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From Army Captain to Financial Planner

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Gary Ward’s interest in financial planning began in the Army, as a captain in Special Forces helping his men deal with bounced checks and salesmen pushing financial products that would do them no good.

He started researching personal financial topics to help educate his men, then taking courses, knowing that someday his Army career would end. By the time he retired from the military in 1996, after 16 years, Ward had completed all his classroom instruction toward becoming a certified financial planner, but he needed the mandatory three years relevant work experience to qualify for the CFP exam. (He already had the required college degree, from Lafayette College where he majored in political science.)

“I interviewed a lot of different companies and found I knew more about financial planning than the guys interviewing me,” says Ward. “They knew more about sales and products.”

(Related: Honoring Advisors Who Serve(d): Memorial Day, 2018)

Ward chose IDS, the only company he found that was teaching and using the financial planning curriculum from the College of Financial Planning and willing to train a newbie in the business. More than 20 years later, he has remained with the company that after several acquisitions led by American Express Financial Advisors eventually became Ameriprise Financial.  He’s based in Brentwood, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, having moved to the area after leaving the army at the urging of his then-wife.

“We have good clients, good managers and independence. We’re called franchisees,” says Ward, about the practice of four advisors, where he operates independently as a fee-based advisor with about 300 clients, with total assets under management of about $50 million.

His typical client is a pre-retiree or retiree, but he also serves young military members and a couple of Gold Star spouses, all in need of a financial plan when he was first engaged. Their assets range widely, from several thousand dollars to several million.

Ward see himself as an “operations guy. Tell me what you want me to do. You’re the commander.” Then he looks at all his clients’ resources to develop an operational plan, which is adjusted as “new missions arise.” They can include savings for a college education, a new child, or a child or adult with a disability — whatever is needed to keep up with a client’s changing circumstance.

Ward designs an asset allocation for every client, usually choosing portfolios of mutual funds or ETFs, but he will include individual stocks if clients are interested in owning a particular security. He uses a variety of resources, including Ameriprise’s approved list of funds and ETFs and Morningstar, Morgan Stanley and other firms for research, and rebalances portfolios at least annually, more often if there’s a big move in the market or a client’s circumstance change. “I’m not trading every day,” he says.

He’s a big believer in Roth IRAs because of their tax advantages at retirement. Roth distributions are not taxed at retirement because the contributions were made after taxes.

“Everyone forgets that Social Security is taxed, based on income, and those taxation tables haven’t changed in over 20 years,” he says.

Fifty to eighty-five percent of Social Security benefits are subject to income tax depending on one’s income. The 50% rate is applied to single taxpayers earning between $25,000 and $34,000 and couples filing jointly earning between $32,000 and $44,000; the 85% rate is applied to taxpayers earning more than the tops of those ranges.

“The assumption is that retirees will be in a lower tax bracket,” says Ward. “Maybe, but only if you mess up” by failing to save enough for retirement. “Most people want to retire at the same income they earn before they retire.”

Ward says he helps many clients convert some of their pretax retirement contributions to a Roth every year, using outside funds to pay the tax liability.

In addition to serving clients for a fee, Ward works pro bono with Operation Homefront, the Wounded Warriors Project and Gold Star families — all organizations dedicated to helping military members and/or their families.

He’s also a member of the Civil Air Patrol, the auxiliary service for the U.S. Air Force, working with Nashville’s Music City Composite Squadron on rescue searches for small aircraft, leadership development and aerospace education, and a member of the executive committee of Tennessee’s National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.  (He’s a former president of Tennessee VOAD). Each VOAD chapter helps coordinate emergency volunteer services such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army when disasters strike.

Ward’s work with VOAD serves him well in his work as a financial planner. “When I talk to my clients I look at their property and casualty insurance and any disaster. I’ve seen people who have suffered through a major loss. How do you prove you had a 54-inch flat screen in your home before disaster struck? It’s important to have everything accounted for — and cash reserves.”

Ameriprise, like other financial other firms, allows advisors to upload important documents and receipts from clients in case they’re all destroyed.  “A disaster can hit in a matter of minutes.”

Ward recalls the deadly fire that in late 2016 destroyed 2,500 homes and businesses and killed 14 people in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a town with a population of just 4,000. The fire, which started in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, began Nov. 23 and was thought to be contained, only to engulf much of the city five days later.

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