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From Commissions to Fee-Only: A Personal Journey

Senior Wealth Advisor, Bronwyn Shone, CFP®, discusses her personal journey from book publishing, the dot com world, and insurance sales to fee-only financial advisor.

Fifteen years ago this month, I attended my first financial planning class. It was a survey class designed to give a broad overview of the skills financial planners were required to master to be considered competent professionals, and the first in a series of courses required by the CFP® Board to sit for the CFP® exam. What led me to that first class?

After a brief career in book publishing, I rode the dot com wave and for the first time I had a relatively high salary, even stock options! I grew very interested in how to manage my new financial situation and spent much of my free time reading Money, Kiplinger and countless books on personal finance.

When the boom turned to a bust, I found myself with no job but savings in the bank, lots of worthless stock options, a bookshelf full of financial planning titles, and a big question: “What next?” I knew I didn’t want to return to the low salaries of book publishing, and the dot com jobs disappeared along with that silly sock puppet. I enrolled in the survey class to test the waters. While my interest in my own financial planning had grown very organically, I had no idea what it would take to help others with their plans. By the end of that survey course, I knew that I would spend the rest of my career not only learning how to answer this question but that with the changes in legislation, plan rules, and growing body of knowledge related to behavioral finance, I would always be learning!

Through some diligent networking on my part, I found a paraplanning position working for a CFP® with a deep background in insurance and insurance sales. Although I occasionally did some cash flow analysis for clients, my role mainly revolved around supporting his sales of insurance products such as variable universal life contracts and annuities. I filled out applications and worked with the insurance companies to get policies properly set up and delivered.

We also did dinner seminars. At these events, I descended upon each table with a schedule book after the main presentation (but before dessert!), doing my best to persuade guests to book an appointment with the planner. I did not enjoy my role as a sales assistant, and I knew my fate was sealed when the planner ordered two commercial grade printing machines to print out the thousands of dinner invitations we would send out for the next seminar. Who would be stuffing those invitations into envelopes? Applying the postage? Any hope of spending my work hours doing financial planning for clients was squashed by those giant printers.

I worked for this planner for about a year and half before we parted ways. While I was learning a great deal about insurance, I found the approach of using insurance as an answer for every financial planning question extremely limiting. Overall, I was grateful to this planner for giving me a foothold into financial services, and he taught me some valuable skills that I still use today.

But, it became clear that if there was going to be a place for me as a financial planner, it could not be in sales. Again, I asked myself: “What next?” And, before I even knew there was such a thing, I decided that I would be a fee-only planner. That was in 2003 and I am happy to say I have never looked back.

While financial planning involves a great deal of training, expertise and attention to detail, the main steps are pretty simple:  (1) Make a plan, and (2) Execute the plan. If products are needed to execute the plan, use the highest quality and most cost-effective solutions available.

After 15 years of experience, this planning-first approach is now second nature to me and the fine planners I have the privilege to call my co-workers here at BlueSky. So, while much of the industry struggles with how to implement the fiduciary standard (the radical notion that a planner should put their clients’ interests above their own), we are free to focus our efforts on creating customized plans for our clients that start with their goals and managing their plans with their best interests in mind. I can’t predict what the next 15 years will bring for the planning profession as the sellers and the planners sort themselves out, but I know which team I am on.