William C. Cuthbertson has a cool head and unassuming manner that eclipses the reality that saving folks from burning buildings, delivering babies in jeopardy and stopping people from suicide is scary work. He knows about all that: For 27 years, he was a paramedic firefighter.
For nearly the last two decades, he has been a financial planner: different to-do lists, but both are jobs of trust with a mission to help, as he tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.
A solo planner and member of the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners (ACP), Cuthbertson manages about $34 million in assets of successful professionals, widows and retirees. He uses a tax-focused retainer model to serve them from his Fiscalis Advisory in San Juan Capistrano, California.
The certified financial planner, 63, chair of ACP’s financial technology committee, transitioned from firefighter to independent financial planner over an eight-year span. During that time, he earned an MBA, the CFP designation and notched work experience at a small planning firm — all the while continuing to fight fires with the Orange County Fire Department (now the OCF Authority).
Even after launching his own shop in 2003, the El Segundo, California-reared Cuthbertson kept living this, sort of, dual life for four years before retiring from the fire department, which he’d joined at age 25.
Now, his medic background comes in handy not only for creating retirement plans, encompassing, as they do, health care issues; but when urgent medical matters crop up in the present, he often helps elderly clients receive appropriate care.
As a paramedic firefighter, Cuthbertson’s duty ran the gamut from treating victims at the scene of gang violence to serving in Ronald Reagan’s motorcade when the president was visiting for a fundraiser one night.
“Nothing happened,” Cuthbertson says. “But we were ready.”
THINKADVISOR: What was it like to be a paramedic firefighter?
WILLAM CUTHBERTSON: The job is 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror. When I was a rookie, we found an elderly couple who’d hidden themselves in the bathroom and died of smoke inhalation. The upstairs of their two-story building was totally engrossed in fire. There were situations of violent gang activity: You’d go on a [gunshot] call where the cops were looking for the perpetrators, but you had a patient to deal with.
One time we got a call that someone was threatening to hurt themselves. When the woman saw me come into the room, she decided to jump off the balcony. I grabbed her and held her by her arm while she was dangling and waited for the rest of the crew to go downstairs to get her. She had bipolar disorder and was just a tortured soul.
Any other rescues that come to mind?
A woman was in labor and about to deliver. But when I got there, the baby’s amniotic sac hadn’t broken. I got him delivered; but when you’re not seeing something that looks like a head, it’s a little disconcerting. I used a medical scissors to get him out of the sac quickly.
Wow. Why did you want to retire from the fire department?
I thought of a firefighter medic as a young man’s job. Not that older guys can’t fight fires; but as you get older, your physical abilities diminish unless you’re amazingly exceptional. I thought of a financial planner as a sort of “older person’s” profession.
Do the two have anything in common?
I saw both jobs as being of service. I think of myself being more an advocate than an advisor. I’m interested in helping people do what’s best for them in spite of, maybe, their own instincts.
How did you become interested in finance?
When I was a firefighter, one of the captains was interested in becoming a CFP. I looked at that work, and it intrigued me. I saw that a financial planner was in a place of trust, guidance and giving help. That was how I saw my role as a medic and a fireman. So it resonated.
Did you have any business background?