What inspired these top advisors to help others manage money


David Rea, president of No. 1-rated financial advisor firm Salem Investment Counselors, attributes his start in the business to excellent professors at Indiana University while he was pursuing an MBA.

Salem Investment Counselors

Everyone loves a good origin story, whether it’s fictional, like Superman’s, or real life — think Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs — or even somewhere in between. But how about the financial advisor you’ve been working with all these years? What motivated him or her to work with numbers and balances and figure out how those, well, figures impact people’s lives?

Financial professionals sometimes get stereotyped as bean counters and calculator-button pushers, but in speaking with top executives at leading advisory firms that made CNBC.com’s FA 100 list this year, it’s apparent that there are two themes common to most of their background stories: first, a fascination with the mechanics of money, math and markets — in short, “finance” — and second, a desire to interact with and truly help people — in other words, “service.” It’s no coincidence, then, they ended up in financial services.

More from Financial Advisor 100:
CNBC FA 100 2019 list of top-rated financial advisory firms
Top-ranked advisory firms help meet their client’s financial goals
10 years on, ‘personal touch’ will still dominate financial advice space

We asked eight financial advisors from wealth management firms ranked in the 2019 FA 100 list what exactly inspired them to get into the financial advisory business. Their replies follow.

California Financial Advisors, San Ramon, California

• Michelle Perry Higgins, principal: “My family owned several businesses when I was growing up, and I was completely obsessed watching my dad pay the bills, count the money after closing and work with customers. I knew early on I had a love for money management. My first purse, at 5 years old, was a Bank of America money bag.”

• Mark A. Pitre, principal: “Personally, as I went through college, I realized that there were a few interests that I wanted in my career: One, I wanted to help people, and two, I enjoyed working with numbers. As I considered various careers, I realized that the financial planning/investment advisory industry provided both. In this industry, to be successful, you have to want to help people first and foremost. Without that being your main objective, you will struggle as an advisor.

One, I wanted to help people, and two, I enjoyed working with numbers.

Mark A. Pitre

principal, California Financial Advisors

“Secondly, you must enjoy being challenged by the analytical process associated with developing a financial plan for a client. You must enjoy the fact that there is no client scenario which is the same. They may have similarities, but the fact is that each client interaction is different, as well as their personalities, goals and interests. This industry requires that a successful advisor be able to harness both the opportunities and challenges associated with the above.”

Dana Investment Advisors, Waukesha, Wisconsin

• Mark Mirsberger, CEO: “I had a strong market interest and charted stocks from a young age. My dad was a CPA and the CFO of a large company; having that background, I got introduced to it at a very young age, [and] I really enjoyed following and tracking them. My undergraduate degree was in accounting, and my master’s was in finance and portfolio management. My largest clients when I started my CPA career were in the mutual fund and finance industry. Working with and helping them, I was able to marry my passions for investments and wealth management. I always enjoyed and had a real interest in working with clients and problem-solving.

“What’s interesting is that my summer jobs [in school] were teaching tennis. I made great money, and I was able to pay for college just being a summer tennis pro. It was [about] understanding client service and dealing with difficult personalities. When you’re teaching 5-year-old kids tennis and the parents are paying $40 to $50 an hour, trust me, you’re hustling and making sure they’re seeing the value you’re bringing. There were lessons [for me] in dealing with difficult personalities and big egos. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve been doing it since I was 13.”

Prapass Pulsub | Moment | Getty Images

Gofen & Glossberg, Chicago

• Charles S. Gofen, principal: “As a third-generation Gofen at our investment firm, I grew up around the business, so I had the notion from early on that this was a worthy vocation — and a first-class firm. We’ve grown through the years, but we’ve maintained a boutique feel in which we know each of our clients and tailor our investment approach to the particular needs of each client. For me, that’s what makes the business so enjoyable. I have the sense every day that I’m helping individual clients and institutions.”

Salem Investment Counselors, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

• Dale Brown, senior executive vice president: “I grew up in a family business, [and] what I learned in the family business was perhaps as important in working with people as everything I learned in college. I guess it goes all the way back to when I was 17 years old. My father had been to see the family accountant and had been told that his business was in financial trouble. Dad was working long hours, and he said, ‘Son, I need your help in trying to figure out what’s going on.’ I had no background in accounting at that time but was able to develop what would be termed today a cost accounting system for that business to determine with reasonable accuracy what it cost on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, to run the business. In due course, we got the business back on sound footing.

What I learned in the family business was perhaps as important in working with people as everything I learned in college.

Dale Brown

senior executive vice president, Salem Investment Counselors

“Well, I get off to college, and it’s in the early 1970s, and jobs were generally hard to come by. I asked a business school professor what can you get a job doing. And he said, ‘Well, it’s tough, but if you can do accounting, the Big 8 firms are still hiring.’ Coming out of college without a job was not an option for me. My experience in my father’s business taught me the terminology for what I was doing. I learned that a ‘cash in’ became known as a ‘credit,’ and a ‘cash out’ was a ‘debit.’ After school I went to work for one of the large public accounting firms, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells.”

• David Rea, president: “My fascination with the markets goes back to business school and my MBA classes. I did my MBA at Indiana University and we had just a couple of really great guys there who taught the stocks and bonds markets. I was fascinated with it and then became aware of this opportunity at Salem to actually come over and manage money. I had been practicing international tax law as a CPA with a big firm and this [industry] just seemed a lot more fun.

“When I started here at Salem back in 1984, I read what I still consider to be one of the great pieces of journalism to come out of the Harvard Business Review, called ‘The Folly of Stock Market Timing.’ It basically coincided with the beginning of my career, and it said you need to just stay invested. You’re not smart enough to outguess the market, so you buy good stocks and stay invested because the penalties for being wrong are so big.”

Jose Luis Pelaez | Getty Images

Tom Johnson Investment Management, Oklahoma City

• Cory Robinson, vice president and portfolio manager: “My grandfather was a pretty successful amateur stock picker. He picked penny stocks for most members in my family that turned out to be very successful investments — Micron Technologies, Teléfonos de México and a couple others I can’t remember. Unfortunately, the one that was picked/purchased for me turned out to be a dud — which, I think, was the only dud. … I believe the product and the company are still around in one form or another; it just didn’t pan out as an investment. This led to a very strong interest in investing that has persisted through this day.”

Wescott Advisory Group, Philadelphia

• Grant Rawdin, founder and CEO: “My dad was a rocket scientist, my mom a psychologist. My favorite uncle was a ‘super’ lawyer and my grandfather an entrepreneur. I became a lawyer for its intellectual demands and to problem-solve. As I worked with clients on financial matters, I discovered the intersection of psychology and finance. I was hooked, followed an innate entrepreneurial calling and started a wealth management firm, Wescott Financial, from my practice in 1987. Never looked back!”

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