Sherri leads an award-winning financial advisory firm that has been delivering comprehensive financial planning services to families and small businesses for almost four decades. It consults in a wide range of areas, including investments, insurance analysis, tax, estate and retirement planning. The group’s extensive background makes it a qualified advisor for high net worth clients.
When Sherri Stephens’ (male) business partner died, she got a wake-up call about women and their money
Posted on May 02, 2010
When Sherri Stephens was a high school senior in Davison, MI, in 1975, one of her teachers recommended her for a job as clerical assistant at a financial firm. She got the position, working for the top producer at the company, a Raymond James affiliate.
Sherri was bound for the University of Michigan to study education and become a teacher (both her folks were educators), but her boss immediately began to mentor her, suggesting she take business classes, too.
By the time Sherri graduated college in 1980, she had her principal's license, which allowed her to run a financial advisor’s office. “I was told that I was the youngest principal in the state of Michigan at the time,” she says. She became a partner in the firm.
Michigan, home to the auto industry, was in the midst of a horrible recession in the early eighties, so Sherri’s mentor and now partner decided to open a practice in St. Petersburg, FL., home to Raymond James headquarters. A newlywed, Sherri kept the practice going in Michigan.
“We co-ran these branches for several years and built up the business,” she recalls. Everything was going really well, but in 1994, at the age of 54, Sherri’s partner collapsed on a golf course in Seattle and died soon after. “It was a big shock for me and a big shock for our clients,” she says.
“Fortunately, we had worked out a buy-sell agreement between us. But it wasn’t easy going through the transition process and my world turned upside down. That’s when I knew for sure how important it is to be financially prepared for all possibilities,” Sherri explains. She was in her early thirties with young children.
“I had a lot of people pulling from different directions. Some didn't think I could run this business alone, some didn't think I should. My partner’s wife was in shock and grieving. Her husband took care of everything financially for his family. This was never supposed to happen. He left them very well off, but his wife had no comfort in that.”
FOF: So you started learning about the need for financial independence then?
SS: “This experience was my first exposure to how a widow goes through this grief. Even though she had plenty of money, she had no idea how money was made, no idea how you can live on a portfolio, no idea how investment decisions were made, etc. All she knew was there was a big checkbook, she could write checks any time she wanted, her husband was going to live forever. That all ended for me and for her the day he died.
“I wasn't quite ready to be thrust into something like this. Suddenly, I had to really step up to a major responsibility and face a lot of skepticism from clients and others in the industry.”
FOF: Did your mom work and understand money?
SS: “My parents were traditional. My father worked and my mother stayed home when we were growing up. I was the oldest of six children so we didn't have a lot of money. I observed that dad got to make most of the major the decisions about money. I never did quite like that paradigm. Even though my mom was very good with money and my parents were frugal, my dad got to make all the decisions. I wanted more control than that.
“As I worked with a growing number of clients and became more independent and secure in my decision-making about my own investments and own financial situation, it reinforced the importance of taking control, of being strong enough in your own convictions to be able to make your own decisions.”
FOF: It all obviously worked out well?
SS: “I ended up buying out my partner’s wife and taking over all of the clients. I worked with her to sell the Florida practice to a colleague and kept the bulk of the Michigan business.”
FOF: You were a young mother and wife. How did you manage all that, too?
SS: “It’s complicated, but we divorced about three years later. So it was a huge deal to go through a divorce as a business owner. How I was going to plan for my own financial future, my children, making sure my kids (boys 9 and 11) were okay, he was okay, I was okay. My children were my first priority, but luckily, my career gave me some flexibility. My oldest son is working with me now in the business.
“I do believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I made close friendships with other women in the business at that point because they tend to come to your rescue when you need them. I forged ahead. Fortunately, I was able to make the business work very, very well.”
FOF: Clearly, your own experiences helped you understand how to help other women.
SS: “When I’m working with widowed and/or divorced women, whether they have businesses or not, I have a clear understanding of what they're going through emotionally and what they must do financially.
“I like to help people navigate through and make good business decisions, good financial decisions, good personal decisions. I’ve experienced some level of it all, including buying a business, divorcing, raising kids and hiring staff, which helps me to offer pretty good advice. Clients trust you when they know you've been through it yourself.”
FOF: Do you have a partner?
SS: “ I never took a partner, but I have a wonderful staff of ten, including Certified Financial Planners Professionals, a branch office manager and client service people.”
FOF: What the biggest financial mistake women often make when they divorce or become widows?
SS: “They tend to ask Uncle Joe and their sister and their brother-in-law and their neighbor and their dentist for financial advice. I mean, they're asking everybody on the planet what they should do.
“Instead of going right to a professional, they get 50 different answers from friends and family.”
FOF: What advice to do have for all women?
“Often women don't have enough trust in their own judgment. Sure, they’re not experts, but they have the tools though to learn a few things, to get a little education and to start asking questions. They certainly do it when it comes to their health. They're not afraid to ask their doctor a million questions about their treatment.
“Some women feel insecure in their financial life. It's not something they're used to handling and they don't have enough trust in their own convictions. It’s important for a woman to take on responsibility, to be engaged in this process. It means everything to your future.”
FOF: Should a widow go to the financial advisor her husband used?
SS: “The wife doesn’t usually have the same connection that the husband had, but many widows say: ‘Just do it and tell me how it works out.’ It’s easier than assuming the responsibility. One widow I know recently gathered enough strength to fire the advisor that her husband told her never to fire because she knew intuitively he was not looking after her best interests.
“Her husband, a successful lawyer, had managed all their money. She never would have dreamed that her world could melt down this way. His advisor was charging big fees. She had decided she needed to talk to somebody. She didn't know what she was going to do but she knew something wasn't right.
“This is now your relationship and your future and you're scared to death. You don't want to make emotional decisions. Emotional decisions are not financial decisions. But once the emotion is out of it, take control of as you would any other aspect of your life. If your kid's teacher isn't performing you'd march in there and speak to him, you'd talk to the board, you'd do whatever. If you feel your doctor isn’t giving you the right treatment, you'd address it. This is the same kind of thing. Asking your neighbors and all your relatives how to do something isn't necessarily the right approach. This is a professional business. Would you ask your neighbor, your friend or your sister if you should be on antidepressants?”
FOF: When your client is the man, do you make sure his wife is involved?
SS: “Absolutely. As a matter of fact, even if he doesn't, we try to find a way. We’ll call her and tell her what we discussed with her husband. Her name is on the account and we can't make decisions without her input. She needs to be involved when we talk about subjects such as their estate plan. Will the estate go to their kids? What about the daughter-in-law she doesn’t like? When you start to ask questions like these, it’s usually the woman who answers.”
FOF: Other advice for widows?
SS: “Many widows of wealthy men don't think about budgets, about the fact that their money could run out. If you're in your fifties or sixties, you could have 30 years to live, so your money has to last a long time. You must determine a good strategy for making the money last.
“Understand what that means in terms of real numbers. How much do you spend every year? How much can your portfolio give you every year? What can go wrong and what is your plan for contingencies? Review your financial plan every single year so that you’re not looking back after five years and saying, ‘I didn't know that if I bought another house in Florida, it would torpedo my ability to have health care when I'm 75-years-old.’
“When I ask people, ‘how much do you spend a week, a month, a year?’ they look at me blankly. This always surprises me. When you add up their expenses with them, and throw taxes on top, people are amazed. ‘There's no way I spend that much money,’ they say. We go through the budget and establish a work sheet, which lets clients begin to take control. The majority of people don't understand how much money they fritter away. It really, really matters.
“Some women tell me they want to leave their kids money and we examine the implications. ‘If you want your kids to have that much money, you may have to live on less. Are you willing to do that?’ I ask. “I will go over a client’s top ten objectives with her, order them properly, then make sure her plan reflects those goals. Here are the things she needs to do now to make sure that there's a reasonably good chance she can get what she wants and a “secure future.”
Raymond James' financial advisors may only conduct business with residents of the states and/or jurisdictions for which they are properly registered. Therefore, a response to a request for information may be delayed. Please note that not all of the investments and services are available in every state. Investors outside of the United States are subject to securities and tax regulations within their applicable jurisdictions that are not addressed on this site. Contact your local Raymond James office for information and availability.