In April, our firm will be 40 years old. To put those years in perspective, on April 1, 1983, the S&P 500 was 152.96. On March 9, 2023, it closed at 3918.32.
As difficult as it is to believe now, when I started working in the investment business in 1961, financial planning firms as we know them today didn’t exist. At that time, you worked for a stock brokerage firm, a money management firm, an insurance company, an accounting firm, or a law firm.
Despite having a college degree, I started my career as a secretary in the research department of Ferris & Company, which was a regional New York Stock Exchange firm based in Washington, D.C. However, I was fortunate enough to work for a firm that had two female superstar stockbrokers, Julia Walsh and Gail Winslow. In fact, Ferris was known for its several achieving women stockbrokers. So, in an era when females in the business were rare, I didn’t lack any role models.
After working at Ferris for a while, I realized that I preferred working with people rather than behind the scenes in the research department. I was able to move over to working as an assistant to Julia Walsh, who was the first woman on the American Stock Exchange and the first woman to graduate from the executive program at Harvard Business School. In addition, when I first worked with her, she was a widow with four young boys to support. Subsequently, she married a widower who had seven children of his own and together they had a daughter to round the family to twelve! Talk about having an economic motive!
Over the years working with clients, I found they were often asking questions about other financial issues such as taxes, wills, trusts, and insurance. In 1976, I enrolled in the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ correspondence course to broaden my knowledge in these non-investment areas. I didn’t know that I was embarking into a new field, and that this program was only four years old. When I finished the course in 1977, there were only 400 CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals in the country, and I was one of the first women to graduate. Later I discovered I was the first one to pass the test in Washington DC, male or female. Today, there are 96,000 CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals in the country!
About this time, Julia decided to start her own investment firm called Julia Walsh & Sons. Three of her sons and I held minority ownership (5% each). Since I had the CFP® designation, I started the financial planning department which grew to 4 employees. In 1983, Julia agreed to sell the firm to a larger Boston-based firm. I saw that this firm wasn’t very interested in financial planning, so decided to start my own financial planning firm. Having helped to establish Julia Walsh & Sons I knew what was involved in starting and running a profitable firm, so the concept wasn’t that scary. I figured if it didn’t work out that I could always go work for another firm and didn’t want to be sitting in a rocking chair when I retired and regretting not taking the chance to start my own firm. Further, it didn’t hurt that I was single and had only myself to support.
So, I took my financial planning department out of Julia Walsh & Sons and started my own firm—on Connecticut Avenue NW—in 1983. Initially, it was a pyramid hierarchy with me at the top of the firm. Over the years, I added partners to help me share the responsibilities.
To me, it made so much sense not to view investments in a vacuum. It was important to talk about people’s goals and dreams, and how best to achieve them using all the financial tools available, not just stocks and bonds. Fortunately, other people agreed with me and became clients!
Today, we serve the “affluent” market with $1 million plus in assets. Our clients are primarily women and dual income couples. They are “delegators,” which means that are either too busy or not interested in managing their own financial lives.
Currently, we have over $1billion in assets under advisement as of April 2023, serve over 500 households, and have 20 employees. I have retired from working with clients, but the other four principals work with them. Three of the four current principals started with me right out of college and have grown with the firm and absorbed the corporate culture.
Many people think Washington is all about politics. They don’t realize that it has an active business community separate from the “Hill.” As a native Washingtonian who grew up and was educated in Washington, I strongly believe in participating in our city’s activities—giving back to the community which is the source of our business. We are members of the Board of Trade, the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., the Estate Planning Council, Washington D.C. Police Foundation, and the Financial Planning Association (where six of our planners over the years have served as President).
We also have supported several nonprofits, most notably the Foundation for Financial Planning. This twenty-five-year-old national organization’s mission is to help underserved people gain control of their financial lives with the help of pro bono financial planners. Over the years, it has focused on various groups of people needing assistance, including families of cancer victims, the military, and women victims of domestic violence. In total, our firm has contributed over $1 million to this endowment fund.
Someone once asked me how I would define “success.” There are several ways to answer that question. One is to have earned the respect of our clients and our peers. We pride ourselves on serving a multi-generational client base and have a good national reputation in our profession. Another is that we have survived and thrived over different economic cycles over the past 40 years. Still another is to have built an organization which continues to do well after the founder (yours truly) has retired!
As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, I am pleased to share that each of our principals will be sharing their perspectives on what AFM has meant to them and our community. Be sure to follow along via our social media, forthcoming newsletters, and right here, our Capital Insights blog.
We are incredibly grateful to you, our clients, for helping make AFM what it is today and look forward to serving as your trusted financial partner for years to come.
On behalf of the entire AFM family, thank you!
Founder and Chairman Emeritus
Armstrong, Fleming & Moore, Inc.