Ian: I’m sitting here with Valerie Adelman, who’s a financial planner at Financial Asset Management Corp., and a partner and owner of your tax business, what’s the name of your tax business?
Valerie: Chestnut Financial.
Ian: Chestnut financial, and so Valerie is both on the tax side and the planning side, and has a great story of getting into financial planning, growing a business on the tax side, and then transitioning and growing a business on the financial planning side as well. So, maybe a good place to start, Valerie, is to let us know how you got into all of this in the first place.
Valerie: Well, I decided at age 13 I was going to be a school psychologist, and I made my way all the way up to graduate school and decided I’d made a big mistake, that I’d wanted to be in business. So, I finished my degree and left graduate school, and started a word processing business, which doesn’t exist anymore today, but basically a glorified typing business. In those days you could save a page, and I’m a good typist, so I started a business.
Valerie: That business ended up in … it was a partnership and ended up in a lawsuit actually, and just at the same time that that business ended, a family friend said, “You know how to do word processing. We’ve got these two big machines, why don’t you come work for our financial services company, learn how to do all the services in our company, type everything, edit everything?”
Valerie: So I went to work for a company that did pensions, insurance, wills, trust and estates, and I read every document, edited every document, and supervised all of the people that worked with all the paperwork. Ran life insurance illustrations, created a financial library, and even wrote financial plans.
Valerie: I worked for this company for a long time reporting to the president, and realized I was never going to get ahead and make any more money unless I was on the sales side. I convinced the president of the company to let me go on the sales force, which really meant selling life insurance. I was in my late 20s, I didn’t know really anything about life insurance or disability insurance, and within six months of being a life insurance salesperson, I was let go.
Valerie: The good thing about that is that I was able to obtain my Series 7 at the same time, because they had every life insurance salesperson get their Series 7. So I was now tooled with the ability to sell life insurance, to sell investments, and my family was in the tax business. So I went to H&R Block, took a course on how to prepare income taxes, and now I was in business to do taxes, insurance and investments.
Ian: And that’s your own business then, you were your owner of your own-
Valerie: So, in 1984 I started my own business doing taxes, insurance and investments.
Ian: Got it.
Valerie: I was a commission-based sales person on the investment side, and obviously received commissions for obtaining insurance for clients, and started from there.
Ian: Got it. So, let’s talk a little bit about getting started. You and I have talked a little bit about strategic planning, and some personal things you needed to go through to get yourself ready to be successful. So now you’re owning your own firm, and production is how you get paid. How does that process look for you back then when you’re just getting started, thinking about, “I need to start getting some new clients.”?
Valerie: I needed to build a business since I didn’t have any income, and so the first thing that I did do was to do a strategic plan for myself, and having not known what that was, I got a book from the library, read what a strategic plan was and followed it. I created a laundry list of things that I should do to get new clients, and I just free associated and brainstormed with myself to think of as many ways as possible that I could let people know what I do for a living.
Valerie: At that point, I put flyers around the neighborhood, I sent flyers out to new homeowners in my neighborhood. I did anything possible that I could think of to get new clients. Mostly I was looking for tax clients at that point, although I did advertise that I did the other things, because it was easier to get a tax client, and then once I had a tax client, then I would try to cross sell my services, because they were already a trusted client, I knew how much money they made, I knew a lot about them.
Valerie: So I spent a lot of time with each individual person trying to get referrals, trying to get other sources of revenue from that one client. But every year I had a meeting with myself to update and review my strategic plan to see what marketing efforts I tried worked, what didn’t work. So, I would try new things all the time, because I had a long list of things to try. So, whether it was write an article in a local paper, or give a seminar, or try to get on the radio or t.v., they were all goals of mine to get out there.
Ian: Was it to get all of these things done in year one, or was the strategic plan thinking, “These are all the things I need to do to make money, where can I start now, and what needs to happen in the future?”
Valerie: Right. This strategic plan was for my career. So each year I decided what the priority was to try and how many seminars was I going to give, how many articles was I going to write, but it also included what designations I needed, such as the CFP, or should I become a longterm care professional? Should I be an expert in college planning? So I had a whole list of education items on my strategic plan to build up my tool box.
Valerie: I talked to other professionals, who did I want to network with? So, my strategic plan included networking opportunities. I included anything that I could think of really, of trying to get out into … and I focus more on the neighborhood, and while I’m in the New York City area, I live in a neighborhood of New York City, so I focused on that neighborhood that had two have its own newspapers, has local schools, has community centers. So, I focus very much on the local community.
Ian: One thing we talked about in the past, I believe I’ve heard you say this, is you had a direction for your strategic plan. What was your goal, your vision for yourself? If you had a one line, you wanted to be the what?
Valerie: I don’t know that I had that vision. I just knew that I, A, needed to make money, and that I wanted to grow a business. I envisioned being the president of a multi-tiered organization with people under me. I had big lofty goals of owning a company where there were the middle management, and other people that did things below them. So, I really viewed myself as the strategic thinker, as the visionary of the business. I always viewed myself as an entrepreneur who was in the business of financial services
Ian: Got it.
Valerie: … and the goal to me was to build that business as big as possible, so that I would have the money I needed to enjoy my life.
Ian: So, thinking about where you came from in college, you were psychology major, and master’s in psychology, and now you’re giving financial advice. So how did you prepare for that? What were some things you did?
Valerie: To feel like I knew what I was talking about … I am a very big reader, so I took courses, I did … In order to become an enrolled agent with the IRS, you have to read all the IRS publications. So, I educated myself on tax law, I read journals, I went to seminars, workshops, anything that I could do to make myself more educated in the field. I then enlisted in the CFP program so that … and I couldn’t read the books fast enough, because I needed that information, and that really felt like I had the basis for being able to give advice. So that was early on that I realized I needed to have my CFP designation.
Ian: So for young entrepreneurs, I’m hearing you say you need to be hungry for knowledge, which I think is something you might’ve said in the past.
Valerie: Yes, I was very hungry for knowledge, and I was always looking for a new designation that was part of my strategic plan of what was the next thing I needed to learn about. So, I did become a longterm care professional. I did go enlist in a college planning course. I became a CDFA recently. So I am still in that process of learning. I read journals and articles, and go to seminars on a regular basis.
Valerie: I didn’t need continuing education to tell me that I needed to know to be up to date and to know that there were things I didn’t know. I also surround … I also joined FPA so that I could surround myself with other professionals, because I was working by myself, and I knew that I needed resources in my own back office. I had to create those people I could call to create that support team for myself.
Ian: So now that you’ve brought that up, now I’m curious, what did FPA do for you as a entrepreneur working by yourself? At one point you’re by yourself having to learn everything, and then you join FPA, you’re surrounded by like minded individuals. From that point, what did FBA do for you then?
Valerie: So, with FPA I jumped right in and volunteered to work at the local level. I met a lot of people who also worked for themselves, so I was able to learn from them and ask questions, and now I had people to call if I had a question, whereas before I was literally by myself. Having not gone to school with other CFP professionals, I was really by myself. So if I had a question, now I had other people to talk to.
Valerie: At one point I became a teacher in the CFP program in the tax area. So to teach, I really needed to know my material cold, so that made me even more proficient in the tax area. I did a … So, that was helpful for me personally, even though I was teaching other people. I had to be sharp.
Ian: Yep, makes sense. So you’re working in the tax business, things are going well-
Ian: … and then you decide at some point, “I’m going to also be doing … I’m going to shift gears and have a tax business, and have a financial planning side of my business.” How did that transition start and get there?
Valerie: I always knew that I was starting a business that was an asset that I would ultimately sell, and it seemed to me that while it was easier to get tax clients, what I really wanted to do was financial planning work. So, while I always tried to transition my clients to be financial planning clients … my tax clients to become financial planning clients, I was doing more tax work. So, at some point I realized that I needed a succession plan for the tax business.
Valerie: In 2008 I actually divided my company, and Chestnut Financial became purely a tax business. I brought in a partner, and then I joined Financial Asset Management Corp., where I am today, as a fee-only planner. So, I divided what I do between two different companies so that the tax and the financial planning would be separate. In that way, I could sell off the tax business at some point, which was the purpose of building the business, and then the financial planning I could do until I didn’t want to do it anymore, but that was really my passion of doing financial planning. So, that is where I am currently, is making that transition.
Ian: So in 2008 you split the business, and then you … Were you able to transition most of your “financial planning clients” to fam? How did that start from that point when growing forward?
Valerie: When I joined the fee-only firm that I’m currently with, most of my tax clients who were also financial planning clients were not high net worth individuals, and they did not fit the model in my new firm. So actually, I needed to not service any of my existing financial planning clients anymore.
Ian: So you gave up your trailers.
Valerie: So I gave up my trailers, I gave up my insurance license, became fee-only, and started all over again in building a financial planning practice.
Valerie: Now, there were maybe a few clients that were appropriate to come forward with me, but not very many, and so I then had to start all over again in building a business, something I hadn’t done for a very long time.
Ian: Sure, and so now you’re staring at that, where do you even begin?
Valerie: So I went back to my … Still was using my strategic plan since the very beginning, I never stopped doing that. So now I had to just revamp the strategic plan to include how I was building the fee-only financial planning practice, and I started going to networking events again, which I had previously stopped going to at some point. I started to attend more events, and get educated in other types of things. So I did go into high gear of meeting people, and getting out there, and talking to some of my tax clients that I thought could be appropriate to transition, because it was a new conversation.
Ian: So if you were talking to someone today who’s just getting started in networking and just starting to grow their business, how do you start networking? What are your … Do you go to every and any event that comes up, should you do some research first? What are your thoughts on how to just get started?
Valerie: Well, at the time that I was starting the financial planning again, it just so happened that a lot of women’s networking groups came into being at the same time, and I liked being at the forefront at the beginning of the meeting, meeting everyone when they were first getting started. So, I joined several groups that were just getting started at the beginning, and one person told me about another group. So, I did go to a lot of different groups trying different things. It seemed as though they were serial networkers.
Valerie: So, once I was in the networking business, I would go to one meeting and someone would say, “Oh, did you go to the other meeting?”, and I’d try that one. I could quickly see which ones seemed like they were appropriate, which ones I clicked with the membership, and which ones just didn’t make sense for me. But at first I went to as many as I could find. I also was active in my community, I do a lot of volunteer work. So, I talked a lot about what I was trying to do to people I knew. So, I would just find out about different opportunities and try them.
Ian: Sure. Is there a difference in your mind between networking and prospecting for clients? I know there’s some overlap. Do you see a difference? Are they the same? What are your thoughts?
Valerie: I don’t know that I make a distinction necessarily between prospecting and networking. To me, the goal was to obtain a client, and how was I going to get that person? Networking, to me, was going to specific events, whereas prospecting might be going to my own existing client base to see if they knew someone, or someone in my community was someone I hadn’t tapped, or I hadn’t met the latest a doctor, dentist, lawyer, Indian chief that I wanted to connect with.
Ian: You’re a career changer at heart-
Ian: … in many ways. Thinking from a career changers perspective who is considering financial planning, who’s thinking, “I could make a switch into this.”, what are some thoughts you might have for that person, and thinking about it maybe from a tax perspective, or from another financial services area who’s thinking, “You know, I want to do more financial planning stuff.”?
Valerie: I think it’s helpful to narrow down exactly what you want to do. I mean, I’m a psychology major, I use those skills in my financial services businesses. So, who I am and what I bring to the table has always been part of how I deliver my service. I think it’s about using who you are and what you know, and adapting that so that you’re different and that you’re unique.
Valerie: I think if you were an engineer you would focus more on analytical work. To me, I focus more on the relationships. I didn’t focus on the fact that I didn’t take economics in college, that wasn’t why I went into business. I went into business to help people and deal with relationships. So, the other information that I didn’t know were things that I taught myself, or that I made sure that I was educated enough to be able to talk the talk.
Valerie: But I focused on my individual strengths and what I brought to the table. So whatever your strengths are, you learn something from everything you do, from every job you’ve had, from every experience, and that’s how you differentiate yourself when you’re dealing with your clients.
Ian: Don’t let your past experiences just be bygones, right? Allow them to influence you in the future.
Valerie: Right, who you are and what you’ve done makes up who you are, and that’s what you bring to the table, and that makes you very different. So, two financial planners approach a client in a different way based on who they are and what experiences they have, and you use that as a strength, not as a problem, or as a detriment.
Ian: Sure. So if you’re working for yourself, I hear join FPA, once you’re in you can volunteer to meet new folks. You and I have talked about study groups in the past, how important has your study group been to your growth as a planner?
Valerie: I’ve been in a study group for over 10 years, and it has been monumental in my career. The members of our group were in different kinds of practices. Some were sole practitioners, some worked for companies who were salaried, others had larger firms. So we all were very different in how we approach financial services, but we were able to share perspective and give each other an objective way to look at a situation. It was a safe space, and it was a place for us to get educated, and to talk about serious and difficult problems.
Valerie: So, when each one of us was trying to make transitions in our career, we had people to run that by, and I found that very helpful, and that was an outgrowth from FPA. So, the study group were all FPA members, they were all people who actually participated in leadership in some way. They were go getters, they were people that were motivated about the financial planning profession and committed to it.
Valerie: So, it was a very active group. To be an entrepreneur you need to be self motivated, you need to be disciplined, you need to be organized, you need to get up every day and know what you’re going to do, and push the button and go. Having a study group and having FPA support is very helpful.
Valerie: I will also say that before I made the transition to join the a fee-only firm, I spent five years at conferences, at FPA conferences, talking to different people about what I wanted to do, and they helped me crystallize in my mind the path I was going to take, because I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what was most important to me and what I should focus on, and I used my supports from my FPA peers to help me make a decision.
Ian: So, to truly understand the landscape of financial planning, what does fee-only mean versus commission based, or can I use my life insurance licenses?
Valerie: Right, I mean, and I was coming from a world where I … in those days, I sold life insurance, I sold investments, and I’ll use the word sold because I was commissioned based, it felt like that. I prepared taxes. So I did so many different things that it was hard to figure out, what should I be doing now? Should I get rid of those things? That was a big decision for me, and who should I focus on? Who’s my ideal client? Who do I want to work with? How do I want to spend my day? How can I make money?
Valerie: Back in the beginning of my practice I did a lot of hourly planning, and I did financial plans as a project. So I didn’t make a lot of money doing work that was really satisfying, because I worked in the middle market area. So, going to high net worth individuals, that was not part of my initial client base, was difficult and a very different space for me. So, while I knew you could make more money, I wasn’t sure that that was a comfortable spot for me.
Ian: Now I’m curious, how did you manage that transition for yourself? So, you’re working with middle market, you’re comfortable in that space, probably people who are more like you at that point in your life, and now you’re transitioning to us, a higher net worth different clientele. Do you have to change anything about yourself in order to be a part of that, or do you go and be yourself, and hope it works?
Valerie: I will say I still have trouble in the high net worth space, and it’s just not something that’s natural for me, and it has nothing to do with how much money I have or don’t have. I lived in a very affluent neighborhood, but it was just … it’s just not a comfortable space for me, so I have to push myself. I have to think about it, I have to know what I’m talking about. I have to be prepared when I have a meeting with a new prospect.
Ian: So you prepare for that prospect meeting and sort of talk yourself through, “So, this is a high net worth client, this is the world they live in. Let’s be sure I’m ready for that meeting.”?
Valerie: Yes, I am very prepared before a meeting, because whether it’s me personally being psychologically prepared, as well as the paperwork and the message that I want to present. So I believe in a lot of preparation.
Ian: Do you ever do mock meetings with yourself where you start to maybe go through how you’re going to say things, and say it out loud? Practice that way?
Valerie: I don’t really practice out loud, other than when I’m giving a seminar. For meetings I don’t practice out loud, but I certainly prepare for that meeting so that I’m clear how I’m going to run the meeting, so to speak.
Ian: Sort of the order of things.
Valerie: Yeah, what message I want to convey, what questions I want to ask. I do write notes for myself, but I also do need to make sure I’m in the right space, that my head is in the right place to have that conversation.
Ian: Yeah. I want to go back to strategic plans for just a moment, and talk about tracking and monitoring yourself over that time. So in the beginning you’ve talked about transitions you had to make, middle market to high net worth clients, those transitions happen in your strategic plan. Once you set it in the beginning, how do you go about monitoring yourself, tracking and then editing? Is it that annual meeting with yourself, you’re just going to go through everything, or what are your thoughts there?
Valerie: In strategic planning I would set annual goals, but I look at my calendar week by week, day by day, month by month to see if I’m doing the things I said I was going to do. So, if I said, “I’m going to give three seminars a year.”, I want to make sure that I started that process, and that I identified what I’m going to say, and secured a space, and sent out invitations. So, I had a lot of things to do for that one goal, for example, that needed to be followed up on almost a regular basis.
Valerie: So because I’d set priorities for the year … I knew I’m going to get such and such designation, so did I sign up for the course? Done, and then I knew I was attending the course. If I was writing an article, was I really doing that? Or maybe that wasn’t important and I didn’t get it done. Was I having lunch once a month with an allied professional? Am I doing that? So they were things that I knew whether I was following my plan or not.
Valerie: What I did on an annual basis was to really look to see what worked and what didn’t work, because I tried so many different marketing efforts, I would see, “Well, let’s see, I gave the seminar to this group and nobody came.”, or it was the wrong topic, or the wrong space. So I need to adjust … Giving seminars is a good idea, but I did it in the wrong way. I need to give seminars when there’s an audience available.
Valerie: So, I use the annual meeting to adjust what I was going to do the next time, but I review on a regular basis to make myself accountable to my plan. So, I don’t have to wait for a whole year to pass to know if I’m doing the steps and the tasks that are going to bring me forward and help me build that business.
Ian: Yeah, you almost wouldn’t want to, right? You wouldn’t want to find out 12 months from now that I didn’t do the things we said in the beginning.
Valerie: Right. So I make sure that I look at … I keep the plan on my desk, I look at it a lot to make sure that I’m doing the things that need to do, and I check them off the list.
Ian: Yeah. So it sounds like what you’re talking about is a lot of personal integrity, and showing up for yourself almost, especially in this entrepreneurial world.
Valerie: When you’re an entrepreneur, no one else is going to do that for you. No one’s going to say, “Put that report on my desk by 10:00 tomorrow morning.”, it’s up to you yourself to set those goals, and to make sure that you do it. If you don’t do it, you only have yourself to-
Valerie: … blame, or to reckon with. So, you need to be very much motivated and self-disciplined to move forward. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a bad day, or a slump, but then you need to know how to get out of that, and that’s where the support team comes in, when you have peers and you can say to your FPA friends, “I didn’t do anything last month. I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve just can’t seem to get myself going. I don’t want to make another phone call.”, and that’s helpful to then identify that, and talk that through with your peers.
Ian: Can you talk a little bit about forgiving yourself when that kind of thing happens? So, do you need a certain sense of forgiveness and say, “That happened and we’re moving past it.”?
Valerie: Yes. I’m not someone that likes to blame myself, or beat myself up, I just get back on the horse and say, “All right, this week I’m going to try that.”, and if I don’t, then I have to say to myself, “Why am I not making that phone call? Maybe that’s not the right thing for me to do. It doesn’t feel comfortable. I can’t do it. So maybe I need to do something else.” So, sometimes I listened to what I actually do, because maybe that’s telling me that I need to do something else.
Ian: So action sometimes can be the best remedy, just start working on the next…
Valerie: Right, I mean, or do I really want that? If I’m not making those calls, how much do I really want to build this business? So, I would go back to, “Why am I doing this?” In my case, at that time, I needed to support myself, I needed to make money. So I was very motivated to do the things I did, and I found it exhilarating to build a business, and if I worked harder I could make money, and have satisfying work. So it was very rewarding to me, the more I did it, the more I liked doing it. But there are certainly activities that I didn’t do, or I don’t like to do, and so I try to at least do the things I do enjoy doing that I think would get me to the same outcome.
Ian: So before we wrap up, I think we heard you talk a bit about study groups, which I think are always a hot topic. Everyone wants to know how to start a study group and what to do once you’re in one. Out of curiosity, you meet these folks and you say, “Hey, we should start a study group.” What happened for you? How do you maintain it, keep it up, that kind of thing?
Valerie: Our study group was originally five women in, as I said, different kinds of financial planning roles and practices, and we decided to have a conference call where we said, “What’s our goal? What’s our mission? How often do we want to meet?” So we set the terms of our goal of our group, and we decided we would have a conference call once a month, and we would have an agenda. So we decided that we would always check in, everybody would go around the call saying what’s going on with them, and then we would have a topic.
Valerie: When we started we had an education topic. So for example, someone wanted to learn about ETF, so reverse mortgages or tax, and we would assign that topic to one of the members, and they would be prepared to present for maybe 20 minutes. The call was an hour, hour and a half, and we used that format for a long time.
Valerie: Ultimately, we had quarterly calls. Sometimes we met in person. If we were all at a conference, we’d meet in person. At every anniversary we would set annual goals. So, the first meeting of every year was, “What are our goals?” We’d have goals personally and professionally, and then we would discuss did we achieve those goals, and we would set new goals for the new year.
Valerie: So it was a way to be somewhat accountable to each other, and then as the study group progressed, someone might say, “I’d really like to discuss this problem I’m having at work with my boss, or my intern.”, or whatever the case might be. So we might have a special session, or we might focus our meeting on someone’s specific problem. “I’m having a problem with compliance.”, or, “My contracts don’t make sense.”, or whatever it was. So then we would alter our agenda to include items that were more on the forefront of … or current.
Valerie: We took minutes. So, at the end of every call we did send minutes around, and we were very diligent about that for pretty much every call. So, we made it like a staff meeting. It was very formal, although we laughed a lot, and got a lot of accomplished, it did have a formal aspect to its structure.
Ian: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and how long have you been in this study group, or multiple study groups?
Valerie: At least 10 years.
Ian: What’s different about it today than 10 years ago?
Valerie: Some of the members of the group changed. We were a core group for many, many years, and then a few people stepped away from the group. So, we brought in new members who we thought would be appropriate to the group. We kept it small, there’s now four of us, and so we’re geographically separate, so we meet quarterly instead of monthly. I think the need for us to meet is less than it was when we were more junior in our careers. So I don’t know that we need as much. Not that we don’t need support, but we don’t need it in the same way we did when we were starting out. So the meetings are not as chock full of information as they were at the beginning.
Ian: Before we go, do you have any advice for career changers who are moving into this business, or folks who are maybe just getting started in growing their business, the day one, zero dollars in income, what do you have for them?
Valerie: Number one, I’m the strategic plan queen. I think everyone should have a strategic plan, and I use that term broadly. To me, that means an action plan of figuring out what you’re going to do. Having the one year, five year, maybe 10 year plan that you know you can follow, so you know, “How am I going to build this business? Who am I? What’s my unique proposition? Who are my clients? How am I reaching the people that I’m trying to reach?”
Valerie: I would be very specific about having that action plan, and I would have a support team, because if you’re by yourself in particular, you need to surround yourself with people that keep you going, that keep you motivated, that keep you creative, that keep your juices flowing so that you can keep pounding the pavement, because it’s very difficult to keep going, particularly if you don’t have early success.
Valerie: Building a business takes time. It’s not that you’re going to make a lot of money right away, or most people don’t, so you need to have some resources to be able to withstand those lean years while you’re building. But you need to be moving forward and putting one foot in front of the other all the time.