Helen Modly is the president of Focus Wealth Management, an SEC registered, fee-only wealth management company with offices in Middleburg and Fairfax, Virginia. Focus works with clients to understand their complete financial situations and objectives, helping to manage assets and plan for clients’ financial futures. Helen is a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), chairs the 2015 Financial Planning Association National Capital Area (FPA NCA) Board of Directors, and was selected as Financial Planner of the Year by the membership of FPA NCA in 2010. An accomplished writer and distinguished authority in retirement income planning, Helen regularly contributes to MorningstarAdvisor and Horsesmouth.com, and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Money Magazine,Businessweek, and The Washington Business Journal. Helen Modly spoke with citybizlist founder Edwin Warfield for this interview.
EDWIN WARFIELD: Before you started Focus, you were a practicing nurse. What inspired the career change?
HELEN MODLY: The question is not “How does a nurse go to being a wealth manager?”; the question is “How does an entrepreneur ever become a nurse?” The answer is I was a student at George Mason, I was a Chemistry major for some odd reason, and halfway through school I dropped out to pursue other interests. When I came back, I re-enrolled in Chemistry and went to my dad and said, “Dad, it’s time for tuition. I’m going back to school and here’s my tuition payment.” And he said, “Well, that’s wonderful. I wish you the best of luck. I’m not giving you another dime.” So I went to the Financial Aid Officer at George Mason and I said, “I have this problem.” And the woman said, “Oh dear, it’s too bad you don’t want to be a nurse. We have this Federal Nurse Training Act. It will pay for all your tuition, it’ll pay for your living expenses, it’ll give you a stipend. And if you work at a non-profit hospital you will not have to pay any of it back.” It took me about a second to say, “Did I tell you my mother was a nurse?” I always wanted to be a nurse, and I became a neurosurgical nurse and worked at Georgetown. When I was done working at Georgetown, I got a job in the investment insurance industry because I had always wanted to do something business-like, and that was one of the options that was made available—to go into the sales of insurance and investment products for an insurance company and a broker dealer. I call that “my time spent on the dark side.” During that time, when I was at Georgetown, my father died suddenly—heart attack on the golf course, which is how he had planned it—but my mother was left absolutely adrift. She had no idea how to pull the finances together. She didn’t understand what they had and what they didn’t have. She was under the impression that he had life insurance, and he didn’t. She didn’t understand how to work through social security. I remember being 21, 22 years old, trying to help her through all of this. Here you have a woman who’s grieving but facing the toughest intellectual hurdle that she’s ever come across, and it has to happen at the same time. I remember thinking that nobody should have to do this. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to leave nursing and go into something to do with financial, because I realized that I knew nothing about it, and didn’t learn a thing in school about how to manage finances. So, gradually after being in the insurance and investment world for a while, I got frustrated with the fact that every piece of advice had to generate a commission. You end up with an integrity disconnect at some point. I had learned about a CPA firm nearby that had a financial planning practice, and they were looking for someone. I joined them and really enjoyed the planning aspect. The founder, Sandy Atkins and I, bought the firm away from her accounting firm and she and I became partners. That was in 2001, and we’ve never looked back.
How is focus different from other investment firms?
Most people think of the investment world as very competitive: dog-eat-dog, you eat what you kill, it’s you or the next guy and somebody has to lose in order for you to win. That’s how a lot of investment firms are structured: where everybody’s in their own silo, you pay your own expenses, you make your own money, and you really don’t have much collaboration with the rest of the people that you’re so-called “working with.”
Our firm is very different. From the very beginning, we did not want that model. I had worked in that model in the insurance and investment world. I knew how draining it was. I knew how non-productive and stressful it was. So, Sandy and I created a firm where all the clients are clients of the firm. Nobody owns a client. All of the advisors work on different clients. Sandy was very good in real estate and tax, so she would work on those aspects. I’m very good with retirement plans and investments, so I work on those. We all took turns working on different issues, whatever came up for the clients. But, our firm is collaborative—we all work together. It’s important for us to have really high caliber employees, pay them really well, keep them really motivated, because those are the kinds of people who are real assets to our clients.
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