The Rise of the Female Financial Planner in the Main Line (and Beyond)

Purse-string Pull
The rise of the female financial planner.

Purse-string Pull
The rise of the female financial planner.

“A man is not a financial plan,” Bala Cynwyd financial planner Bonnie Ryan has been known to tell her two girls around the dinner table. And she’s got the facts to back it up: According to the Journal of Financial Planning, men may still be the primary earners, but an estimated $12.5 trillion will transfer into the hands of baby-boomer women between 2010 and 2015—mostly because wives are expected to outlive their husbands and other male relatives.

In preparation, more women than ever are seeking financial advice so they can properly allocate their nest egg, precipitating the rise of the female financial planner. “We end up playing the role of personal and professional coach,” Ryan says. “It’s about getting to know a person—and I feel good doing it. Sometimes we get so busy chatting that we have to work hard to get back to the point. I say, ‘Ladies, we have to focus.’”

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Ten months ago, Ryan and Mac Brand, partners at Smith Barney in Bala Cynwyd, launched, a website full of advice and resources for women managing their wealth.

“The site—with its purses, shoes and chattiness—encourages women to have fun while browsing it. And we want its popularity to spread via word of mouth,” Brand says. “We want [the idea of consulting a financial planner] to be in their head. It may take a year or two.”

“Or another cocktail party,” Ryan chimes in.

“But we’ve prompted thinking and action,” adds Brand. “And eventually they’ll consult someone.”

Tag-team collaborators and whip-smart business minds, Brand and Ryan want to help. In their work, they’ve seen women become bankrupt and disenfranchised simply because they weren’t paying attention. Bankruptcy, they know, can befall anyone. Affluent women can squander millions, and an upper-middle class mother can go broke for not looking over her portfolio.

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Their target audience is women who are capable and bright, but not so knowledgeable about finances. “Women are cool beings,” Brand says. “They know what they don’t know, so they won’t jump into the financial world when they don’t know their way around it.” encourages women—especially those who aren’t working—to get informed and get a plan so they aren’t left alone without anywhere to turn. The website covers 401(k)s, separation proceedings, divorce, taxation laws, retirement planning and much more.

Once women take Ladiesloot’s advice and starts shopping around for a financial planner, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they find: smart, certified female professionals with keen observational skills, empathy and compassion. Most take extra measures to make sure their clients aren’t being taken advantage of.

“There are a lot of planners and lawyers out there that will be doing OK things with your money, but they’re not doing the best things,” Brand says. “Women mature, have children, and then their instinct is to protect themselves and their family. They are the gatherers, who stay at home and nest.”

So it often seems that women have to go against the grain to get help, get involved and get empowered when it comes to the family checkbook.

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A New Breed
On thing that makes many female financial planners unique is that their work is a second career. Professionals who switch over to the field often dive in with optimism over having found their next calling. West Chester financial planner Patricia Brennan was a nurse in the intensive care unit at Lankenau Hospital for three years before she made the switch to the financial world. The Radnor High School grad earned her nursing degree from Georgetown University, but the financial planning class she took as an elective her senior year always stuck with her.

Brennan left the hospital for a job at RTD Financial Advisors in Philadelphia. Within five years, she was promoted to vice president. Feeling too close to the glass ceiling and unhappy with declining client interaction, she left in 1990 to start her own business, Key Financial. By design, her new firm was closer to home, which made life easier for Brennan, who was pregnant with her first child.

One thing that carries over from nursing to financial planning ethic is Brennan’s crisis management skills—the ability to remain calm under pressure, task management and, most importantly, empathy. She can “totally relate” to the everyday pressures of being a wife, a mother, a daughter. She has also been trained to anticipate crises, That way, she can avoid them—a skill that can really come in handy when balancing a portfolio.

With her clipped blond hair and a slim physique, Brennan is a dynamo in and out of the conference room. Deftly balancing the needs of her 156 clients with those of her four high-school-age children (“I’ve been seen at the Acme at midnight”), she credits her success to an innate—and potentially female—ability to communicate meaningfully.

“With me, there’s no talking over anyone’s head, and I don’t talk over people.,” Brennan says. “When I send my clients their quarterly reports, I always include a written letter of recommendation with the rationale behind my advice. It’s old-fashioned—a personal touch.” Speaking of meaningful communication, try a two-inch-thick, professionally bound and tabbed financial plan mapping out the client’s spending, saving and investing—a course of action for a lifetime with multiple scenarios (based on different retirement ages) laid out for you. This is boutique financial planning at its best. “There’s not an ounce of boiler plate in this; it’s all custom,” says Brennan. “It’s not written in an office in Minneapolis. It’s sophisticated analysis.”

Brennan says the charts, tabs and bottom lines make you feel comfortable and safe—even when looking at a financial plan that’s not your own. It’s the sort of thing any sensible woman would long for—like those designer handbags the women from always talk about.

It’s difficult to say exactly when female financial planners started to gain a foothold in the field. Brennan estimates she started seeing the numbers increase about five to seven years ago. Meanwhile, Brand and Ryan still think of themselves as lone soldiers. Even now, just four out of 24 Smith Barney planners are women.

But needless to say, the field is learning some valuable lessons from committed, intelligent women like Brennan.

“You don’t just leave when your shift is over if you’re needed,” she says. “You just don’t.”


Money-Minding Tips

• No matter your situation, always have a trusted financial planner’s name in your filing cabinet in case of an emergency.

• Don’t miss the importance of retirement planning, even after you’ve retired.

• Female financial planners are great, but it’s not all about being warm and fuzzy. They still have to be competent.

• Don’t worry. Women get the “risk” thing.

• Balances coming out of 401(k)s are often as high as seven figures now, which puts clients into a higher tax bracket. So be prepared.

• CFP’s should only charge for investments, not for assembling a financial plan.

• Rebalance your portfolio annually (at least), with respect to cash, real estate, stocks and bonds.

• It’s not what you earn, it’s what you keep.

• Interview at least three financial planners before choosing one. It’s important to trust the person handling your money.



Become a CFP in Five Steps

1. Complete an education program registered with the CFP board. There are more than 285 academic programs at colleges and universities across the country.

2. Pass the CFP certification examination. The 10-hour exam is divided into three separate sessions and tests your ability to apply financial-planning knowledge to client situations.

3. Meet the experience requirement. You must have at least three years of qualifying full-time work experience in personal financial planning.

4. Pass a background check.

5. Pay the fees. These include a one-time, non-refundable initial certification application fee of $100 for background check, and a biennial certification fee of $360.

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