Ian: Hello everyone and welcome to today’s episode. I’m here with Molly Balunek, the founder of Laurel Tree Advisors Trade in Cleveland, Ohio, and current board member for the Financial Planning Association. We’re here today to learn more and talk to Molly about your journey through Financial Planning, starting Laurel Trade; growing it. The decision to do so, and maybe, perhaps some of your thoughts on the future of the profession.
Ian: Thanks for being here.
Molly: Thanks for inviting me Ian. It’s fun to be at gathering and see all these bright, energetic young people that are the future of our profession, but we’ll come back to that. I studied history in college. It’s interesting to be on a collage campus, so I studied history. It was the 80s. I didn’t expect to have a longstanding career, I thought I’d probably stay home with family, which is for everybody’s benefit that hasn’t happened.
Molly: But anyway, I got a job in banking and I was a retail banker for about four years. As the time went on, I realized that banking was very transactional. People would come in, they’d do whatever they needed, and if they stopped to talk to the folks of us in the front office, they were usually angry about something. I became a bit disappointed in that career as a future.
Molly: I was in a suburb that had a big trust department representation, and so there were these certified financial planners that would come and have meetings in our conference room, in the branch with their clients. I thought, every now and then, I’d get to sit in on a meeting because I had some involvement with the client and I thought it was so interesting. I really love the idea of financial planning. That date; I hadn’t heard of it. This is early 90s.
Molly: I started evaluating what the next options were in my career. It took a little while for me to get into financial planning as a profession, but two or three years later, I took a job with a fellow alumni from my college who needed a para planner in his firm, and for me, essentially it was starting over, going back to the beginning. I had to take a lower salary and start working in a small office. I think, there were five of us in that firm.
Molly: I started the CFP curriculum, which was through the College of Financial Planning in a correspondence course, at the time, which is exciting. I completed that over about two years, but not early enough to be able to avoid taking the two-day certification exam; I was in the second group of that. I love being able to bring the various parts of a client’s situation together, to give them the context of it. It’s so multidimensional. It’s a deep relationship. The relationship’s I’ve had with clients now, many of them spanned 20 years.
Molly: It’s so fulfilling to be part of someone’s life for that long, so much better than the transaction background of banking. That’s how I came to be a financial planner.
Ian: So, you decide you want to be a financial and eventually you decide to start Laurel Tree; what was the decision to start your own firm? Why start Your own firm?
Molly: That’s a big question. I had been through a few different places. I’d been in a small firm and then I started a family and wanted to work closer to home. The commute was very challenging even though Cleveland really doesn’t have that much traffic. The commute was challenging. But, by then, I had a little bit of awareness of the financial planning community. I had joined the ICFP as soon as I earned my designation and started building a network there, a little bit of a network. Put out some feelers. One of the things that I did that I think is interesting in the context of the next-gen world, is I identified firms that I might like to work at, who were well-regarded, using some of the lists of the best … Well, I think they were lists of the largest firms, which is often equated with the best, which I might dispute, but it was a place to start.
Molly: I had done some research on the history of those firms, the owners of the firms. Not to make myself really old, but everything was just starting to be on the Internet, so that was really exciting; to be able to do some research before you had to make a contact. Then, worked my network to find someone who was willing to make an introduction to these firms. That was how I came to be at a firm where I really gained most of my skills over a nine-year period in Cleveland.
Molly: That networking, that building your relationship, knowing who the other financial advisers are in the community is valuable. Sometimes, business owners don’t really recognize that it’s an important place to spend your time, essentially fraternizing with your competition, so it’s important to set that aside.
Molly: As I built my skills in smaller mid-sized boutique firms, but not my firm, and built my skills and built my network and built those relationships with the clients, had a growing awareness that I didn’t really see but people around me saw it and would tell me, “When are you going to start your own firm? When are you going to start your own firm? When are you going to start your own firm?” But, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the confidence to do it yet, so I stayed within those firms for a few more years.
Molly: Then, the financial crisis hit and it was time for me to make a change. I left that firm that I’d been at for a while and was trying to figure out where to go next, but it was 2009. I wasn’t brave enough to start my own firm then. I joined an ensemble firm and started building my business within their firm. For four years; I was within that.
Molly: So, here’s the thing that was where it all kind of came together, was I had grown to the place where my business within the ensemble was economically viable, which is important crossroads. I had this big light bulb one day, which was, I spent a lot of years helping other people build such successful financial planning practices and maybe it’s time for me to build my own. That was the day that I started laying the groundwork to get to Laurel Tree Advisers.
Ian: Was equity and option at the firm, at the ensemble practice, so you could become a partner and stay and be part of the ensemble and maintain that? Obviously, you decided to go to Laurel Tree, so maybe that wasn’t important to you, or was that an option?
Molly: Equity would have been an option in that firm, but I would have had to buy in, I would have had to make an investment in their firm and I didn’t want to, is the short answer.
Ian: Understood. You start Laurel Tree, very exciting time, “I’m going to start my own firm.” Did you have the option to bring the clients with you from your ensemble practice?
Molly: I did have that option. We had always been very candid about the originated clients, it’s what they were called, so it was always that my originated clients were mine, which is another expression I don’t really like in this profession. There’s where there’s. If I were to be called in to do any financial planning work with any of the firm’s clients, that did not give me any freedom to be able to initiate a request for them to follow me.
Molly: But, because we were always up front about that, there was never an issue.
Ian: The exit was clean and then you were able to take your client base with you?
Molly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Those were the scariest phone calls. I’d laid some groundwork. There’s some logistics, which probably are not necessarily in the scope of this conversation, but I’d laid the groundwork and then I started making … I set the date and I started making the phone calls to tell the clients and ask them to confirm that they would be coming with me.
Molly: That was the scariest part because it was one foot off the platform and one foot maybe on your toes, and once the cat was out of the bag, it’s hard to step back. Fortunately, every client confirmed either excitement, their support and their desire to continue working with me.
Molly: It was a period of about 10 days where I was making those calls, which was where this is going to work or it’s not. The excitement around it working made everything so much easier after that. It was a lot of late nights.
Ian: Now, you have your own firm, and now it’s time to continue growing and build out what you believe your financial planning practice is going to provide. Can we talk a minute about what growth meant to you at that time and how you started to think about, “Okay, how am I going to tell the world I’m here?
Molly: In the years at the ensemble practice, which I really count as part of this business growing, I didn’t have a lot of clients at the time, so I had a lot of time to be developing a marketing plan. I had a few leave-behind pieces that I’d created, that had, here’s the clients I’m looking for. Then I’d schedule coffee meetings and lunches with attorneys and accountants, mostly in my community to share with them, tell me the structure of those meetings was, me saying, “Tell me about your business. Who are your clients? Who Do you serve? What do you like about working in your firm?”
Molly: Then, they would of course have to reciprocate by asking about mine. They would ask what I was doing and I would use that information to lay out for them, “Here’s what I’m doing, here’s the goal of the business,” and to define the way in which I felt I had distinguished myself as a financial planner and that may be something we can talk about too. Just built those relationships and built those cycles, and then showed up at the state planning counsel, showed up at FPA, showed up at the law firm networking and event, showed up at anything that I found out about where they’re going to be people who I wanted to know and who I wanted to know me, I went.
Molly: I didn’t want to go sometimes, and I didn’t want to put on a suit and I didn’t want to put on the high heels and I didn’t want to and I did it anyway. I’d meet two or three new people and then go through that whole cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Ian: For a moment, let me ask you this while we’re on this topic, how do you show up to these events? What’s important about showing up? Because, I think we talk often about, yeah, you have to go to the events and you have to participate and you have to network and sure you could also show up and hide in the corner and hope no one talks to you.
Molly: Which I love, hiding in the corner. It is not my natural element, is not going into a room full of people that I don’t really know and trying to find someone to talk to. There’s a lot of … Showing up is to go, be on time or early, which is hard for me, because here’s the advantage of being on time or a little bit early, is you get to see the table full of name tags because they rarely have them in a place where you can’t see them.
Molly: You get to say who’s going to be there and then you can decide who you want to talk to. If I want to get to know this guy today, I know he’s coming and so then I can position myself in a way to see them coming in. It sounds kind of calculating, but it’s stuff that you learn about. If you go to professional networking training classes or read some of the books that talk about how to do it. What are you going to talk about? Well, my parents taught me when I was a teenager that the best way to be a great conversationalist is to ask questions about the other person.
Molly: It doesn’t really what you talk about, but if you’re asking them to talk about themselves, they’re going to be impressed with you. I used it as a way to learn about their businesses.
Ian: I don’t know if it’s calculating so much as making your networking purposeful. We all want to use our time efficiently. I think, sometimes the thought is, “Yes, I need to network. I need to be at these events, but have I wasted the last three hours when I could’ve been doing something else?”
Molly: There’s a group in Cleveland, where they’re all over the country, but the estate planning council has been an important group in my network. I would, because it’s a lunch meeting and it’s downtown, so you have to drive half an hour and park and get in there and it’s three hours out of the day when you work in the suburbs, so it’s a big commitment. I’m always, “I’ll just do this one more thing and then I’ll leave.”
Molly: I’d get there and everybody’s already sitting down and then you’re at the mercy of whatever table has an empty chair. It took a while for me to figure out that the secret was to get there early and then you could choose who you sit with and that’s much more valuable. It was easier for me to do that, get there early and to find the table.
Molly: After an embarrassingly long number of years, then it became a comfortable place for me to go, because as long as I was showing up a little bit late and just kind of slipping in and getting my CE and racing back to the office, it was ineffective.
Ian: And so, you’re networking, are you looking for specific clients? Do you have a specific client base, a niche?
Molly: No, I don’t really have a base, but what I did use in the beginning was women. In the transition between the ensemble firm and when I started the Laurel tree advisers around that time, I had some purposeful lunches with clients and I made it a lunch, not an office meeting to make it more conversational. I asked them why they liked working with me.
Molly: And so, they shared those, which were mostly intangibles. I worked with a marketing consultant to distill that into characteristics, like a persona, of who are the clients that I’m seeking. Then, I wrote it down, because when you write it down, you’re more likely to execute it. Then, I had the information so that when I had those meetings, and they would say, “Tell us who you’re looking for.” I could say I’m looking for mid-career executives whose children are out of the house and who are now really taking a long, hard look at where they stand in saving for retirement.
Molly: I’m looking for someone who a year or two from retirement who wants to assess if what they have accumulated is enough and begin thinking about what does it mean to switch it around from getting a paycheck to taking income out of a portfolio. I’m looking for widows. Over time, those started coming in. But, it’s not one for one.
Ian: As you start to recognize success, I think an interesting thought for folks who are growing their businesses now is they might be in a position you were in, right? You didn’t have many clients, so you had much more time to do networking events and things like that. Eventually, you get to a client size base size where now you’re maintaining all of the clients and the work you’ve been doing over the past few years. How do you make that transition from, “I’m growing and nose to the grindstone hitting networking events and doing fall out coffee meetings, whatever, to I’ve now got to maintain all of these clients and do this stuff at the same time?”
Molly: That is a challenging transition. About a year into Laurel Tree, I hired a junior advisor, and that helped with the workload of course, that I could spend more time networking. I got to a place after about three years in Laurel Tree, about seven years in where there wasn’t as much time, there weren’t enough hours in the day to keep doing all the stuff that I had been doing.
Molly: Having someone else in the office who could participate in the client support and the work behind that really made a big difference. Now, I am an edit, like another crossroad on that S-curve that they talk about in business where it is even harder to be able to find the time. I also have to spend the time as a business manager, managing that business.
Molly: But, what I found now that you’re asking the question, what I’m realizing is that because the universe of the clients, there’s more clients, I build relationships with the attorneys and the accountants because I’m always thinking about taxes, and the accountants find that really impressive when there’s an advisor who’s thinking about that. To me, it seems like something that we’re trained for that, that’s what the CFP is. But apparently, not a lot of people are doing it.
Molly: And so, I don’t have to be doing all the coffee meetings, and if I miss one of those community meetings, it’s not that detrimental because there’s enough like kind of critical mass that there’s a manageable number of referrals that are coming without having to be hustling as much. We’ll see, because I just noticed that over the last year, probably.
Ian: It’s time to make another transition, it sounds like.
Molly: Maybe, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
Ian: Exciting things.
Ian: Over your time with Laurel Tree, you’ve not only built a firm, you’ve also decided to be a part of the bigger thought that is the profession of financial planning. Sort of the similar as we went through Laurel Tree, I think it’s interesting to think about all the work that went into Laurel Tree to build it, and then the same time you’re taking the time and the effort to participate in this conversation around, are we a profession? First of all, and where can I impact that profession over time while I build my business?
Ian: Maybe the first question is; is it, and if so, why is it important to be a part of the profession outside of just your firm?
Molly: The part of my family culture is giving back and participating in the community. That’s something that I grew up with. Through the biggest transition of my career, the transition after the financial crisis into the ensemble firm and starting Laurel Tree, I had also been asked to serve on the Northeast Ohio Chapter Board of directors for FPA.
Molly: The relationships that I built through that, and the tools that are available through the financial planning association to help us build a business were a critical part of my success. Many of the folks at that time that I was volunteering with, we’re farther ahead. I guess, one of the next-gen people on that board, even though I don’t know if it existed at the time, and so I was able to get support and feedback and information from people who had been in the profession longer than I was and encouragement.
Molly: That was really, really valuable because that period of time, I was very alone because I didn’t have the backdrop of a bigger firm and the ensemble firm work gave me a place to start, was very siloed. And so, where do you get the support that you need in the community? I got that from the financial planning association.
Molly: That’s why I love this organization so much. It really comes down to that period of time in the transitions of my life. I really loved that period of time. Some of the folks that I served with in leadership at FPA at that time are still some of my closest friends and resources, and whenever any of us runs into some sort of a road bump in our lives or our careers, we help each other out.
Molly: When that time period came to an end, because we have to make room for more leaders to come through, I wanted to stay involved. At that time, FPA was adding the knowledge circles and I got involved in that and then the OneFPA network started being developed, the concepts underneath it. I was intrigued by that because I do think that the future of the profession is essential.
Molly: In my business plan for a Laurel Tree Advisers, it had always included the idea of developing the next generation of advisors, in some way. We never really know exactly how that’s going to come to pass, but I’d had one really, a highly valued successful employee who’s moved on to something else. Now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to do it again and hire someone else and start developing them.
Molly: It probably won’t be the last person that we do, that we help develop. I think that is important. At the same time, I’ve watched through my friends in the community who are getting toward the end of their career, they’ve been working through their succession planning, they’ve been working through getting value out of their firms. They’ve been addressing the fundamental underpinnings of what we need to become a profession.
Molly: I want to develop a pathway as an example perhaps. I know I’m not alone in that, where I can define a pathway that will work for my business to successfully navigate that future transition.
Ian: As you start to think about those things in succession planning, is the thought you have to make sure Laurel Tree lives on forever?
Molly: It’s more about the clients. It’s more about providing continuity for the clients, and over the years, as my clients are aging, I’ve been developing relationships with their children who are more my contemporaries, many of them. The multi-generational aspect of it is to provide continuity. In a small firm, solo practitioner or one- or two-person firm, that’s one of the most frequent questions we get; is, what happens to me if something happens to you?
Molly: By having a second person in the firm, that can be addressed to some extent, but I need to be developing a succession plan too, and I have an emergency succession plan, but it’s really not about me, it’s about the clients. I had met an accountant many years ago through that networking, and we were talking about succession planning and he said that his partner’s succession plan is that they are going to take the money that they’re earning and they’re going to invest for their retirement themselves, so that they don’t need to sell their firm to be able to retire. They don’t need to get any money out of it to be able to retire.
Molly: That really stuck with me. I follow my own financial planning recommendations. I have a financial planner. I’m saving for retirement. Then, hopefully, I will be able to realize some sort of monetization from the firm, but whether I do or don’t, I’m not going to have to work until I die because I can’t afford to retire.
Ian: You’re not dependent on the exit, right?
Ian: Awesome. And so, through your time with FPA, you’ve had the opportunity to work with folks throughout the profession who are experienced, who are less experienced, and I think you have a general sense of the generational changes that are occurring. What do you see for the future of the profession, as the generations change and alter and deal with different life experiences?
Ian: I know that’s broad.
Molly: It’s broad.
Ian: And so, we can take it high level and then we’ll dive a little deeper, but I’m genuinely curious, as the generations do change, I think the reality is that generations have changed and that happens periodically, right?
Molly: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ian: We talk about all the different generations have their own different credentials that make them who they are. And so, they need to work well together, but we also have to allow each one of them to thrive in what their strengths are.
Molly: I think demographics are a big part of that part of the future, definition of the future. We’ve got a larger number of folks who, the pioneers of financial planning, who are in the glory days of their career. Then, my generation, I’m generation X, and there’s not as many. We’ve got like a neck of an hourglass and then we’ve got a lot more people because the millennial generation is a much larger generation, and the generation that follows is also quite large.
Molly: We have this reverse pig in a python, if you go back to the age [inaudible 00:24:34], which just occurred to me, that’s part of the challenge, it’s like a barbell, is probably a more modern metaphor for that. That’s a challenge. The transition is largely part of demographics. If there’s folks, so for the pioneer generation who are ready to seek a succession plan, there’s a smaller pool of people who have what they may perceive to be a sufficient number of years of experience available, who want that responsibility.
Molly: To skip a generation and seek a successor who’s 30 years younger is a psychological challenge.
Ian: What are ways that, from your perspective, that the next generation of financial planners can show up well to those conversations? If I was coming to you to be a member of your firm, are there things that you would want to hear from me without having to be told?
Molly: Well, that’s a whole different conversation. I think that, for me to answer that question is, I’m really not qualified because I’m not in the demographic that we’re talking about, what are their challenges that they’re facing? I think technology is probably part of it. I think there is a perception of a work ethic. I don’t know if I agree with that. I don’t see it, the millennials that I know are very hardworking and ready to show up.
Molly: I think part of it is to create that succession plan and to bring, to cultivate a young professional to fill that role, it’s hard work and it takes a lot of time and commitment and there’s no guarantee that the first person that’s chosen or in the role is going to be the one who succeeds. I have seen that. I have seen those folks in my community, many of them work at it and then it doesn’t work out. It could be that the owner, the founder, gets cold feet and doesn’t want to let it go. It could be that there’s some sort of communication thing.
Molly: There’s just so many unknowns in why that’s so difficult. It may be that it’s a problem that we can’t solve. It may be that we find that the energy is really focused on, what’s the next 20 years look like, and how can we help the people in the generation X and the millennial generation start today to avoid being in that situation in the first place?
Ian: The question then is, what are your thoughts on what we can be doing to ensure we’re not in those positions?
Molly: We’re doing it, here at Gathering, we’re doing it.
Ian: You’re doing it what way?
Molly: We’re doing it by creating a forum where everyone has a voice and can participate and it’s a little more formalized structure of mentorship. It’s a formalized, giving the generations an opportunity to mingle, and coaching the next gen members to walk up to anybody who is a member of FPA and stick out their hand and they will have a conversation.
Molly: But, I think it’s on us. If there’s people that, and there’s lots of people in this organization that I’ve admired from afar for a long time and now I’m one of them because I get to serve on the board and I still sometimes get a little tongue-tied, but I have never been turned down when I’ve stuck out my hand and asked for guidance and feedback on a problem I’m trying to solve.
Molly: Anybody, and that’s what’s great about FPA. We’re all here because we love our profession and we want to be able to give back, so the communication is there. You just have to step up and take it.
Ian: What I’m hearing you say is it’s incumbent on everyone who’s a part of the profession to recognize their role now and in the future and have those conversations, and be willing to sit through some tough conversations.
Ian: As the next-gener, I think me and a lot of my cohort are very interested to participate, and I think the perception can sometimes be that we’re so eager to participate that we want to do it today or four years ago, right?
Ian: And so, the questions we should be asking, it sounds like you’re saying are tell me more about how you got here? Are there other questions that we can offer to our listeners to when they’re approaching these folks who have experience, to sort of tease out what they need from these folks and how they can also maybe add some value?
Molly: I think some of the questions that could be asked are what do I need to do to move into the next level and the next level and the next level? Because, there is, in my career anyway, there had been a long period of time of skill building where my responsibilities didn’t include networking in the community.
Molly: I was fortunate to work in a firm that taught us also about the business strategy and thinking like a business owner, even though we weren’t business owners. That was really helpful. And so, then there comes a time where you’re building your skills, where I think that the next-gen could compress that, is to try to build their skills and build their business strategy awareness at the same time. Having that bigger context, and here’s the part that’s really cool about all this, as certified financial planners, we already know how to bring together complex, sometimes, conflicting, time-consuming ideas. We do it in our jobs.
Molly: I believe that, running a business successfully is just like that. I need to think about cash flow, I need to think about overhead, I need to think about professional development, I need to think about other stuff. It’s no different than doing a financial plan. We have the skills. I think there is a place there where my experience and maybe others in my generation was more linear, but it doesn’t have to be, there’s no reason it can’t be concurrent.
Ian: Next gen starts to ask the question, right? The younger folks start to ask, instead of demand and the culture changes and shifts and we are intentional about that. And so, something we’ve talked about for months now and for years on the board and folks have worked through the OneFPA Initiative. I think what’s interesting to me is we are wiser together. We’re better together.
Ian: The concept that, as one profession, we can really move the needle and start to be able to serve more clients, make sure people are getting fiduciary advice, ensuring that the profession is moving in that direction. I’m curious, as a board member, why is the OneFPA Initiative important? Why does the OneFPA Initiative matter to everyone within the profession?
Molly: The big question is the future of the profession, and the financial planning profession started in about 1969 or 1970. We’re young, and when we look at other professions like accounting or legal that have been a hundred years before they’re truly defined as a profession. We’re also a very diverse profession.
Molly: We’ve got a diversity of business models, we’ve got a diversity of compensation models, we’ve got a diversity of service offerings. FPA is the network, the community in which all of those people are welcomed. We have a lot of people to serve. As the profession is more clearly defined in coming decades, FPA needs to evolve along with it, we need to modernize our technology, unify our member experience and make sure everybody knows about us. That all the CFP certificants that are coming into the profession now because it’s such a valuable designation, and we know that it’s the mark of excellence.
Molly: If we are the home for them, we need to create a welcoming environment where folks can come in and find the tools and the relationships and the people that they need to know to be successful. The way to get there is through the OneFPA network.
Ian: We do that, right? We improve our technology, we collate all our resources. It’s easy to find, it’s quick and it’s attractive. What happens in your view if that happens? We get everything set up and it’s exactly what we want and it’s attractive, then the OneFPA initiative worked, what is the outcome maybe 10 years down the road?
Molly: The ideal outcome that I see is more members, a bigger organization that’s better together. Just like you said a few minutes ago. We who are here, who are really in the middle of this organization, we see the huge benefits. I’ve talked about that in this whole interview about how important FPA has been in my career development, the OneFPA network will make that available to more people and we need more people in the profession to take care of the clients, they’re going to need us, and there’s lots of demographic data that we’ve published in a lot of places in our organization about the need for more financial planners.