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A Second Walk Down Memory Lane

My first post dealt with my dislike of commission sales and getting my feet wet in the industry.  I learned how hard it was to succeed in this business unless you had some sort of “in”.  My second post talked about my dislike of a certain mega bank’s culture and how our interests weren’t aligned.  It also was meant to show my chip on my shoulder which was ultimately responsible for getting laid off.  So far I’ve come across as a malcontent.  Here’s why, growing up we were told to go to college and you’ll get a good job and everything will be okay.  This wasn’t happening so far, and I didn’t have the mental tools to fix it a the time.  All I had was a strong work ethic.

As I was reeling from the latter place laying me off.  I did everything I could to make a few bucks while formulating a plan.  I worked temped doing data entry jobs and manual labor on a construction sites.  I even did a contract job for MLB when the All Star Game was here in Seattle.  I’d hoped to turn a temp job into a career and get out of financial services.  It was becoming clear I was a square peg in the round hole.   Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it?  Building a book again from scratch was a non-starter.  The success rate at large firms was low, plus I was coming off a horrible experience with corporate culture.  Nobody was hiring at that time. So, to mix it up I ended up going to bartending school.

This was the easiest “school” ever.  I passed that course with the ease of mailing in 3 proof of purchase barcodes of Jack Daniels.  I couldn’t understand how others were struggling and ultimately not passing this class.  But it was fun.  I can still make a good drink, and it makes for a fun story.  I started applying for bartending gigs upon “graduation” and at the same time kept an eye on the classifieds for financial services jobs.

I went to a few interviews for a large bank and smaller bank.  Both were about hardcore sales and nothing else.  I knew I didn’t want that.  The first interview was for a mega bank you’ve heard of.  The guy said, “I don’t care what’s right for the client, you are here to hit your goals and for me to hit my goals.”  He was a real dick!  Ultimately that’s the job, but at least give the illusion of caring about your clientele.  This further alienated me from the “services” and products you will find at large banks. The smaller bank interview happened to fall on 9/11/01.  I didn’t want to go but needed the interview practice.  I was up early, and the 2nd plane had just hit the tower.  The first part of the interview went fine, all things considered.  The second part involved the HR lady coming in a ripping me to shreds.  I don’t know why; I never followed up because I didn’t want the job anyway.


My roommate was also unemployed at the time, and we lived in what was called the den of slack.  This was until I saw an ad that read something to the effect of “Advisors needed to teach financial education courses.”  Sounded ok so I applied.  It turned out to be a 2-year contract job.  It paid decently, and better yet I didn’t need to sell anything.  The job had me travelling around the state and giving presentations on the State of Washington’s pension program.  All I did was deliver seminars to employees anywhere from public universities to road maintenance shops around the state.  I learned public speaking skills, something I found I was good at.  Mostly though it bought me two years of secure income while coming out of the Dot Com bubble before finding something new.  It also provided a lot of free time during which I started moonlighting as a bartender.

After the contract ended, I was back at square one, but this time I was out of debt, footloose and fancy-free.  I had my resume up on a site towards the end of the financial education gig and got called out of the blue by a recruiter for a retirement company.  This company specialized in government deferred compensation which required knowledge of the pension plan to effectively sell.  I had that! I would have a territory where I travelled around the state getting people to invest into the plan.  It was great for a while, but old demons eventually arose.

I was always in the top 10% of representatives by goals, so I was doing my job well.  They also continued to pay me more and I was given a company car.  But something changed with my boss.  In the beginning she didn’t necessarily give me a long leash with which to roam, but there was a lot of autonomy.  Toward the latter half of the job she became an intense micromanager.  She was very Italian and everyone from home office called her Godmother.  I called her Tiger Mom.  If I didn’t have my Lotus Notes calendar color coordinated a certain way, I heard about it.  If I didn’t have someone in the home office schedule 3 appointments a month for me, I heard about it.  Never mind the fact that they would schedule a morning meeting in Aberdeen and one a few hours later in Everett because they looked close together on a map.  Every little thing was scrutinized.  The micromanagement became intolerable, and I didn’t see myself advancing with this firm, nor did I really want to.  There was a different vision by each of the 4 different company presidents during my 8 years.  They wanted us to start selling products where we weren’t getting paid, yet another time where interests weren’t aligned.  Plus, I reached the threshold on the success tax.

Anyone who has been in sales for a while has heard of the success tax.  This is what happens if you have a salary plus bonus structure.  On one hand you have steady income.  Management is quick to point this out.  You should be grateful for that salary!  Mine I think at the time was about $60k.  But, you rely on hitting that bonus as part of your compensation.  $60k wasn’t a ton, but if I could hit my 20% bonus, then it was okay.   Each year when you grow your territory they add higher goals to it the next year.  You eventually plateau with no shot of hitting that bonus.  I got lucky and always excelled, but each year I had to work harder and harder where the increase in work was not offset by the same amount of pay.

One cool thing was they did offer education reimbursement.  With this I started studying for my CFP® Professional designation.  This is really where my mental tools started to sharpen.  My days were numbered so I had to take control of my future.  The CFP® is the gold standard in financial planning.  It’s a hard exam that covers Investments, Estate Planning, Taxes, Insurance, Retirement and holds you to a professional conduct standard.  I can’t think of any other designation that comes close.  The irony of the firm paying for me to get this designation (which they could benefit from) was that they wouldn’t let me use it once it was attained.  They had a problem with the Fiduciary Standard the CFP® Board required. 

The plan was to get into a financial planning firm or RIA.  I felt like I was getting close.  One day when I was at a benefits fair, I was with a guy who was one of my competitors in the deferred compensation space.  I planted a seed with him that I was looking to make a move.  If he knew of anything, I’d appreciate it if he’d pass my name along.  About a year later he called me offering me a job.  I think he figured he’d be taking out some of the competition while getting a sharp guy on his team.  I won’t go into specifics of it other than this:  His firm figured out how to align interests between sales and corporate.  We weren’t paid a bonus.  We had a revenue split on any plan we worked or any sales we generated.  Unlike ANYONE else in the retirement space to my knowledge, they also allowed us to run our own individual books of business which we called Retail.  I was considered an independent agent of the firm, and this is when ZWM was essentially born.  I used a different name at first which was too similar to others in the Seattle area financial services world, but I digress.

Remember, it’s hard to make it in this business if you don’t have some sort of connection.  These plans solved that.  When someone retired, we automatically had an in as advisors to have them open up IRAs or other investment accounts.  There were agents who built MONSTER books of business doing this.  I was on my way but about 5 years late to that game.  Toward the end there were some seismic shifts in corporate direction.  The firm started limiting our product offerings.  The ”independent” part of independent agent was becoming less and less.  The writing was on the wall that our books of business were going to become full of proprietary products of the firm.

I worked there for 13 years until just recently.   There were a lot of reasons to leave.  They sold off a big chunk of their brokerage arm to focus more on retirement plans.  I was tired of the retirement plan business after over 20 years of doing it.  Moreso, the company had gotten away from fee based financial accounts which was a big part of my revenue and the area where I wanted to focus.  This was my light at the end of the tunnel that was extinguishing.  Now I would either have to run a commission business (no thanks!) or put money onto a 3rd party manager’s platform.  I drank the Kool aid at first, thinking 3rd party would be a good idea.  They had the returns and slick systems and tools to make it seem worth it.  But, I gave up too much control over how my clients were invested.  I wasn’t comfortable.  3rd parties also created excess fees for them which at first I thought could be justified, but they couldn’t. 

There was one reason to stay: money, lots of it.  I started at this firm making around $60k which was a pay cut from my previous place but carried the potential for much higher incomes down the road.  It grew from there, a lot!  I worked really hard, and my income doubled then tripled.   The last few years I was making obscene money!  When Covid hit, it coincided with a couple other agents in the company retiring.  A lot of their business flowed down to me.  Without the ability to conduct site visits, managing thousands of clients in these plans became much easier.  I was getting a revenue split on everything!  I’m embarrassed at how much I was making when so many people were suffering during the lockdown.  Coming out of it, things kept growing and money kept pouring in from the retirement plans, but my retail business--the one that kept me motivated--was floundering without the ability to conduct a fee-based business.

I needed to make a change and take full control of my future.  I worked and reworked my business plan. I ran and reran my family’s financial plan.  I talked to as many independent advisors as I could.  I investigated going to another brokerage firm or turnkey RIA, but to do that didn’t offer the freedom I wanted.   This was a multiyear endeavor.  Mostly though, I put a price on happiness.  I have the ability to do something extraordinary if I stay focused.   I won’t be making close to as much out of the gate.  What I can do is this:  I can confidently say that I’ll be offering financial planning and investment management on my terms with no corporate mandate to tell me what to do.  I have complete control over the success of my firm.  From my perspective, ZWM will offer the best in terms of fees, products, and service anywhere!   That’s happiness!

So now you have my whole professional story.  That chip on my shoulder drives me.  Maybe I have a problem with authority or maybe I'm just not a company-guy. I’m a pragmatic guy, and I don’t like being forced to do something I don’t believe.  I’ve been around the block in financial services and hope this blog can be fun and informative.  I’ll continue to pull the wool back on the industry with more pointed topics, and anything else that comes to mind.  If you like anything I have to say, let me know or share it with your peers.  Thank you for reading!

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