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Practice Management > Building Your Business

How to Tackle What's Holding Women Back in Finance: RIA Zell

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Thanks to her own upbringing in the Deep South, DeLynn Zell has come to believe that teaching girls about the financial markets is the best way to grow the number of women in the advisory industry. That’s because it can help them overcome a major disadvantage.

“Men talk to their sons about investing, and they typically talk to their daughters about savings,” said Zell, managing partner of Bridgeworth Wealth Management, a $1.5 billion RIA in Birmingham, Alabama.

“We’ve got to start [training] young women in financial services, because it’s an incredible career for women,” the advisor explained.

Zell walks the talk, as well: 34% of Bridgeworth’s client-facing advisors are women, as is 80% of its the management team.

Her father owned a large peanut farm in Alabama. He wanted his daughters to be independent, understand the business and “know more about money [than other girls typically did]. He was always one of those who said, ‘Don’t depend on a man,’” she shared.

This is one reason Zell graduated with a degree in accounting and finance from Birmingham Southern College in 1986.

Her first job out of college was with Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers). She left that post after realizing she was more interested in finance and investing — looking forward — rather than doing audits — looking backward.

Via a chat with her manicurist, she met the sole female member of First Financial Group. Zell moved there and built her book of business. Once the group’s top executive went to work for a national broker-dealer, “We were just left rudderless,” she said.

That’s when she instigated a change and convinced five other advisors into breaking away. “I was never voted in as CEO, I just took it,” the trailblazing advisor explained.

The timing was right. She was at a point in her life where she could grow the firm, being part of a “two-earner” family (her husband being an attorney) and having the freedom to step back from working directly with clients (which her colleagues could do).

Still, breaking off from First Financial was a challenge, especially “getting that many people on board and aligned behind a common vision,” Zell said.

The breakaway group started with 12 staff in 1988. Today, it has 51  including 25 CFPs and two offices. “We have really grown and evolved over the years,” she added.

Here are the highlights of her conversation with ThinkAdvisor:

TA: What recent challenges have you faced?

Recently, we reorganized and restructured the firm. We worked with Echelon Partner’s Carolyn Armitage as a consultant.

Now every employee, including all our advisor partners, exchanged shares of their individual practice for shares of the firm. We completely built [new] career paths and compensation models that are different from what you normally see.

[Now] when someone retires, the firm will buy them out at a predetermined formula based on the value of the entire firm. The idea is that the shares of a large organization are going to be more valuable than those of an individual practice.

We also are building a second and third generation of advisors. When I got started, we were given a phone book and a desk telephone, but that doesn’t work today.

Today, they know what their compensation is going to be, what our expectations are and what they have to do to be promoted to an associate advisor. And next, what they need to do to become a lead advisor, and then what is needed to eventually become an owner in the firm.

[This framework] is similar to that of an accounting or law firm.

The beauty is that those of us who might be thinking about retiring are not wondering who to sell our practice to, because the clients are “owned” by the firm.

Partners are paid salaries and profits, and when someone leaves, they get bought out. Valuations of the firm are at a multiple much higher than those of just one [person in the] business.

What advice would you give young people starting out?

Make sure you’re doing the right thing for the client and focus on maintaining those relationships. To be successful in our industry means having the ability to develop your business, right?

Business development is really nothing more than building relationships. And you’ve got to start young building your network [early] — you can’t wait till your 40.

In fact, that’s even built into our younger advisor compensation plans. We want them developing relationships with their peers and other professionals the first year they start.

I’m not sending them out to do business development, mind you, that’s not their job — it’s about building their network. The industry has shifted, … and you’ve got to develop business from day one — now with everything [focused] on fees.

People are coming in on salaries and bonuses. And sometimes when you start in that manner, you’re not focused on business development. You’ve got to be diligent and deliberate about building your book.

How has the pandemic affected your business?

Ironically, in the last week of March, we were getting ready to move to a new [renovated] building and office. We went remote on March 13, and we were supposed to be moving into our building on March 27.

We already had laptops. Most of our technology was cloud based. We spent four days getting ready. We knew this was coming.

From a leadership standpoint, it’s been a challenge. I told somebody [earlier] there was never any chapters in leadership books about pandemics!

I learned very quickly that the key was communication, communication, communication and over communication. We are in phase one of our reopening plan right now, and we’re able to do that as we built out our space overall by 18,000 square feet .

I did spend about three sleepless nights over this, concerned that we were not going to be able to use all this space right away. But it’s been a blessing in disguise.

With the design of the building, everybody has an individual office. We have so much square footage that we’ve been able to share with clients. They’re feeling comfortable and are beginning to come in, because now we’re really able to social distance.

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