I’ve devoted 30 years of my professional life to the practice of financial planning and wealth management. As a Certified Financial PlannerTM and president of an independent fee-only advisory firm, we place client interests first and foremost. I began my career first in sales and then in management at a three traditional life insurance companies. The product solutions were often conflicted, and many needs went unmet. So one day I decided to change the way I would provide advice and began a life-long journey that included founding my own independent advisory firm.
My journey actually began as a skinny 11 year old in jeans. My mother, younger sister and I lived on what had been an old farmstead on a dirt road in the Vermont hills. I did not understand then, but my innocence about money matters would suddenly end. One idyllic Friday evening we waited at home, as was our custom, for Dad to return from the naval base in Maine where he was stationed, 8 long hours away. “BB” Hill would not return home for a year. And never again would he be the strong, tough Chief Petty Officer who served throughout World War II and later in the Korean War.
Several fearful days later we learned the classic “Henry J” automobile Dad always drove had left the road and crashed during his long commute in those pre-interstate days. Thrown from the car, he was lucky to be alive. The vehicle was a total loss, as was our weekly supply of groceries. Due to the severity of his injuries, Dad was confined to a Naval Hospital for a time, followed by another year of re-learning how to walk while confined at home. The Navy classified him as “permanently disabled,” and summarily retired him.
Ben Hill grew up in central Vermont during the Great Depression. He grew up poor and delivered newspapers to help out at home. The eldest of seven siblings, he joined the US Navy at 17, going to sea to “see” the world with dreams of “glory and glamour.” But as it happened, Ben would have greater troubles than he could possibly imagine. For the 7th Naval Fleet at the beginning of World War II, the dreaded order was to “stand and hold”: for an indefinite time against a ferocious enemy, all men and supplies would not fight Japanese, but go first to fight the Axis in Europe. The Navy would fight with the ships left after the Pearl Harbor disaster. With three years as a seaman, “BB” Hill was quickly promoted to BMC, Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Four more years of Pacific duty later, he was present at Tokyo Bay for the final Japanese surrender. “BB” Hill saw himself “a man among men.” Awarded five medals, and having survived sea battles, he was a boy no longer.
A few years later as peace and then prosperity finally returned, “BB” Hill met and married my mother, Dolly, in California. I was born in between two year-long tours of sea duty in Korea. As the Cold War got hotter and my baby sister needed her own room, in 1957 Dad and Mom found a quaint old farmstead not too far from his family. We could stop moving every year or so. Dad planned to retire there and fish again, as he did as a boy. But it was necessary to make an arduous 16 hour round-trip drive weekly to Naval stations in Maine, first in a 1949 Mercury and later in that Henry J. Dad always claimed “the accident” occurred due to old war injuries — not sleeping at the wheel — but for us kids that was a distinction without a difference. Dad suffered severely from back pain the rest of his life, and was disabled with one leg turned out. He could never row a boat to fish again. His prized fishing rods gathered dust in a closet.
BB Hill’s general idea had been to work 10 more years and then retire on a full military pension. My parents had put all the money they had into buying and improving that old farmstead. In time it became the nicest looking property on that dirt road. While we children did see not ourselves as poor, saving ahead for a rainy day was impossible. But the intangible cost was a long weekly commute: rain or shine, summer and winter. Problem was, when Dad disputed his forced retirement after his discharge from hospital, our family had no income with the issue suspended in administrative limbo.
We lived far from a large town. With young kids, Mom had employment problems. She found sewing jobs, and devised a small business. After a couple years, the Navy pension and social security came through. Mom eventually got a job at IBM, and Dad found side work. With a measure of financial security, the small homestead was safe. I resolved back then to make sure my own family would never be in such a situation. Due to overcrowding in the town school, I was given the chance to attend one of Vermont’s best high schools, even though it meant travelling three hours each day, at first hitching rides from neighbors. Highly motivated, I graduated at the top of my class, and attended the University of Rochester. After graduation, I settled in Rochester, making it my home. Later, my first real job in the 1970’s began at a major mutual insurance company, chosen in part because I felt a calling to help families plan their financial futures so that others could avoid the crisis that happened to my family. Having a good education, I aspired for a professional career, but had limited means. So I continued my education at night, and along with other designations, became one of the first Certified Financial Planners, CFP®.
My first financial advisory business was only fee-based, as is the case with most such firms today, and I was primarily paid by commissions. The conventional wisdom is that the advisor’s job is to out-perform or “beat” the stock markets. Back then I believed that with enough study and smarts, I could do it too. But due to conflicts of interest and diligently tracking my own advice for a few years, I didn’t see financial outcomes that I planned, and became disillusioned.
Deciding that perhaps financial planning was not really my true calling and considering a major career change, I applied and was admitted to the University of Rochester’s prestigious Simon Business School. After taking two years of economics and statistics courses taught by leading academics with ties to Nobel laureates in economics at the University of Chicago, one day I had an epiphany about how financial prices and markets really worked. Realizing I had taken the wrong way, I wanted to try again and do it right. I thought at the time that if I failed, at least I was young enough to find another job.
While at school, I began working out how to redefine the way financial advice should be provided, developing a different investment approach using a different investment philosophy. Over a very difficult transition, I reorganized my practice around serving clients first, and providing solutions second. There were innovations of computing technology and innovative discount brokerage investing platforms. And slowly, new solutions developed, aligned with the science of capital markets, based on all I had learned about financial economics and investment management in my MBA years.
I founded what would be an independent fee-only firm in 1993. Professional Financial pioneered what eventually would be called wealth management. Financial planning, investment management, and relationship consulting were integrated into a highly personalized process for achieving reliable planning outcomes for successful families. The firm was hardly an overnight success. What guided me, as I look back, was my Dad. After his accident, Dad’s dreams for glory were gone. At the time his unit was assigned to Vietnam, and he wanted another chance to fight, even at his age. While BB Hill’s back was broken, his spirit was not. He walked shuffling painfully with one foot at an angle. Yet my father never considered himself unfit for duty. His practical response to his new station in life, recalling his years at war, was to stand and hold. Like a faithful soldier, Ben Hill persevered, and in his own unique way, he overcame. In addition to taking care of the homestead, rather than living off his pension income and becoming an alcoholic to ease his pain like so many veterans injured by war, over the years Ben Hill developed a modest business rebuilding cars wrecked in accidents.
He did the first one so he could drive a new-looking Volvo on a his limited income. Finding others liked his idea, he arranged for more junked cars to be restored. Year by year, Dad rebuilt his broken life, even if not he had dreamed for himself as a boy. Supplementing his business, for many years Ben Hill drove all over Vermont and New England locating and delivering salvaged auto parts. As he turned 80, how anyone could ever drive daily such long distances even was a matter of constant conversation. But Dad drove to cope with trauma and pain, and I suppose, to prove each day that he still was “a man among men.” He never owned a car with a disabled parking sticker.
What my father taught me was that whatever work you do, it demands integrity, which for him, was honor. Success does not come only by luck — it’s earned by perseverance by meeting challenges with courage. I learned that to achieve goals, either for a client or myself, you must be committed to your goal, and commitment leads to confidence. Through tech bust and financial crisis years — terrifying as they were — we have helped all of our clients realize the outcomes they needed to meet their financial goals.
Dad died after three years in a nursing home of his own choice, all privately paid. My mother’s care was also privately paid for five years. Ben Hill still owned that little white farmhouse, looking somewhat forlorn, the day he died. Entrusting me with his life savings after Dolly’s stroke, he left behind a million dollar estate. But his true gift to is represented by a salvaged nautical compass beside my desk. Daily I am reminded of his example of integrity, pointing me in the right direction, so I never lose my way.