WealthManagement Magazine

Maternal Instincts

Mother and daughter are building a business by helping divorced women take control of their finances.Long before wirehouses launched mentoring programs to match fresh-faced producers with seasoned veterans, Corinne Smith instinctively knew it was a solid idea.So 14 years ago she turned to her daughter Michelle, who was struggling through her rookie year as a producer at another firm, and invited her

Mother and daughter are building a business by helping divorced women take control of their finances.

Long before wirehouses launched mentoring programs to match fresh-faced producers with seasoned veterans, Corinne Smith instinctively knew it was a solid idea.

So 14 years ago she turned to her daughter Michelle, who was struggling through her rookie year as a producer at another firm, and invited her to join her practice, initially as an assistant, then as a partner one year later.

As an incentive, Corinne transferred the bottom 20% of her book to Michelle. "And that was a really incredible thing, because I was very uncomfortable with cold calling," Michelle says.

The decision to join her mother's practice was easy, Michelle says. "She was very successful, and she helped me eliminate those first two years of mistakes that most brokers make."

Corinne's intuition told her that Michelle would provide a fresh perspective, a "new generation energy." In fact, she had already experienced that energy when Michelle worked in her office during summer vacations from college.

"It actually didn't have anything to do with the mother-daughter thing. I saw this person who was perfect for the job. She had all the skills necessary," Corinne says. "The bonus was that she was my daughter."

Corinne and Michelle's job descriptions are flexible. While both brokers concentrate on financial planning for their combined 400 accounts, other projects are handled by the person with the most passion, enthusiasm or expertise in that area.

Mother and daughter are the yin and the yang of this single entity. Corinne sees big-picture issues. She's the equity specialist and stock-picker. Michelle concentrates on details. She's most comfortable crunching numbers for client presentations. "The differences are so complementary," Michelle says.

But mother and daughter also have plenty in common. Both would like to spend more time generating the publicity that found them.

After the morning television program "Good Day New York" profiled the Smiths on May 24, Corinne fielded more than 200 phone calls from prospective clients clamoring to register for one of their monthly seminars. The "Taking Control" seminars are booked solid through December, Michelle says. Attendance is limited to 25 women.

As it turns out, about half of the women who attended these workshops during the past seven years have been divorced. The Smiths embraced the niche since both have been divorced.

This summer, both Corinne and Michelle joined the financial faculty of a Web site called SoftSplit.com. They lead online discussions, moderate chats and answer questions about women, divorce and finances.

They also network with divorce attorneys and marriage counselors in Manhattan. And they are writing a book called "Financial Wholeness," to be published within the next year.

All this extracurricular activity prompted the Smiths to add full-time Marketing and Project Manager Tracey Atkins in January. They also hired a broker coach to help boost their fee business from 30% of production to a goal of roughly 75%. Next up, adding a third partner to concentrate on investment management.

"Sometimes you just have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down," says a handmade sign in the shape of a heart that hangs on the wall behind Corinne's desk. Apparently, that statement not only reflects her business philosophy, but also guides her relationship with her daughter.

"You need to be prepared to let go of the motherhood role and accept the fact that this is an equal relationship," Corinne says. "Some mothers cannot do that."

Daughter Michelle agrees wholeheartedly. "You really need to find your own legs in this business," she says. "It just helps to have some very gentle guidance."

The Smith team has a single production number that First Union Securities pays out to Corinne and Michelle in equal halves. "This structure works because the division of duties is closely connected to personal strengths and passions," Corinne says. "We feel this is more motivational than money."

However, the pair believes in rewarding other team members. Assistant Susan Straub receives a base salary plus 1.5% of production. And the Smiths offer Straub and Marketing Manager Tracey Atkins year-end bonuses and incentive pay for certain projects.

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