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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

Army Captain Turned Advisor: Being a Woman Is My ‘Secret Weapon’

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The coronavirus pandemic forced nimble financial advisors to nearly overnight convert their practices to virtual ones (for now); deep-dive into some serious client hand-holding; and for Kathleen Owings, co-founder of Westbilt Financial Group, haul out best practices she employed as a U.S. Army officer in the Iraq War. She describes it all in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

Awarded the Bronze Star medal for meritorious service in a combat zone, the FA, 41, who rose to the rank of captain, was honorably discharged in 2008 after serving eight years.

Lately, she’s been a warrior amid the COVID-wrought financial disruption, guiding clients who are terrified of the volatile market and others who thought the sharp March decline was an extraordinary buying opportunity.

As an active-duty officer in the Army Corps of Engineers during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Ownings commanded a platoon of 50 soldiers, nearly all of them male.

Indeed, she has never let being a woman get in her way, either in the military or in the financial services industry. In fact, being a female is her “superpower,” she insists.

The independent firm she co-founded with advisor Peter Horwitch in 2014 manages more than $100 million in assets for high-net-worth clients nationwide and focuses on comprehensive planning for individuals, families and small-business owners.

Several are alumni of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which Owings, who grew up in Dobbs Ferry, New York, graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor of Science in international relations. Another alumnus is Owings’ husband, Michael, whom she met when they were West Point cadets. He went on to become an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, Kuwait and Korea.

In the interview, Owings talks about practices she learned in the Army that have worked well during the pandemic; her deployment to Iraq and Kuwait; and her gender-conferred “superpower.”

She separated from active duty in 2005, then served three years in the reserves. Seeking a civilian profession, she went to work as an engineer, then became an executive recruiter but found neither job fulfilling.

Financial advisor was the perfect fit for the extrovert with strong analytic ability, she discovered upon joining New England Financial in 2007.

An energetic industry advocate, Owings has testified before a government committee on behalf of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and is the immediate past president of the organization’s Colorado state board.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the FA, who was speaking by phone from Colorado Springs, where her firm is based. She argued that there’s no such thing as a glass ceiling for women in financial services because regardless of gender, what it takes to ascend is determination, hard work and grit.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: As a financial advisor, have you experienced challenges because you’re a woman? 

KATHLEEN OWINGS: No. My secret weapon is being a woman. It’s my superpower. When people meet me, they see a soft, petite little lady; they make assumptions and underestimate my ability. They don’t know what I can do. When I have a goal, I go for it!

How does your female “superpower” help as a advisor?

Part of it is that women are very good at relationships; and in this business, relationships are key. Yes, the numbers are an important component. But beyond that, clients want to know that you care about them. You have to build that level of trust because when it comes to [crises] like the coronavirus pandemic, that’s what they’re looking for: a trusted advisor to lean on and walk them through. 

In the Army, were you in charge of both male and female soldiers?

Predominantly male, about 98%. I had about 30 soldiers in my first platoon and 50 in my second.

Did the men ever give you a hard time because you’re female?

Never. If you could carry your weight — literally and figuratively — lead them, give them direction and guidance, run with them, do push-ups and sit-ups with them, you had their respect all day long.

Being a soldier requires a great deal of physical strength. Was that ever an issue for you?

I carried heavy equipment and jumped out of airplanes. It’s physical, but a lot of it is mental: It’s how much can you take and persist through? When I was graduating from Airborne School, an NCO [non-commissioned officer] said to me, “When I saw you, I thought you’d be the first to fail out of this place.” He only saw my exterior.

Do you think financial services has a glass ceiling that stymies women’s advancement?

There’s no glass ceiling in this industry. There’s no limit. It’s about: How hard are you willing to work?

Have you made any changes in the way you manage your staff amid the pandemic? Two people are working in the office and the other three — including you — are working from home.

I pulled out a lot of lessons learned from my Army days. For instance, we incorporated a new “stand-up meeting” every morning. These are 15-minute [virtual] meetings for the team, where, [seated], each of us goes through what we’re working on that day. It’s a quick check-in to make sure we’re all on the same page regarding tasks for our clients. It’s worked so well that I think I’ll keep it in place when we all go back to the office because I feel more on top of what everyone is doing.

Looking back on your Army years, tell me about being deployed to Iraq.

In retrospect, it seems very surreal because my life is so different now. We went to Iraq in January 2003, ahead of the war, which President [George W.] Bush declared in March. A part of me was scared to go to a potential war zone. Of course I was nervous. But I was also very proud that I would be fulfilling my obligation to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” as I had [taken an oath] to do.

What sort of work were you doing when you were stationed in Kuwait?

Our unit was in charge of building an oil-and-gas pipeline going from Kuwait up to the border of Iraq. Another unit continued with it after that.

What inspired you to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the first place?

I visited there when I was about 13 and saw the exercises and obstacle courses the cadets were doing. It really sparked something in me. I thought  going to West Point would be exciting and allow me to see the world. It was the only school I applied to.

Why did you choose to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers?

Women weren’t [permitted] to get into some of the combat armed branches when I was at West Point. But I didn’t want to be a “desk jockey” — I wanted to be out in the field. So I picked Engineers. It was cool to be part of the planning process of building something, seeing it completed and then being in charge of the soldiers who were executing it.

Why did you decide to separate from active duty in 2005?

My husband, Michael [Army helicopter pilot], and I saw the handwriting on the wall in 2004: Iraq was still going. Afghanistan was still going. We knew if [we stayed in the Army] we’d [be in a cycle of] being home a year, deployed for a year. We didn’t see that working for us as a family.

How did you become interested in being a financial advisor?

When I got out of the Army, I worked as an engineer for a general contractor; then I was an executive recruiter. Both jobs weren’t my calling. A recruiter friend said, “You’re an extrovert, and you like math. Why don’t you call the managing director of New England Financial here in town and talk to him? It would be a good fit.” So I called, and we arranged to meet.

How did it go?

At the time, Mike and I had been married [just] six years and hadn’t had our daughter yet — but we had Roth IRAs, a 529 plan, insurance. The [MD] said, “Why are you not in this business?” And that was it. I interviewed at a couple of other companies, including Merrill Lynch, to see if I wanted to go with a wirehouse; but they weren’t a good fit.

What prompted you to open your own practice later on?

I met my business partner, Peter Horwitch, at New England Financial. When his junior advisor left, he asked me to work with him. After seven years, we wanted to be more independent in how we operated and formed Westbilt Financial Group. The name is a combination of our alma maters: West Point and Vanderbilt University.

In the pandemic, what’s been the main challenge for you in serving clients?

The conversations are with two completely opposite groups: One is fearful of the market and uncertain if they should stay in or get out. In many cases, the corrections are terrifying them. We help them realize that fear is [usually] short term, but the need for their money is long term. They have to separate from that fear and not make potentially impactful decisions about money because of short-term emotion.

What characterizes the second group?

They’re younger. They asked if they should be putting money in the market because they thought a good time to buy was during the [steep March decline]. It was really interesting having those two different client conversations — one based on fear, the other based on realizing opportunity.

Is there anything different you’re doing with clients amid the pandemic that you learned in the Army? 

The After Action Review, or AAR. The object is to answer three questions: What went well? What didn’t go well? What can be improved upon? We’re doing AARs because many clients are evaluating their estate planning and life insurance needs — both personal and if they’re small-business owners. They may find they don’t have enough emergency savings or need to update beneficiaries. So if and when a catastrophe occurs again — whether to their family [only] or to the world — they’ll be better prepared.

You advocate for the industry and testified on behalf of NAIFA concerning a “Protect Seniors from Financial Abuse” bill, which was subsequently passed. Why is advocacy important to you?

One of my favorite things is to meet with our elected officials or their staff to talk about issues that impact our clients and their other constituents to help them understand the implications of their vote.

In high school, you were a congressional page. How was that experience?

Fascinating! There had been a huge shift from Democrats to Republicans, and Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House. Being up close, I saw decisions being made and voting on the floor — how just one person can make a difference.

Do you have political aspirations of your own?

I’ve thought about it, but I can’t see myself doing something else now because I’m having so much fun [as an FA]. I’m young; I’ve got time. But I do want to roll up my sleeves and be part of the dialogue to make a difference in my life and the lives of my clients and community.

Competing in the Pikes Peak Ascent half-marathon several times, you’ve reached the top of Pikes Peak. What was that like?

Exhilarating — and exhausting. It’s a rough race, from about 7,000 feet up to 14,000; and you have a time limit. But when you get to the top, on a clear day you can see the whole mountain range and the plains. You feel like you’re on top of the world.

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