Lessons from the Plague Year | Part II – At AFM


A handful of us were working at AFM in our old office at 1155 Connecticut Ave. on the morning of September 11, 2001. That awful day stayed with us and illustrated how important it was to our clients that we have an emergency plan in place, should our office be inaccessible. As time went on, we adapted our systems to be as flexible as possible.

We digitized all of our files dating back to the 1970s, painstakingly scanning over one million pages by hand. We shifted our email, software, and files to systems that could be securely accessed anywhere with an internet connection. We supplied our team with laptops so that they could adapt on the fly should the office be shut down without warning. It was a tremendous investment of time and money, and but all that investment would have evaporated without…


With flexible systems in place, Chief Compliance Officer Betsy Fleming pushed us to regularly practice “disaster days.”  Sometimes they were planned. Sometimes they were triggered by a surprise phone call and email notice in the early morning. It can be hard to practice for years and never use the skill you’re practicing. But we kept at it, and the entire team regularly shared feedback on hiccups or efficiency issues with Betsy and the management group, so that we could be in the best position to serve our clients in the event of a catastrophe.

We shut the office down on Friday, March 13th, 2020, and on Monday the 16th we were operating at full capacity, handling calls, emails, trades, reports, and meeting just as we had practiced for so many years. Nothing is perfect, but we were as ready as we could be, and we’ve continued to hone our processes over the past year. In addition, we shared our game plan with a number of our colleagues in the industry who weren’t so well prepared.


While we’ve had Zoom and Ring Central since 2016, we used them sparsely before 2020.  Asking if someone wanted a video chat felt unnatural, even for clients thousands of miles away. As we adapted to working from home, something strange happened. We felt an increased connection to many of our clients, either those now living outside DC or even just those of you who had not been to our office in a while.  We met with each other from our living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, and offices. Children, grandchildren, cats, and dogs made cameo appearances.

Nothing beats getting together in the real world. We deeply miss those connections.  But video is here to stay at AFM. In 2020, we cherished being able to connect visually and see each other. Having said that…


As the work from home period became the norm, we began to miss the routine of daily office life. As good as technology is, it can’t replicate conversations in passing in the hallway, anniversary celebrations, impromptu lunches, or group brainstorms.  In 2020, we learned that we can work remotely, but we want to work together.  Our return to the office may look different than before, but nothing can replicate being together in person.


Ok, we knew that already, it wasn’t actually something we learned. But we were overwhelmed with the care and concern you expressed for us, our families, and our personal well-being. One of our newer team members commented during the summer how much he enjoyed the client meetings he was having, and how genuinely personal the conversations were. It is incredibly rewarding to work for clients like you, and it motivates us to get better every day.


In the Martin Scorsese film The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character tells his therapist that he learned while working undercover that his hand doesn’t shake, even when he’s in a tight spot.  At AFM, we’ve been in tight spots before. Black Tuesday in 1987…the tech bubble and aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 in 2001…the global financial crisis in 2008…and now a global pandemic. We know what it’s like to go through a scary market, and we don’t waiver from the principles that got us through them. We worry too. Last March was one of the scariest periods in market history.  But we do our best to balance our concern, with what we know about planning and investing.


We’ve got a young and vibrant team, many of whom were not here for those prior meltdowns. Reading about it is one thing, living through it is another. But during those first scary weeks in March, they learned that their hands don’t shake either.  A few weeks ago, at our 2021 strategic planning meeting, advisor John Wittelsberger commented “I’m so glad I got to experience that crash in March. Everything has been so good in the markets since I got here, it was great to be able to work through something like that.”  And almost across the board, we were impressed with how calm our clients remained amid so much uncertainty.

We don’t wish for calamity, particularly in light of all the pain so many felt over the past year. But I am reminded of something written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 174 years ago in a journal entry from April 1847:


Continue to Part III >>

Presented by Chris Rivers