Shannon McLay and her Financial Gym teammates For clients of Shannon McLay, center, the first stop is her Money Bar.

Former Merrill Lynch advisor Shannon McLay launched Financial Gym to help clients “whip their assets into shape.” Indeed, with a velvet glove, she has created a safe place in New York City for folks to speak openly about their money — or lack of it, as she tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

“All fun, no sweat” is how McLay positions the Gym, where her warm welcome extends to serving clients drinks from the “Money Bar,” well stocked with wine, scotch, gin, vodka, tequila and more.

In the interview, the “Financially Blonde” blogger and “Martinis and Your Money” podcaster says her creation in Manhattan’s Flatiron District is working so well that later this year a Brooklyn location will open. Plans are to soon begin expanding beyond New York City.

For two years at Merrill Lynch, McLay managed more than $10 million in high-net-worth client assets. Previously, she’d built an 11-year career at Merrill’s investment bank. Frustrated with clients’ lack of money self-discipline, she left the firm in 2013 to open a financial company that was “approachable, affordable and accessible,” she stresses.

Clientele ranges widely in age from 17 to 72, but core clients are ages 26 to 40. Annual income and assets similarly run the gamut: zero to $500,000-plus and zero to $7 million, respectively. McLay, 40, and her staff of “trainers” have created more than 1,000 financial plans for clients, whose greatest need is help managing and saving money.

Individuals pay a monthly fee of $85 to $500. Revenue also comes from financial wellness education provided to firms.

The Gym generates financial advice for clients but no specific investment advice. When it comes to trading, folks use robo-advisors or FAs, with whom many have accounts. McLay allowed her license to expire in 2015.

The ex-advisor is candid about what she calls the Gym’s philosophy: “Money is more interesting with a glass of wine in hand.”

This year McLay partnered with the spirits company Bacardi in its “Spirit Forward Women in Leadership” promotion.

“It was a match made in heaven!” she enthuses.

THINKADVISOR: Bold to launch a financial services firm that’s so different.

SHANNON MCLAY: My parents and then-husband thought I lost my mind when I left my Merrill Lynch practice to help people with no money!

Why did you?

I saw a continuing theme of setting [savings/spending] goals for clients, but they were never hitting them. They had the expectation that their investment portfolio was going to be the be-all and end-all answer to their situation.

You have a “Money Bar” packed with wine and spirits for clients. This is unusual for a financial services firm!

Talking about money is stressful, so we give people a drink when they come in.

Does that open them up to talk about their finances?

Oh, yes. Our workout equipment is wine and Kleenex! The two words we hear all the time are “fear” and “shame.” So when someone comes in for the first time, we greet them, “Do you want a glass of wine or a drink?” and they start to mellow out. By the time they leave, they’re saying, “It’s good to get all that off my chest!”’

People are quite reluctant to talk about their finances, aren’t they?

They’re more comfortable getting physically naked with someone than financially naked. They’re hiding all their personal financial information. We’ve had some people come in with statements they haven’t even opened because they’re too scared. We don’t care about what you look like [financially] — we just care about where you want to go.

How much of your program is focused on investing?

It depends where the clients are in their financial health. We believe that gradually everyone should be investing. But if you have credit-card debt at 25%, we’re not going to be overly concerned about your 401(k) [return] or other portfolio investments. We’d rather you focus on your debt aggressively while building wealth. The hardest part of investing is having assets to invest.

What investment services do you provide?

We help clients identify their goals and give advice on asset allocation relative to those goals. We give them a financial plan and tell them what they need to be saving every month. We track everything with them, but they’re the ones who are actually pulling the [trading] trigger.

Do they use digital advisors for that?

Many do, and a number of clients work with [human] financial advisors. They’ll do the investment portfolio, while we do the budgeting, cash flow [etc.]. We’re helping the advisors because since the clients are saving more money when they work with us, they’ll have more money to invest.

Why is your staff all female?

I’d be happy to hire a man who’s comfortable, compassionate and empathic sitting across from someone who’s crying because they haven’t saved enough money. But I have yet to meet him.

How do you prospect for clients?

Word-of-mouth and podcasts have been the predominant ways. I’ve done more than 200 podcast episodes. They’re a great way to sell yourself without selling yourself. About half our clients have come from that, and we have an 85% conversion rate. People already developed a trust in you by listening to you.

What size role does technology play in your business?

We have a system in which clients’ expenses, assets [etc.] are entered, and we track that and report quarterly. The process is critical to helping clients manage their spending. So our technology helps them to be more mindful around their money and helps the trainers track their progress and goals, which is a core part of our business.

Do you plan to expand nationally?

Yes. I want to be like H&R Block but for financial planning. Some people say, “But H&R Block isn’t, like, a cool comparison” [and they’re now closing 400 offices]. But everybody knows the brand and can go into any H&R Block and get accounting help. I want to create the same thing for financial planning.

Are you hiring financial advisors, then?

I could be. But if they’re all about making an investment portfolio at their previous job, this isn’t the job for them.

Last year Brooklyn Bridge Ventures and Alpine Meridian Ventures invested $1.8 million in Financial Gym. Did you get funding for your first startup, Next Gen Financial, which you developed into Financial Gym?

I went through my life savings the first two years. Then my mentor and boss at Merrill on the institutional side invested $300,000 of his severance payout in my startup. Merrill had just let him go. He loved the irony of my leaving Merrill to build a business.

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