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How a 35-Year-Old CEO 'Future-Proofed' Her Father's Firm

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“Working in the yogurt department of General Mills was not going to be my thing,” Minneapolis-raised Cammy Smith, 35, recalls in an interview with ThinkAdvisor. In college, she was pre-med. But what turned out to be her “thing” was becoming a financial advisor and transforming her father’s practice into a multi-generational “future-proof” firm. In January, she was named CEO.

It was a promotion from Smith’s post as Integrated Equity Management’s chief strategy officer. In the interview, she reveals her journey-with-a-twist.

Now that she’s leading the 15-person Bloomington, Minnesota-based independent firm — with five advisors, clients in 36 states and $700 million under advisement — dad Ted Smith, 65, has taken the role of chairman, working solely with clients.

Cammy, his only daughter of five children, is very much about — in alphabetical order — conscious capitalism, diversity, ESG investing, making an impact and math.

It was Ted, IEM’s co-founder some 40 years ago, who suggested that she become a financial advisor. After training at an affiliate firm, she joined his business in 2008 — smack in the middle of the financial crisis. (“Baptism by fire!” she calls it.)

Here’s the twist: While working at IEM as an advisor, in 2016 she founded a totally separate company, Revive Consulting, to help advisors with growth and succession planning. First client: her father.

As IEM’s chief strategy officer, she established a multi-generational next-gen focus and helped recast the firm as a fee-based fiduciary providing holistic financial planning.

Here’s a second twist: In 2014, Smith went on sabbatical to earn an international MBA from IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, where she also worked briefly at the social venture capital fund Creas. Her undergraduate degree is a B.A. in Spanish studies from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business. (“I have a Latin heart,” she jokes.)

Now, as IEM president and CEO, she has a full plate. Among her priorities are to add two more FAs — she was an advisor for seven years but now is running the firm full time — and to work toward having “a deeper role” in clients’ lives.

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Miami-based Smith. She talked about her secrets to success, one of which is surrounding herself with “energy unicorns.” She also recommended that financial services attract women to become FAs by, for one, “changing the informal culture.”

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: How can the industry interest more women to be financial advisors?

CAMMY SMITH: Two ways: We need to influence and change informal culture — the day-to-day practices, unspoken rules, the little comments that are made. We can do that through the people who are powerful in making decisions: the leadership. We need to get men [leaders] to advocate for women. Diversity of thought and perspective matter. It’s been proven that companies with female CEOs, or at least with one female board member, do better financially than when [leaders] are entirely men.

What’s the second way?

It relates to women’s internal struggles — the constraints and limits we put on ourselves. The [big] corporate environment provides personal development through professional associations. But a lot of advisors in an independent environment don’t have that [offered to them]. We can help empower more women through professional development and community.

What does it mean to you to be the first female CEO of your firm?

I feel really proud. I also feel that now I’m responsible to raise up and advocate for women financial advisors and women [in business generally].

Was it your dream to be a financial advisor in your father’s firm?

No. It happened, kind of, by surprise. I was pre-med in college. One day in organic chemistry I realized, “I don’t want to go to medical school.” But working in the yogurt department of General Mills, as a lot of my friends [in Minneapolis] were, was not going to be my thing. I’m about three main themes: helping people, making impact and math. I’ve always loved numbers. 

How did you find a way to combine those?

One day, on a walk with my dad when I was 22, [contemplating my future], I told him I wanted to help people, make impact and that I really [liked] numbers. He said, “Why don’t you try our business? You can help and educate people, work with numbers and have impact.” I said, “OK, I’ll try it!”

So you joined his firm?

No, I started training at a different one with which we were affiliated. Then my dad’s former partner told me they needed help at IEM, and I joined the next year — 2008.

During the financial crisis. What a time to be starting out, right?

Yes, baptism by fire! My job was to listen to phone calls [FAs had with clients], take notes and be in charge of a master spreadsheet on which they tracked all the accounts every day. I was also literally running trades down the hall. I learned so much from the clients — pre-retirees. In some cases, their whole life savings were going down as much as 40%. What I learned most was how important financial security is to people.

Working at the firm, did you aspire to run it one day?

I don’t think so. I was in the moment. And I thought I needed to get a master’s degree. So in 2014, I took a sabbatical and went to business school in Madrid to [earn] one. I also worked for a social venture capital fund there for a while. 

You were a financial advisor for seven years and worked your way up to becoming IEM CEO. Correct?

During the past couple of years, given the success we’ve had in transforming our practice into a multi-generational firm, it’s been more natural that that evolution has taken place.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing as CEO?

It’s very difficult for me to be in the here-and-now and balance the risk of our business and what we do, with all the possibilities out there. There are so many cool things we can do. The biggest challenge is to remember that it takes time to invest in people, to create a sustainable business and to be patient with that and, hopefully, enjoy it.

Nowadays, what’s mostly on your clients’ minds?

It seems they’re less concerned with the market and market performance. Because of COVID time, they’re asking more questions about deep existential things, like “What do I want to accomplish [in] my life?” We see that consistently across all age groups. For retired clients and [baby] boomers, it’s “How do I enjoy life more now that I’ve ‘made it’?” The millennials and some of the Gen Xers are asking, “How do I align my values and the actions I take in life with my investing?”

Is financial planning for next-gen professionals different from planning for professionals and executives? Your website breaks those out as separate categories.

Typically, with executives and professionals, you’re working with their balance sheets. It’s a lot about helping them reach their goals based upon assets they’ve already accumulated. But for millennials, it’s more about cash-flow planning. We’re helping them understand what their goals are, but it’s more about the income coming in and payments going out in order to accumulate assets.

Anything else that differentiates those two groups?

With a lot of boomers and Gen Xers, it’s a bit more linear, like, “Do I want to buy the house? Get the children educated?” With millennials and even Gen Z, it’s more a web — broader — because they have more decisions and choices, much of them concerning technology. They’re asking, “Could I work remotely? What do I want to spend my money on: experiences versus investing versus buying things?”

What are some of your first initiatives as CEO?

I want to bring in [about] two more financial advisors who have a team mentality. I want to add a little more diversity to the team.

What else is on your agenda?

We’ll be thinking about how we’ll bridge multi-generational planning and finding out from clients if they’d like us to have a deeper role in their lives.

Any additional plans?

One thing that’s top-of-mind is to expand our footprint in the community. We’re going to increase our partnership with the nonprofit Start Reading Now, which sponsors books for first-, second- and third-graders in local schools. And we’ll continue to build with another nonprofit, Hold Your Horses, which provides equine assisted services for therapy. We’re a premier sponsor of their big event, “Hay There.” This year, we want to invite clients.

What other initiatives are on tap?

COVID has [prompted us] to say, “What can we do at IEM to make our impact even greater?” We’d like to help inspire clients to do things in their own circles and communities; for example, unite them in charitable giving. What people are craving now is connectivity and making an impact on their larger communities. 

You founded a firm, Revive Consulting, in 2016 that’s separate from IEM. What gave you the impetus?

No one was taking care of financial advisors! So I thought, “What if I could create a company that would help advisors figure out what their goals are, how they can improve the client experience and help them with [succession planning, including practice sale]?” My first client was my dad!

What specifically did you advise him about?

To take a step back. He was 60 and working way too much. He was tired. He didn’t have time for himself. I said, “What do you want?” He basically said he wanted to build the business for the legacy of his clients, who have been his main relationship for 35 years.

How did you proceed?

As chief strategy officer, I helped him with his five-year road map to build that legacy for clients and future-proof the business. I helped him [turn] his solo practice into a firm — something bigger than Ted [Smith]. I helped him pull out the traditional values of IEM and then create a modern client experience using technology. The third thing was to help build the team.

What’s the best business lesson you learned from your father?

His mantra of “clients first, always.” It’s always been about the clients first, and that [holds true] across our whole organization.

Commonwealth Financial Network is your broker-dealer. What do you like about working with them?

They provide an infrastructure that feels like an extension of our growing multi-generational team. They provide support, compliance oversight, risk management, technology, centralized planning [and so on]. They’re quality people!

What’s the secret to your success?

One thing is surrounding myself with energy unicorns — people who bring me energy. Also, being curious seems to drive me. At the same time, it keeps me humble because there’s so much out there to do and learn and see. What I’ve been learning more in recent years is to trust myself, to look inside and trust myself in business, in life.

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