Discipline, focus, perseverance — building a thriving advisory practice takes all that, and more. So does dancing with the likes of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Indeed, applying those very same qualities has helped former 15-year professional dancer Kristen Irby to make a striking career shift from dance to finance.
With National Financial Network in New York City, he serves a wide range of clients, including attorneys, luxury builders, an NFL coach, artists and stay-at-home moms managing family finances.
The engaging Irby, 41, who began as a child actor in his native Chicago, is part of a seven-member team managing about $20 million in client assets.
Three years an FA, he exited a successful dance career on international stages while still performing at a high level. A fractured leg requiring surgery a few years earlier prompted him to reassess his life and face facts: A dancer’s career lacks longevity.
That meant he needed to acquire a new profession. But little did Irby imagine his next career would be giving financial advice.
What sparked his interest in being an advisor was learning “the narrative behind numbers” and to look beyond them, he recalls. These lessons came while working as a junior analyst in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management & Budget during his final semesters of New York University graduate school.
He had enrolled there — after leaving dance and studying for a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology — to acquire a brand-new skill set. In 2015, he received a master’s degree in performing arts administration.
The following year he joined National Financial Network, whose BD is Park Avenue Securities, a Guardian Life Insurance Company of America subsidiary.
Based in Lower Manhattan, Irby is available to his clients — average age 40 — seven days a week to help them with short-term money decisions as well as long-term planning critical to future financial health. Insurance is an important part of the mix.
Prospecting is key for Irby, who, at the start, approached his natural market of friends but has since expanded his reach to include networking as a member of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce and the Spain-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he is deeply involved in the African American community. Speaking at real estate agents’ continuing education courses also draws prospects.
In practical terms, an FA’s work is of course light-years away from that of professional dancer. Irby performed with companies including Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Parsons Dance and the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco), and lived and danced in Japan and Italy. His resume also highlights a co-starring role in the feature film “Mr. Brown,” in which his partner was a former Bolshoi Ballet soloist.
Now a member of the Joyce Theater’s Young Leaders Circle, he sometimes takes clients to see Joyce dance performances as his guest.
Though the achiever is committed to his new career, Irby was happy to receive an invitation to dance at Philadanco’s 50th anniversary gala next year.
“I’ll always be a dancer at heart,” he says.
Here are excerpts from ThinkAdvisor’s recent phone interview with Irby:
THINKADVISOR: What was the biggest challenge in moving from dance to finance?
KRISTEN IRBY: I was really concerned that people wouldn’t take me seriously knowing that I danced professionally for so long. I thought that would work against me in acquiring the types of clients that would help me achieve the success I wanted. But it’s been the complete opposite.
When I tell [prospects] I’m a former dancer, they raise their eyebrows, get excited and want to start talking about dance. Some tell me about their own pursuits of an artistic endeavor when they were children. Then I ask, “Can we go back and talk about business now?” Some people will say, “Well, I’m already your client. We should go to a museum one day.”
Why did you become an FA?
When I was a young dancer, I thought I was a god — invincible — and that I would dance forever. But I broke my leg, had surgery and started to come to terms with my mortality, [acknowledging] that one day I was going to have to stop dancing. But I went through a lot of emotional struggles because I didn’t know how to do anything other than dance.
So you enrolled in an advertising and marketing program at the Fashion Institute of Technology and then were accepted to New York University’s performing arts administration program. What was the bridge to financial services?
At NYU, I was required to take a number of accounting and financial management courses — and I was surprised that I did very well.
While you were finishing your master’s, you were hired as a paid intern at the New York Mayor’s Office of Management & Budget. How was that experience?
I worked with some brilliant people who taught me to understand and appreciate the narrative behind numbers and to look beyond and through those numbers. That’s what piqued my interest in financial services.
What’s the secret to your success as an FA thus far?
Being very transparent and honest with my clients. They share a tremendous amount of personal information with me; so I feel it’s important to share certain things about myself to develop long-lasting relationships built on trust, understanding and commonality.
What sort of information do you share?
I made some financial mistakes when I was dancing. I thought I had to look like the people who were funding the organizations I performed with — so I spent a lot of money on designer clothing and shoes, which were not in my budget. Instead of saving money for retirement, I was wearing my money on my back and my feet. I didn’t prepare for tomorrow.
What was there about being a dancer that helps in your job as an FA?
The discipline that dance requires, the focus, the adaptability. As a dancer, you’ve got to learn choreography very quickly. As an advisor, I have to quickly absorb frequent changes in laws and regulations and interpret them in an easy-to-understand manner to my clients. Also, I have to adapt to different clients: Everyone has a different situation and unique financial goals. As a dancer, you also learn how to present. That skill has aided me tremendously in being a financial advisor.
You have a partner in your practice, managing director Robert de Palo. How do you two split up the work?
Rob is a non-practicing attorney and a tremendous resource for my business. Clients often need help with key-person insurance, buy-sell agreements, executive bonus plans, golden handcuffs and succession planning. So we’ll work in tandem with business owners: I’ll typically do the planning for the family; he’ll focus on the business side. It’s a lot of fun.
What’s distinctive about the way your firm approaches financial planning?
We build an impenetrable layer of protection atop our clients’ personal balance sheets so they’re able to absorb the brunt of any potential loss that could occur as a result of illness, injury or death. It’s very holistic and encompasses wealth management, life insurance, income protection, college funding, retirement planning and business planning.
How much of your business is in insurance?
Life and disability insurance make up a significant portion of my practice. Whole life insurance is a financial asset that, as a part of an overall investment portfolio, allows you to take a little bit more risk — though we never ask our clients to take more risk than they’re currently taking.
What percentage of your practice is in annuities?
Roughly 20%. We do all types of annuities and work with a lot of different companies to make sure we’re matching our clients up with the appropriate annuity product.
How does National’s “Living Balance Sheet” help you help clients?
It’s a tool that allows me to put all of a client’s financial data into the system, and it aggregates everything. There’s even a vault for recordings, and clients can store past tax returns, their wills [etc.]. I can link their life insurance policies and financial accounts. So at any time, they can log in and grab any information they may need.
From your vantage point, what’s the biggest challenge facing FAs today?
Robo-advisors. I think it’s important for people to meet with a human being who’ll take them by the hand and guide them along the path of financial wellness — someone who understands all the nuances of their circumstances and their financial goals and objectives. It’s important to have a person you can pick up the phone and call.
Do you still go to dance class?
No. But I’m dancing at Philadanco’s 50th anniversary gala next year. I have to start taking ballet class again so I can get back in dance shape. But I still have a very good arabesque on both [left and right] sides!”
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