredible amount of women in our industry today,” Coutu says. “I’ll go to a conference and they’ll be 400 people in a room and there might be 20 women, if that. It’s very disheartening to me. I would love to see more women come in and I’m not sure why more don’t.”
Her only explanation is that the women she recruited at Ameriprise early in her career had families and may have been dissuaded because of the evening hours. However, Coutu, a stepmother to two sons and step-grandmother to three, stresses it can be a great career for a mother. She can make her own hours, select her clients, and pursue one of several specialties.
“You can develop anyway you want,” Coutu says. “You can work with any type of client — you can do business owners, you can just do benefits plans, you can just do 401(k)s. I prefer individual women.”