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How a Top Raymond James Advisor Runs Her ‘Invitation-Only’ Practice

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Top financial advisor Margaret Chow Starner knows full well the implications of “Gates’ Law.” As Microsoft’s Bill Gates argues: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.”

Starner, an energetic veteran FA, 81, leads the Miami-based Starner Group of Raymond James, managing more than $1 billion in assets of high-net-worth clients. Indeed, she coaches them not to be examples of “Gates’ Law” but to be disciplined, long-term equity investors who stick to their financial plans, as she tells ThinkAdvisor in an Interview.

Approaching her 40th anniversary both as an advisor and a Raymond James employee, the Miami-based Starner likens her clients’ success at managing market downturns to surviving Florida’s cyclonic hurricanes. With experience, they know what to do.

So when the market suddenly collapsed big-time in March, her longtime clients kept their heads because, she maintains in the interview, they “knew the drill.”

The advisor’s “by-invitation-only” high-service practice composes three FAs and three other registered staff. Minimum account size is $1 million in investable assets, and the typical household is worth $3 million to $7 million.

In 1981, Starner correctly sized up the notion of financial planning, a new field at the time, as a way to help people. Hence, even before acquiring her Series 7 license, she made a beeline to study for the certified financial planner designation, which was just gaining attention, as she describes.

That same year, she joined Raymond James. With founder Robert James as her mentor, Starner forged ahead to become an outstanding planner.

In the white-male dominated industry, being a Chinese American woman apparently never hindered her progress.

Still, she recalls, at first prospects “might have been skeptical. So if you’re different, you have to find a way to overcome it.”

The groundbreaking FA has consistently made Barron’s lists of America’s Top 1,200 Advisors (2009-2019) and Top 100 Women Advisors (2007-2019). This year she is No. 18 on Forbes’s compilation of 1,000 Top Women Wealth Advisors (2009-2020).

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Starner, speaking from Coral Gables, Florida. An early advocate for women’s entry into financial advising who helped found the Raymond James Women’s Advisory Board, she is also founder of the Women’s Leadership Alliance, formed to bring more women into the profession.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR:  When you started out in 1981, what was so different about financial planning compared to the typical approach brokers were taking with clients?

MARGARET CHOW STARNER: Most were buying and selling securities, whereas we were selling advice and solutions. So we weren’t that popular, and no one took us too seriously back then. But we were enthusiastic — we wanted to save the world by working with people’s finances.

What’s your investing philosophy today?

I still believe that the easiest way to create wealth is by investing in equities. We spend a lot of time researching mutual fund money managers. We don’t change [the investments] much once we set [them] in place. Everyone gets a financial plan, and we stick to it.

Even during the March market collapse?

Yes. To me, the single most important thing is that you have money when you need it — you don’t want to be needing cash after the market goes down 40% in one day!

So how do you accomplish that?

We’re focused on what clients need in the near term, and then we have a lot of flexibility for a better return in the long run. As Bill Gates said: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and understate what they can do in 10 years.”

With your clients largely invested in equities, how nervous were they when the market plummeted nearly 35% in March?

Even I got nervous! You get nervous — you just don’t panic. There’s a difference. Clients who have been with us a long time have been through [downturns] and know the drill because they’ve managed them and survived them. It’s like living through hurricanes. Eventually, you learn how to survive them.

You earned a degree in economics from Stanford University. Later, you worked nights at H&R Block doing tax returns to earn some extra money. How did that part-time work figure into your decision, at age 41, to become a financial advisor?

I had this phenomenal tax-theory professor at Stanford who talked about the mission of taxation. He made taxes exciting, and it fascinated me. I fell in love with tax strategy.

How did that lead to your becoming a financial planner?

At Block, I saw all the mistakes that people were making with their money because of the way they did their returns. You had to [work on] the returns in front of the customers; so I would ask them questions. That gave me insight into what people didn’t know.

What most motivated you to become an advisor?

Around the time I was working at Block, I read an article in Forbes about financial planning. It struck a chord with me because it was a way of helping people.

Anything else that sparked your interest in advisory?

I went to a Stanford alumni retreat that talked about how we should be doing financial planning [for ourselves]. It was led by a well-known money manager. When I asked him what he thought of the idea of my becoming a planner, he said, “It’s the wave of the future.” So I signed up right way to [get] my CFP.

How did your job search go?

In 1981, Raymond James was the only place I went to that believed in financial planning. Bob James, the founder, was also one of the founders of the CFP movement. He took anyone who was interested in being a CFP under his wing, and I was lucky to be mentored by him. There weren’t that many of us who were getting their CFPs. It was like we were in a club.

You note that your practice is “by invitation only.” What does that mean?

Almost everybody who comes to us is referred. We don’t actively prospect. We rarely, if ever, take a walk-in. Oftentimes we’ll refer them to someone else in the branch.

Why are you so picky?

We don’t need a lot of clients because the kind of work we do is pretty intensive; so we limit the volume. And we prefer to work with people who are like the clients we already have.

So you don’t market your practice?

We think our service model is what markets us. People refer others to us because of the great service we provide.

You’re Chinese American. Do you have many Asian clients?

The percentage is very small. Except for my relatives, we don’t [even] have many who are Chinese. When I began my practice, I didn’t market to Asians since there were very few in Miami. Now I have a few Japanese and Korean clients, all referred by CPAs or other existing clients.

You were born and bred in the Mississippi Delta, to which many Chinese families immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries. What’s your family story?

It’s pretty common in the Chinese world to go wherever you can make a living. Families found that they were able to open stores in Mississippi, and whoever could save $600 helped bring the next family member over — then it was their turn. Mississippi was where our relatives were, and they helped bring us over. My father opened a grocery store. Everyone had a grocery store! It seemed to be the easiest thing to do.

Today the financial services industry says it intends to significantly increase the gender and racial diversity of advisors. In the past, did firms just assume that high-net-worth clients wanted to hire only Caucasian FAs?

I’ve always said that if people think you’re competent and that you can make money for them, they’re going to come to you. But a Black advisor once told me that when a woman he was prospecting came into his office and saw that he was Black, she left.

Has anything like that ever happened to you?

I can’t remember if anyone has left because I’m Chinese; but I can tell you that in the beginning, they might have been skeptical. So if you’re different, you have to find a way to overcome that.

You’ve made impact at Raymond James in helping women to become financial advisors and to also improve as FAs. Why do you think women make such good advisors?

Women are better [than men] at developing financial solutions. I don’t mean to sound sexist, but they seem to have the patience and the ear for hearing what people really want.

How have you changed your practice amid the pandemic?

We have Zoom meetings all the time. The worst part of the pandemic is that you don’t have anybody to go out to lunch with!

How have the virtual meetings been going?

In a way, they’re a plus. Because people aren’t socializing much, Zooming is something of a nice substitute. Also, we call clients more frequently because they’re sitting at home — you don’t worry that they’re too busy to take your call. Sometimes they’ll thank us for calling because they want someone to talk to besides their husband or wife.

A page of your website is illustrated with a feng shui-inspired red door. What does the color red signify in Chinese culture, and to you?

Red is a lucky color. I think it’s supposed to ward off evil spirits. Also, the branch I’m in is painted all white — I thought it looked like a hospital. So I painted the walls of my office and conference room red. I get a lot of comments about that, especially from men. They love it!

Your 40th anniversary as an advisor is coming up in January. How do you plan to celebrate?

I’m praying that the pandemic will be over so I can have a party — with anybody who’ll come!

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