One-step Back, Two-steps Forward: My Journey to Starting a Fee-only Financial Planning Firm

Welcome to Part III of my series, My Journey to Starting a Fee-Only Financial Planning Firm, titled, One-Step Back, Two-Steps Forward.   This part of the journey is a 50-foot overview of my 6.5 years spent at Huntington Bank.  In this segment, I focus on my reasons for joining Huntington, what I gained from my experience, and what prompted me to eventually look elsewhere. 

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Part III: One-step Back, Two-steps Forward

Huntington Bank, a mid-sized regional bank, was founded in my hometown, Columbus, OH.  So having grown up in Columbus I knew all about their excellent reputation within the community.  Huntington’s customer service focus was something that really attracted me to their organization. Granted, I was looking at joining a bank right after the financial crisis hit, so it was a time of transition for our banking system.  However, that wasn't the part that scared me.  What scared me was not having a stable income.  I looked at a handful of independent agencies and even thought about going back to Smith Barney, where I had interned.  However, none of those opportunities provided a stable salary.  They were 100% performance-based and that freaked me out after my experience at A.G. Edwards.  However, my prior failures helped me with my next decision in that I knew what I did and did not want.

My game plan for finding gainful employment started with a narrow list of criteria.  The following were the primary drivers:

  • Stable income
  • Company reputation
  • Opportunity to learn and collaborate
  • Ability to move up
  • Hands-on management
  • Surrounded by good people

Huntington checked off every one of my boxes.  The only drawback, at least from an ego standpoint, was that I was taking a perceived step back with my new position. The first opportunity I was given at Huntington was as a Senior Personal Banker at a retail branch in a fairly affluent area – Dublin, OH.  Being a “senior banker” meant I wore many different hats and that I was licensed to sell investments.  I opened checking accounts, took loan applications, refinanced mortgages, helped businesses get started, etc.  However, due to all the various responsibilities, my passion for investments had to take a back seat.  Ironically, it’s that very experience that laid the foundation for my company today.  Without that experience, I would not have the real-life perspective about personal finance that I have now.  Being a banker allowed me to learn the fundamental basics, as well as how to apply that knowledge with the soft skills that are needed to help clients through difficult decisions.

More importantly, Huntington was (and still is) an organization full of great people.  I will forever be thankful for the mentors, coaches, managers, and friends I had during my time there.  Having a team around me also made it easier to get the answers I needed without having to learn the hard way.  At any rate, what I discovered is that an inexperienced young professional, like myself, needs to be surrounded by good people in order to be successful.  Seems obvious, but it was an aha moment for me.  I used to think I could will my way into being successful.  I was especially lucky in the sense that I was able to learn from experienced Financial Advisors in a very hands-on manner.  As a banker, my job was to find opportunities and then pivot those customers to the senior investment advisor.  It was a win-win scenario because it gave me the chance to sit in on those meetings and watch the Advisor work their magic.

As a result of my invaluable exposure, I quickly became successful and moved up the ranks within the retail-banking channel.  I went from Senior Banker to Assistant Branch Manager in a matter of 18 months.  It then took me another 18 months to go from Assistant Branch Manager to Financial Advisor.  Best of all, I joined the #2 producing investment team in the entire company.  Keep in mind, I was 28 years old.  Meaning, I was very fortunate to be in that kind of position having only worked at Huntington for 3 years.  Both of the senior advisors on the team each did $1M in revenue on an annual basis!  They were truly some of the best Huntington had to offer and I got to be a part of it.  Looking back I often wonder, was I just in the right place at the right time?  Regardless, I was on cloud nine for my first couple of years as a Financial Advisor.  I continuously exceeded my goals year after year and was a part of something special.  However, the honeymoon phase eventually wore off and I started seeing the financial planning world a little differently.  Noticeably, the job started to lose its luster once I got over the excitement of, ‘I can’t believe I am in this position.’

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So what variables actually played a role in my decision to leave a great income, a highly successful team, and say goodbye to the best boss I ever had?  In the end, too many aspects related to my job were totally outside my control and eventually my boss'.  So when no improvements seemed imminent, I decided it was time for a change.  Quite frankly, I felt like I needed something fresh in order for my career to continue growing. 

In situations like these, I think it helps to understand a person’s thought process because there is often wisdom to be gained.  To that end, some of the factors that contributed to my departure were:

  • Declining focus on customer service
    • Too many clients to effectively service all accounts
    • Several clients were “dead money” but still required attention
  • Frequent organizational changes made the work environment feel unsteady
    • Sales quotas increased every year – never enough
    • Micro-management from the executive and management level
  • Overwhelming number of restrictions
    • Not allowed to buy stocks for clients
    • Limited investment funds to offer clients
    • Compliance and processing roadblocks
  • Regulatory environment
    • Fiduciary standard
    • Commission based compensation vs. fee-only

It was tough for me to arrive at the conclusion that my great paying job was no longer offering the kind of career path I desired.  In fact, I saw a ceiling -- it was going to be awhile before I could make that next leap forward. Working on such a great team made it even more difficult to say goodbye to them (and my former clients).  Even though my next stop, Frank Wealth Management Group, turned out to be a bad fit; I recognized it was time to move on to a new challenge for all the reasons previously mentioned.  So while I miss Huntington, it was the right decision for me and my family.

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The last and final stop in this series is Part IV, titled, Caution, Detour Ahead.  This part of my journey takes place at a locally based independent firm, Frank Wealth Management Group.  A place that, in a way, nudged me in the right direction, as in it spurred me to launch my own fee-only financial planning practice.  So without this experience, Mellen Money Management is never born.