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.