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How Stephen Hlibok Became Merrill’s First Deaf Advisor

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Financial advisor Stephen C. Hlibok, who was born deaf, has been helping deaf clients invest in the markets for 30 years now. When he began his career in 1987, naysayers said he’d never succeed. How totally wrong they were. In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, Hlibok tells how he has thrived in the competitive FA arena.

At age 25, Hlibok became the first deaf broker hired by Merrill Lynch and remains the only deaf advisor at a full-service brokerage who uses American Sign Language (ASL) to work with clients, he says. The few other deaf FAs that specialize in serving investors who are deaf are independents.

Hlibok’s solo practice is focused on high-net-worth investors, and 90% of his clients are deaf. Now the Merrill vice president, 54, is planning to expand to a team structure, adding advisors whether deaf or hearing but all who are fluent in ASL.

Educating clients about their investments is of course an advisor’s responsibility. For Hlibok, it is a passion: the deaf are unable to access much of the financial information hearing people can obtain, largely because it has not been made available in sign language, Hlibok says.

However, the internet has not only revolutionized the way the deaf can communicate with one another and with the hearing — such as by email — but has increased their ability to acquire information.

Indeed, communicating via the web has helped spur the growth of businesses owned by the deaf, a major reason for Hlibok’s planned expansion.

The internet has also been an enormous help to Hlibok in working with clients. When the Queens, New York-born FA started out, the only technology with which he could talk with clients and prospects were Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD or TTY systems), wherein parties can send text messages by phone using a typewriter-like device.

That was laborious and time-consuming. As a cold-calling rookie, for example, he could make only two or three calls to every 100 his newbie colleagues logged in.

For the past several years, Hlibok has used a special video device that connects to a TV set and allows deaf people to see one another signing via the internet. It also lets hearing people speak with him by phone through an interpreter, who sees Hlbok signing on-screen.

Hlibok, born to deaf parents, has a Master of Business Administration from New York University and is founder of the Deaf Professional Network.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the Columbia, Maryland-based FA on the phone, through an interpreter. The advent of robo-advisors was one issue we discussed, and his view was a bit surprising. Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: You’re looking into expanding from a solo practice to a team-based one. What’s prompted that?

STEPHEN HLIBOK: It’s my next move. There’s been rapid growth of deaf business owners. Because of the internet, a lot of deaf people have been able to exchange ideas and advice via video conferences, forums and group text. So we’ll have specialist [advisors] to provide services such as small business- and 401(k) plans, and help with residential and commercial mortgages and estate planning.

Will the others advisors on your team be deaf?

They don’t have to be, but [all of them] need to be able to sign well.

You have a great deal of responsibility serving deaf clients because they’ve had limited access to information about investing. Some advisors might take advantage of them because of that.

I definitely feel the responsibility. It’s large. Sometimes I feel like I’m a fish in a bowl — everyone is watching me because I’m one of a very few that gives financial advice [to the deaf].

Did you get much encouragement when you first started as a stockbroker?

A lot of people in the general population [hearing people] didn’t think I could make it. But I’ve been here 30 years! Now they look at me differently.

Are the financial and investing needs different for those who are deaf versus hearing people?

The main difference is the level of understanding in how investments work. The deaf need a lot more education, as financial literacy isn’t accessible in sign language [ASL]. Explaining to a deaf person through sign language is better because it’s their first language; English is their second language. When it comes to finances, most people [in general] would rather speak with someone who speaks their native language.

What sort of investing information do you focus on with deaf clients?

I’m an advisor as well as a teacher. I make sure that clients acquire clear information before investing. I educate them about how things work.

Broadly, are clients who are deaf more conservative investors than are hearing clients?

There’s not much difference that way between the general population and the deaf community. The biggest difference is that I have to explain things clearly and in detail. The general population gets a lot of information through the radio, podcasts, newspapers; but deaf [people] don’t have access [to much of] that. So they depend more on the information I provide them. But with the internet, deaf individuals are becoming more sophisticated [investors].

Do you have an account minimum?

It’s $250,000 in investable assets. My practice focuses on high-net-worth deaf individuals throughout the United States. Physical presence isn’t really important because the deaf community has no boundaries geographically.

Why aren’t full-service firms hiring and training more deaf advisors?

[Required] account minimums are [high]. Other than that, maybe firms don’t know there’s a market out there, or communication barriers might be the issue. Also, firms have divisions, like Merrill has Merrill Edge, that serve smaller accounts who share a pool of advisors.

I understand that Merrill rejected your employment application several times when you approached them for a job. How did you persuade them to interview you?

When I was rejected, I was disappointed, but then I found a book that said how to get a job as a stockbroker. It said that firms tend to reject people the first time to test if they have a tolerance for rejection and to see if they’ll try to get back in touch with them. That made me realize, “Oh, they’re testing me to see if I can handle rejection or not” because in this field, there’s a lot of rejection in regard to clients. So I convinced them I could, and they let me interview in Columbia, Maryland.

You reportedly said that when you joined Merrill, you told them that “the financial world is like the Berlin Wall to deaf people.”

That’s right. At that time, the Berlin Wall existed. [Two years] later it crumbled down.

Did you feel like the wall regarding the deaf crumbed too because you were helping them as a financial advisor?

Definitely. People in the deaf community weren’t getting involved with investments. Now a lot has changed. They’re more open about the issue of investing.

In what way?

Many years ago deaf people didn’t want to talk about investing because they didn’t have access to a lot of information. And it was also too personal to talk about. But now people are more open to discuss finances because there’s more access.

They didn’t want to discuss investing because they felt that money was a very personal issue?

Yes, but not only for that reason. There was a lack of access to information. So they couldn’t talk about it much.

Do you see robo-advisors as a threat to your practice?  Hearing isn’t a requirement in order to get digital advice.

Robo-advisors would not be a threat. They’re more about expanding opportunities. The human touch and emotions will always be part of the relationship. So I see this as providing more efficient, personal and customized service for each client. How do you prospect for clients?

Most of my business is through referrals. The deaf community is close-knit and connects very easily because we speak the same language. [In addition], I manage the accounts of many deaf associations and also the people who belong to them.

How did you prospect early in your career?

My first networking experience was through Gallaudet University [for the deaf and hard of hearing], from which I graduated. And I did a lot of seminars at deaf national conventions.

Why did you want to become a broker in the first place?

In 1987, I felt strongly that I needed to build a bridge between Wall Street and the deaf community because they had little information. And I’d always enjoyed talking with friends about stocks and investing with my father when [I was very young].

Your first job was with the U.S. Small Business Administration reviewing low-interest loan applications. Why did you decide to work there?

I wanted to be a financial advisor from the beginning, but I needed to get a foot in the door somewhere. It was just to make a living.

Does America’s controversy over health insurance affect the deaf in any particular way?

The only thing I can think of is making sure that every hospital and doctor provides interpreting services and making sure that deaf individuals have the same access to information they require [that’s available to hearing people].

What new technology is under development to help the deaf?

A lot of companies are attempting to do speech recognition in sign language by using holograms. They’re trying to copy the hand movements of sign language and turn them into speech, and turn speech into signing.

Wow! When do you think that will be available?

It’s in the future. With artificial intelligence, several researchers are focusing on transforming hand movements into speech and speech into sign language. It will be interesting.

What’s your biggest challenge as a financial advisor?

Keeping up with all the changes in the financial world. The second challenge is that the demand from clients is greater than ever. So we need to make sure that we continue to provide value-added services.

Meaning there are more clients demanding financial services, or that clients are demanding more financial services?

Both. There’s a larger amount of people retiring – baby boomers – and they’re going to be demanding more services than ever.

You scaled the Matterhorn 20 years ago. That must have been exciting!

I climbed high enough to drink a beer at the halfway point. I’m going to try to go back and climb to the top. There are several deaf people who climb there with deaf guides. I’ll be with them.

That will take a lot of preparation on your part, I should think.

The weather will determine everything no matter how prepared I am. Nothing beats nature.

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