Christopher S. Smith of Dover, Delaware, joined Edward Jones after earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in business in 2008. He then went on to earn his CFP designation at Georgetown and the related Accredited Asset Management Specialist designation.
Over the past decade, the advisor pursued his professional and personal dreams with careful guidance from mentors, peers and others. Along the way, he used a pay-it-forward approach to working with clients, which he credits for his success.
How and why did you begin your career in wealth management?
Around age 10, many of my family members gave me a nickname that sticks with me to this day — “Wall Street.” Every birthday and holiday, my family members would give me money as gifts. I would promptly put that money in the bank, and it was always a joy for me to see my savings account grow.
I was very intrigued to learn more about the nickname I had been given. I found out that Wall Street is a place where people can invest their money to make more money. This idea was absolutely intriguing to me and prompted me to invest my own savings as a teenager and to eventually attend graduate school to earn my MBA.
While in graduate school at Hampton University, I knew I wanted to be in wealth management, but did not know which firm would be the best fit. In a leadership development class, I observed a presentation given by a principal from Edward Jones named Emily Pitts. She described how great her firm was, how they treated their clients and the career opportunities within her firm.
I felt this was a company I needed to look into. That summer, I was able to land a financial-advisor internship working at an Edward Jones office in St. Louis. That experience proved to me that the culture Emily Pitts spoke of was true, and at that moment, I knew this was the firm for me.
What have you learned from your supervisors and/or colleagues? Does one of them stand out — and, if so, can you tell us why?
At Edward Jones, we have a culture of volunteerism. There is always someone there who has a dedicated interest in your success and can offer helpful advice. An individual that I have learned a great deal from is my regional leader Joe Quig in Hockessin, Delaware. Joe Quig is a very inspirational individual and opened the first Edward Jones office in the state of Delaware in 1996.
He taught me to take a long-term view of my career and to start building a business based on where I want it to be in 20 years. He encouraged me to earn my CFP designation. I feel this knowledge base allows me to better understand the needs of my clients and find the best ways to help them reach their financial goals.
Most important, he instilled in me the importance of putting my clients first and showing them that I truly appreciate them for choosing to do business with me. I still think of Joe whenever I welcome a new client, because he helped me embrace the solutions-based process early in my career — which helped me quickly and accurately find the best way to help each individual investor and become a successful advisor.
What has Edward Jones taught you that has most helped your career?
Edward Jones has one of the best (if not the best) cultures in the industry. The most helpful thing my firm has taught me is to always put the interest of our clients first. That advice alone pays so many dividends.
Clients appreciate and know when you are putting their interest above yours. It allows me to earn their trust early on in our relationship and gives me the opportunity to go deeper in helping them to plan and achieve their short-term and long-term goals.
We are taught this philosophy as an advisor, but it also is great that our firm puts us in a position to deliver on that expectation. It does this by allowing our advisors to only sell high-quality investments and encourages us to build well-diversified portfolios. We also are given all the tools we need to document our clients’ goals and assess them along the way to make sure we are on track to helping them to achieve their goals.
What is the most significant change you have seen in the industry?
The most significant change I have seen in the industry was the stock market crash in 2008 and 2009. At that time, I was just beginning my career in the wealth-management industry. There was a lot of shock and panic, and many investors voiced their concerns that the stock market was coming to the end.
During the crash, I had to rely on my training from Edward Jones. There was nothing I could reference from my undergraduate or graduate education that provided guidance as to what to do or when this downturn would end.
Even with this difficult time, my firm taught me to get out there and meet as many people as possible. I was encouraged to listen to as many people as I could, understand their concerns and needs, and see if I could offer any guidance.
That advice was key, because many people I interacted with had many questions and concerns but were not hearing from their advisors. I was able to be the listening ear and comfort that many people needed during this time, which allowed me to earn their trust and business. Taking that steady, time-tested approach showed me how important it is to stick to a plan regardless of the emotions surrounding the industry and the market.
What is the biggest challenge facing you and your team today, and how are you responding?
Currently in our office the biggest challenge we are facing is aging clients. When I started my business, I focused my client-acquisition strategy on retirees. Over the years, many of my retiree clients have aged, which has presented new challenges. With my aging clients, the new challenges we are facing are cognitive issues, long-term health care and death.
Our team has implemented many strategies to make sure we help all our clients prepare for these concerns. When anyone in our office has concerns about a client’s cognition, we let our client know about our concern and get their permission to allow their family member of choice to assist with the financial matters going forward.
With every client, we discuss all options with long-term care, either to insure or self-insure. If they decide to insure, we show them all the options available so they can make the best decision for their needs. If they decide to self-insure, we help them to identify the assets that they would like to spend first to pay for future possible long-term care needs if they arise.
Lastly, the sad truth is that someday we will all face death. We make sure every client has had a discussion to ensure they have adequate life insurance to protect their families. In addition, we check with our clients’ estate planning attorney to make sure they have an updated estate plan. If they do not have an estate plan at all, we encourage them to schedule a meeting with an estate attorney immediately, which I attend with them.
What is the biggest issue confronting the wealth-management industry today, and how should it respond?
The biggest issue confronting the wealth-management field today, in my opinion, is robo-advisors. These systems provide financial advice or portfolio management online with minimal human interaction. Many millennials like conducting business and handling financial and banking matters online. Robo-advisors have the potential to be a disruptive technology to the wealth-management industry.
I personally believe that financial planning and investment management need human interaction. Even though there may be individuals who like the ease of use and convenience of a robo-advisor, there will always be many that will need the personal attention and guidance from a human wealth manager.
To make sure human wealth managers do not become obsolete, we need to ensure we are not just helping our clients grow their assets but also are helping them achieve their goals. It is our job to be there when they need us, ask the right questions at the right time, and understand their needs better than anyone else, so we can make sure they have the right plan to reach their financial goals.
What are you doing specifically in terms of retirement planning and overall wealth management that you think is quite innovative?
At Edward Jones, we believe in using time-tested, proven strategies to help our clients with pre- and post-retirement planning. In my office, we use an established process but we customize our plan by going further in depth than most.
Retirement can be very different for every individual. It is my job to ask questions that will help me understand what life looks like to them in retirement. This includes things like what they plan to do on a day-to-day basis, where they will live, how often they will travel and the cost associated with it, how many cars they plan to purchase and their estimated health care costs, to name a few.
I try to quantify their specific lifestyle and model it in their retirement-plan accounting for inflation. We update and review this plan with every client twice a year, adjusting it to changes that may or may not have incurred in his or her life.
Can you tell us about one of your best client relationships and why it has been successful?
In the wealth-management business, we all like working with our wealthier clients. But I get the most satisfaction from working with clients who are that diamond in the rough. My number one goal is to have a positive, significant financial impact on everyone that comes into my office.
One of my best client relationships involves a client I met at the beginning of my career. This client had never worked with a financial professional, did not have a lot of assets and had a lot of debt, but very high income.
At the beginning of our relationship he would constantly tell me I would be wasting my time because he did not have a lot to invest. I knew he was someone I could help, and I was going to make it my project. We spent dozens of meetings and several years working through the financial-planning process taking baby steps toward achieving his short-term and long-term goals.
Because I persisted in asking the right questions and truly wanted to change this individual’s life, I was able to help him become debt free, achieve goals he never thought possible and become one of my wealthiest clients through prudent saving and investing. This story always reminds me that hard work is worthwhile and that I can make a positive difference in the lives of my clients.
What advice would you give younger advisors based on your experience?
I always share with younger advisors the same advice that was bestowed upon me. New advisors should put their clients first and view this career as a marathon and not a sprint.
It can be very tough in the beginning stages, and you may think in your mind that you are not getting any traction. Clients may not connect with you or trust you at first and that feeling can be personally and mentally defeating.
I feel that most people entering the field of wealth management are driven, competitive and highly motivated individuals. In light of these character traits, many new advisors are likely not seeing or celebrating their small successes.
I tell new advisors that we are constantly trying to achieve small successes which will lead you to bigger ones. Young advisors need to celebrate the small successes because that will help them maintain a long-term view of this career and stay motivated. Watching people reach their financial goals and knowing that I helped is very rewarding; this work has provided me with opportunities and experiences that I could never have imagined.
Who, as a mentor or source of inspiration, has most helped you and your career?
My mentor at Edward Jones has been Willie Randall, a financial advisor in Exmore, Virginia, since 1997. I consider Willie a friend, colleague and a Kappa Alpha Psi Inc. fraternity brother. From my infancy in this career, his advice to me was to understand my community, get involved in the community and build relationships in that community.
A good mentor is someone that can be there for you, be a listening ear during challenging situations and give you well-needed guidance and support. Willie has done just that, which has not only allowed me to build a great business but also helped me to make a difference to my community.
Willie, to this day, is a source of inspiration for my career. Willie Randall is the first African-American financial advisor that I have known personally to achieve over $1 million dollars of business production. In addition, he has been very influential and significant to the community that he serves. I aspire to grow my business to achieve heights he has reached and beyond.