Advisor Margaret Starner of Raymond James regularly writes a personal blog for both her friends and clients. Michael Nutt, a Wells Fargo advisor lobbies for gay rights. Patty Estopinal, an advisor at Baird, rallies co-workers for an annual Thanksgiving food drive.

However different their personal styles and priorities, Starner, Nutt and Estopinal share something that many successful advisors have in common: They blur the line between work time and downtime, and allow their personal passions to inform their business. And they seek to align with firms that support both their business and personal interests.

Take Starner, a managing director at Raymond James. For more than 30 years she has written “Margaret’s Musings,” with the firm’s encouragement. Starner opens her latest entry with a personal note: “It’s July 4th again…and for my long-time readers, you may recall that I always celebrate July 4th with our annual barbeque to celebrate the birth of our nation, the birth of my Dad, and the birth of our oldest granddaughter, Micaela!”

Originally mailed out as a newsletter, Starner’s journal began as a way to share her experiences with friends and clients. But it is more than just a forerunner to a Facebook page; now published as a personal blog, the postings are sprinkled liberally with observations on geopolitics and finances.

“I just returned from the Far East, where I was on our annual corporate trip with Founder and Chairman Tom James and CEO Paul Reilly,” she writes in her latest missive. “You have all heard about the Chinese becoming the dominant power of this century or how they are bound to stumble and push the world into a major recession. …Make no mistake, China will likely stumble…and will also continue to expand and create an even larger middle class.”

Nutt has a very different take on social media. “I’m essentially a boring person,” says the managing director at Wells Fargo Advisors Private Client Group. “Why would I want to post?”

But Nutt, like Starner, is comfortable enough on the job to find ways to intertwine his interests with his business. An outspoken activist for gay rights, Nutt was still with Morgan Stanley when Wells Fargo worked with the College for Financial Planning to develop an accredited domestic partnership advisor designation. The accreditation addresses the special financial needs of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) couples, especially in states that don’t recognize their unions.

Nutt pushed hard for Morgan Stanley to adopt the designation, only to discover that for a limited time Wells Fargo had an exclusive agreement with the college to offer the credential. But the day it expired, Morgan Stanley began offering the accreditation. In acknowledgement of Nutt’s work on that, and his work creating an LGBT-focused financial planning seminar, Morgan Stanley awarded him its inaugural John J. Mack Leadership Award.

Image: Michael Nutt, managing director, Wells Fargo Advisors Private Client Group. Photo by Karl J. Kaul.

Estopinal moved to Baird from Smith Barney two years ago, in part because the Milwaukee-based wealth management firm shares her commitment to community service. A director and financial advisor in Baird’s Roseville, Calif., branch, for more than 25 years, she has organized a Thanksgiving food drive for needy families. Last year, the Roseville office provided 40 area families with Thanksgiving dinner, with Estopinal distributing many of the meals.

Baird encourages this sort of community involvment with an annual program called “Baird Gives Back Week,” during which each branch or office undertakes a project to contribute to their neighbors’ well-being. This year, Estopinal’s office participated in a food drive.

“On a Friday morning in May, I was with 19 of my colleagues at a food bank for three hours, packing food boxes to be distributed to needy families,” she recalls. “This was all on company time.” Acknowledging her dedication and service, in March, Baird awarded Estopinal its annual Brenton H. Rupple Citizenship Award, the firm’s highest community service honor.

GOOD FRIENDS, GOOD BUSINESS

Of course, not every advisor has an interest that aligns with those of his or her clients and prospects. “Some do, some don’t,” allows Bill Willis, a former advisor turned financial services recruiter.

“Those who are faking it to gain access and climb socially usually aren’t very successful,” Willis says. “If you buy a used Ferrari, you can hang out with other Ferrari owners. But [if] you aren’t into the whole history and culture behind the car, you’ll be quickly found out and it will be a miserable experience.

“If you can chase a true passion that lets you intermingle with the right people,” he adds, “that’s a wonderful thing.”

Willis’ observations resonate with former Air Force pilot and Edward Jones advisor Jim Orr. “You make friends with clients the same way you do in any walk of life,” he says. “You discover a commonality.”

The client friendships Orr has developed “began with money,” he says. “When you talk money, you talk life; you start to develop a relationship. People confide in you about what’s going on in their lives, their families and their health.”

The Tucson, Ariz.-based advisor stresses that “a friendship isn’t forced; it’s got to be a natural evolution. We’ve got to like each other. By no means does every client become my best friend.”

Wells Fargo’s Nutt agrees. “When you’re dealing with someone’s money it’s very personal, and your clients will tell you a lot of information they don’t necessarily share with their spouse or significant other.”

For an advisor, he says, “Everything is intertwined; your clients are your friends. I have close relationships with people who have been clients for 15 years now.”

WHEN WORK MAKES IT PERSONAL

Other successful advisors take a different approach. Peter Sargent, executive vice president of wealth management at Janney Montgomery Scott and founder of Sargent Wealth Management, likes to maintain more of a separation between his personal and professional relationships. “I have never even been on Facebook,” he says. “It’s not my thing.”

Yet Sargent pours plenty of personal passion into his practice, as noted in 2006 when OnWallStreet named him a “Top Advisor under 40.”

In 2012, he left Merrill Lynch to join Janney. "For someone like me, who appreciates an entrepeneurial culture, who really wants to make everythijng around the FAs as efficient as possible, so they can do the most amount of business in the way that makes the most sense for their clients, Janney represents a wonderful business model,” he explains.

The firm’s approach is ideal for someone like Sargent, “who appreciates an entrepreneurial culture, who really wants to make everything around the FAs as efficient as possible, so they can do the most amount of business in the way that makes the most sense for their clients,” he explains.

Two months after arriving at Janney, Sargent’s wife told him he seemed the happiest he’d been in years. The reason, he says, is that when he’s settled professionally, all the other elements of his life fall into place.

Merrill Lynch’s Eric Snyder and Charles Balducci have a similar passion. They were fraternity brothers at Penn State and joined the New York-based wirehouse within a year of each other. After completing the two-year training program they decided to team up and form the Snyder Balducci Group under the Merrill Lynch umbrella.

What drives them? “We want to be the best,” declares Snyder. “It’s a competitive industry. The firm itself is a very competitive environment. We like working for a winning organization.

“It’s like the Yankees,” he adds. “You want to be part of an organization with a long history of winning.”

But winning isn’t all. “The longer you’re in the business, the more you can appreciate that this is a relationship business based on trust,” says Balducci. “Over the years, we have built and experienced so many things with our clients that you do become part of their personal lives.”

INSPIRED TO BUILD BUSINESS

“Many clients have become like a second family to me, and I’ve made connections that cross generations,” echoes Marsha Limbaugh, senior vice president and branch manager at Wells Fargo Advisors in Cape Girardeau, Mo. “I know a great deal about my clients’ personal lives—in many cases more than other family members and the other professionals they work with, like their lawyers and doctors.”

Limbaugh was first drawn to the profession as a girl in rural Texas, where she would sit in on meetings between her mother and her mother’s stockbroker—a woman at a time when the profession was overwhelmingly male. The young Limbaugh became fascinated with the process of stock trading and decided to pursue her MBA. But upon graduating, in 1976, women were still on the industry’s sidelines, and Limbaugh had to knock on plenty of doors until eventually she was hired by a small regional brokerage firm.

“That got me started in the business,” says Limbaugh, adding, “There are challenges. But I just wouldn’t change a thing.”

Blogger Starner experienced similar frustrations launching her career. She joined Raymond James in 1981. ”They were the only ones who would let me do financial planning,” she says. In 1992, she helped found the Raymond James Women’s Advisory Board to help foster opportunities for women at the investment firm. In 2006, Starner was recognized as the Raymond James Woman of Distinction, and since 2007 she has been on Barron’s list of the top 100 women advisors.

“When I first started,” Starner confesses, “I had a huge advantage. I wasn’t looking to make a big living and support a family. My husband was doing that. I just wanted to have a good time and make a difference. I liked doing well and being successful. But that wasn’t what drove me. I was out to save a lot of people.”

She seized the opportunity at Raymond James, a firm that supported her aspirations.

“It’s a lot easier to be successful in this field,” she says, “if your passion is tied up in your business.”

 

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