Decision Dialogues
Decision Dialogues

Episode · 1 year ago

Ferociously Independent-Minded - Ep 06


On episode 6 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby speaks to Karen Keatley. Karen talks about her experiences in the asset management world, and how she found that Wall Street was both male-dominated and outwardly hostile to women trying to establish a career. Karen eventually transitioned to starting her own firm. Her decisions led to outstanding growth and her firm's eventual merger with Modera in 2019. Get the full show notes and more resources at

Are you paving the way for the life you want facing decisions that may affect you personally and financially? The decision dialogs podcast, brought to you by Modera Wealth Management, presents personal stories about navigating through life's pivotal moments, narratives that we hope will inspire you as you create your own story. You'll learn what influence their next steps and gain insights that could help you with your own critical choices. Welcome to decision dialogs. Thanks for joining us on decision dialogs. Were thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby and I'm a principal and wealth manager and the Chief Operating Officer of Madera Wealth Management Llc. Today I'm very happy to be joined by one of my partners at Madeira, Karen Keekley, who's based in one of our two charlotte offices. Karen merged the firm that she herself founded, Keekley Wealth Management, into Madeira at the end of two thousand and nineteen, right as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread around the globe. Karen, thanks so much for your time today and welcome to the show. Thanks for having me it's fun to be here and I know we're going to go back into your history, but I can't help but think how interesting a time it must have been for you in that first few months of this year. There you are, having built your firm and having decided to merge it into another, and then suddenly we all had to deal with a pandemic together. Well, I think if somebody has said to me a year ago that you're going to merge your firm and then we're all going to have to stay home and work from home for the rest of the year after, right after you do that, I probably was said, let's not do this right now, let's just maybe come up with a different plan. And incredibly surreal time for all of us back then. So let's go back into the mists of time, Karen, with you, in terms of, you know this, probably a few different phases in your career and I kind of wanted to dive into the different challenges that you faced, the different decisions you've had to make. So it's so if I could bring it all the way back to let's just deal with a little bit of the the initial part of your career and to give our listeners an idea of later on in your career how that impacted the decision you made later on. I was economics and psychology major in college and when I was in college economics and psychology had absolutely nothing to do with one another. Of course, now here we are and they we realize they have everything to do with each other. But that, I think, started me down a road that I didn't know I was on at the time. After College, I went and worked for an economic research department and a large transportation company and then left there to go get my Mba in finance at Duke. After finishing the NBA program I went to the New York Metro area and worked for a large institutional asset manager, jure, where I was a portfolio manager for them, mostly fixed income, doing some leverage buyout equity analysis, but mostly fixed income. Got My CFA during that period of time and settled right into the corporate world. Had Two children and then everything changed pretty quickly. So let me back up a little bit there, because you've just said a few things, very interesting things that you made sound like it was nothing but some interesting decisions back then. So, as we know, even to this day, the Financial Services Industry tends to be skewed in terms of the number of participants up to the male side. So you decided to take on the CFA early on, which I don't know the exact breakdown there, but I think it's dominated by males as well. Talk to us about your experience as you kind of embarked with your CFA into the life of Wall Street. So Interviewing Wall Street was interesting because I did encounter a little bit of resistance initially coming out of business school, and they did hire women, but I think that there were some additional hurdles that women had to go through to get hired. So some of the big white shoe investment...

...banks were not as receptive to my candidacy for employment as I would have liked. One of them even asked me. They said to me a partner at a investment bank that is now longer in existence. It went away during the financial crisis, but a partner that firm said that he would want to meet my boyfriend before he would consider hiring me to come to work there. I wondered if he was subjecting the men to the same level of screwtiny, but that's neither here nor there. Times have changed. How did you react to that, Karen, I was absolutely thunderstruck. So I assume you you didn't end up working at that firm. No, no, I didn't and that and it's just as well. But the place I did wind up working was wonderful and it was a wonderful place for me to start my career in financial services, and the CFA was part of the job we we were expected to get that credential. So I a year after graduating from school, I started on the three year CFA program. Any regrets about the time you worked on well street and in that sort of environment? Not at all, not at all. It was a great experience. What, for you, were the best parts of the experience that you carry forward? I think I saw a lot of things. I think as an investor, it makes me a better investor. It makes me a more sophisticated investor. I think I understand things in a way from from having a long term perspective and working with so many smart people over the years. I think I understand how the markets work in a way that that maybe you don't get unless you've been around for a while. Yeah, and and how long was that part of your career? I was there for seven years and during that time I had my children and what I did find was, as I had my second child, that my opportunities for advancement were changing a lot and in the industry, I think as a result of me becoming a mom, there was a lot of talk about sort of Mommy tracking and be coming on the Mommy track, and that didn't seem really appealing. So when my husband was given an opportunity to take a job starting up an investment banking operation down here in Charlotte, we decided to relocate and then I would sort of land there and figure out what to do next after we got settled in Charlotte and before we talked about that part. So there was a period of time where you were being a mom, being a parent, working on Wall Street. You want to talk to us about sort of that experience? How did you juggle? We living in Manhattan at the time. We had moved out to New Jersey, suburban New Jersey. Okay, it was hard, it was it was I was tired. We had to live in nanny but I think the real nail in the coffin was having the second child not a whole lot longer after getting the first one. To go to sleep at night. So it was hard. Can you take a little deeper dive on that Mommy track reference that you met? I mean, what did that look like? I mean was that? I'm assuming it wasn't formalized, but it was understood. It was. You know, when I came back from attorney leave there I had a male colleague whose wife had just had triplets, as as a matter of fact, and he's a great guy and his wife is delightful. His wife was staying home with the triplets, whereas my husband was an investment banker who was traveling every every week on multiple airplanes every week. We just had a different set of constraints around us and all of a sudden he was getting the really interesting projects to work on and I wasn't anymore. So that's sort of, I think, what the Mommy track was going to hold for me was I could certainly stay in the chair as long as I wanted to and my firm was very supportive, but I just wasn't going to be the same kind of career track that I had had before. Would you ever see yourself going back to work in corporate America in that sort of environment? Absolutely not, and that that sort of switches isn't into the second phase. So see, you and your husband and your two kids moved to Charlotte. We did, and that sort of, I think, led me very slowly towards the path of founding Heatley wealth management. Because a couple of weeks after we moved to Charlotte my father passed away very suddenly.

He had been retired for six months and my mother did. They didn't seem young at the time but certainly looking back now, they were in their early s. So it he was young, it was young young to be a widow for my mom and of course we were all devastated and I started spending my time with her and using my skills to help her formula, to financial plan and make sure we were organized with her resources and make sure she was going to be set going forward. She had no idea how to time to approach the problem and I just you know, all I have was excel. But we know, we figured out how to do a fantial plan and get her portfolio set up right. So I became she was my first client. Was that your first experience of finish a personal financial planning? It really was. I don't think I was really that good at it. You know, you can go to business school and get a degree in finance and you can get a CFA and you can work at the highest levels and institutional investent management and really not know very much about personal finance and how it applies, how the how taxes and different things applied to individuals. So you had all this Wall Street experience but you felt like a beginner. I did in some ways. Yes, that's absolutely correct. And a crash course, given the sad death of your father. It was a crash course. And then I'd and then I did the real crash course. Some years later. I decided that it was time to get back to work and earn money and some help support my family. So I did the challenge for the CFP. Did that come directly from your experience of help in your mom Karen? It really did. It's very simple. I realized there's such an important need for people who give good advice. That isn't, you know, oriented by sales commissions or brokers. You know, I didn't really know at the time what fee only financial planning was. I have stockbrokers that were friends, insurance people that were friends, and my only view of the financial planning profession was that people sold products and worked for big institutions and until I bumped into a family friend who was doing hourly financial planning. He was on a very limited scale and it seemed like the right way to deliver advice, just to separate advice from all the conflicts of interest. So I decided that that would be a nice way to go forward and I could kind of do it part time, slowly. You know, hourly there's not a whole lot of ongoing commitment there, so it seemed like a nice way to dip my toes in. This is a kind of a tricky question to ask, but it was there a moment where the light bulb went off in your mind, or was it just a slow growing realization that this was something that you could get passionate about? Well, I think it it was a slow realization that this is something I could get passionate about. As far as the decision that I really needed to get back to work, that was a little bit of a light bulb. And I'll tell you a funny story about my daughter. She was lying in bed crying because she didn't want to go to school. I think she was in kindergarten at the time, but she I don't like school, I don't want to go to school, and I said to her, well, you have to go to school because if you don't go to school and get an education you won't people to get a very good job when you grow up and you might have to work, you know, on a job. Let that that's not pleasant for you. So you really need to get your education. She said, Mommy, why can't I just go to the gym every day like you do? So that was one of those light bulb moments for me. Time to go back to work. So it sounds like you slowly got familiar with the whole feel only fiduciery area. Talk to me about the CFP and how you decided that that was credential that was the direction you wanted to go in. Well, that you know. There again, the person I had gotten to know was a CFP. I realized that, after looking at it, it covered sort of the holes in my knowledge in terms of what I needed to understand better to do this job. So it was it was pretty obvious that's what I needed to do and I just did a self study for a couple of months and talked to me about keiklee wealth management. Keep the both... didn't happen right away. I started doing hourly financial planning for a few years and I like to refer to that time period is my unpaid internship, because I really didn't learn very much money. I paid for my software and and I think I learned how to be a pretty good financial planner. I learned how to do financial plans and how to talk with clients and work with clients. Met some really wonderful people who later became keep the both management clients. But I did get pretty frustrated with the hourly business model just because I felt like I was working awfully hard. You can never build for as many hours as you actually work because everything always takes longer than you think and I was pretty frustrated with it. So I was at a nat for conference, actually in the fall of two thousand and six and just kind of grumbling about that with a woman that I had met another CFP. She was an owner of a feel only firm in Virginia. Wonderful Person, I'm we become fast friends and I was just talking with her because I didn't know it seemed to start an RIA firm from scratch that was going to have of a custodian relationship managed assets and do all the compliance and all the other things that needed to happen, all the infrastructure that needed to come into place to do that. It seemed really daunting to me and I had written in to the airport in a cab with a couple other nap for people and they were talking about all these things they were dealing with and I kind of put my head in my hands. I thought, Oh, this just sounds terrible. How am I going to do this? And I was explaining this to her and she said, honey, honey, these boys, they make everything sounds so complicated. You absolutely can do this and you need to get going. So that's what I did. So expends like just ferociously independent minded. It sounds like you made a decision not to work at another finacial planning firm to kind of develop your skills. You decided to dive in and just set up your own firm. I did and I saw I started. We really sort of launched with the first asset management clients in two thousand and seven. I had to convince a wellknown Mutual Fund company to allow me to put their mutual funds on my platform when I had zero clients and zero assets under management. How did you do that? Care with a little help for my friends. Honestly, I had another advisor that I gotten to know, that had relationship, and he kind of beat him up a little bit about letting me on the platform on your behalf, on my behalf, and then this well known mutual fun company and make another another little sort of funny woman joke. That was my my female friend in Virginia who was who had a relationship ship with that firm, and that firm wasn't calling me back. They weren't returning my phone calls and I complained to my friend Helen. I said they're not call me back, I can't get I can't get any traction there. She said, I'll take care of it. Apparently, she said she told them you need to talk with her. She has her CFA and she's tall and blond. So that got the call back and that's how we got started. said, but true, right, that mutual fun company. said, but true, you decided to launch. What were the best decisions you made around that time? What that led to your success? I think at that point, given where I was it was smart to start slowly. I had wonderful clients who I had developed relationships with as financial planning clients who became my early wealth management clients. That was a great way to start. You know, I certainly look back I see that there were a lot of mistakes I made. I learned for every single one of them and and change them and corrected them going forward. But you know, nothing is nothing is perfect. I think it was really important to network with as many people as possible who could help me figure out the things I need to figure out this particular again, my friend Helen and Virginia. I spent several days with her firm being sort of going to go into basically the school boot camp with her firm to figure out how they did everything, from how they write their investment policy statements. We talked about portfolio design, we you know, compliance everything. In fact, we became one another's investment committee. We were for several years. We met annually and and...

...did investment committee work together. I think of the profession that we're in and I think of the generosity of the folks in our profession to other people in the profession and that's that. That's just another great example of she didn't need to do that, she just did it out of the goodness of our heart. It's a pretty cool stuff and in the sign of how small our world is. I pretty sure I know who the hell and you're talking about is, but that's a sign of the the sort of mindset that a lot of people in our niche of the financial services industry have. They just want to help each other to succeed. Like all of us, I'm sure you've made mistakes and if you're like me, you've made some maybe big mistakes. Are there any in particular that you'd really like to have avoided? You know, I just thinking of our listeners as they're embarking on their careers and maybe they're entrepreneurial careers. Are there any in particular? I think it's tempting when you're starting a business to do to whatever you can do to get debt. It going to maybe take the client that you shouldn't have taken or agree to something that maybe you're not going to be happy with down the road. So I think when I think but the mistakes I've made, I would say make sure that we're always thinking about the long term consequences of the decisions that you make. So when you when you decide to work with a specific client that maybe isn't a good fit, it's going to come back to haunt you down the road. It's maybe think that through a little work carefully, or if you make an agreement to do something these things, you wind up sticking with these decisions for a long time. So okay, so you've found it your firm, you've networked and you've started done off site training course is with colleagues of yours and places like Virginia. How did Keek Lee Wealth Management Grow? well, we really grew organically. For the first couple of years we grew very slowly. I wasn't out really looking for clients. I had clients coming to me that had been hourly planning clients and wanted to transition over to the different business model and that was busy enough. But then a couple of years in, somebody named Jenny Martella started knocking all my door she was a former banker and was doing the whole CFP curriculum and challenging for the CFP and she, in the way she does, was networking interviewing all over town and one day set for a long ago, third or fourth launch over the period about eighteen you and I said well, I figured we were getting there because we'd been having a lot of lunches together and but that meant that for me we were going to have to we're I was gonna have to get real about this and commit to growing. When you when you're floating around in a boat and it's just you in the boat, the boat can can go slowly and do what it wants to do, but when other people start getting in the boat, I knew I was going to have to start growing the business a little more, a little more quickly. So we moved the end of two thousand and twelve. She came to work for me parttime. We moved into professional office space for the first time, retool the website and the business took off. So we we grew primarily word of mouth and through people coming to US based on a website. People were excited about of female owned firm. That's how we grew. We grew at about a twenty percent compound annual growth rate ever since that that time, because he's more some years less, but it was all, you know, all organic growth, and it was fun. Essentially, you kind of lost control of things once you hired that first person. Yes, I did, but I think in a good way. I think it needed to happen, but I think I was I was not making I was letting decisions be made for me rather than making the decisions on my own and and it turned out well. But I knew that I needed to commit myself to the business going forward. Fair to say that once you started working with Jenny, your experience of keeplee wealth management started changing from that point forward. It did, and then we within a year we had amy and then,...

...a couple years later, Erica and then Melissa. The other thing I will say one of the smartest things I ever I ever did was I hired women and allowed them to be flexible with their work life balance. A hired working moms. Every single one of these people is enormously talented and enormously committed to the work that they do and I don't think I would have gotten them had I not been that kind of a place where they could come and be themselves and know that they could get the work life balance they needed. And sometimes that wasn't real convenient for me because my kids at this point are a lot older than any but everybody else's that I worked with, and so I didn't have as many demands on my time, but it was well worth it. I got some really, really talented people. That's that's that's a great story to tell. And and you know, when you look at the last eight months, if somebody had told us this time last year that our entire team would have to work from home for over a year, we would have said no way in heck is are we going to be able to pull that off. But it goes to show how creative people are that they still are able to find ways to get it done even in this really unusual environment. It's been a it's been a tough environment and it's been interesting joining Modera and then not really having the opportunity to go and meet everyone. facetoface. A real challenge it's been. It's been a real challenge and it so I think that you know, when this whole thing lifts, you know I'm just going to be I'm going to be hanging out and Atlanta and Boston and North Jersey. I'm just going to start moving in for a week at various offices. I think that's particularly a plaquable to you know, not to single out moder, but the type of people we are, we like being around people and at this this past eight months has been a real challenge. I think you have to like being around people to do this job well, because that's that's what we are. We're in people's lives. Were talking about their money and it's fun. The clients energize me. Talk to me about the female element of Keetley wealth management. It seems like that's been a real strong point in your growth. It has been, and I think in I think when I started this whole endeavor, I thought that we would be a financial advisory from that catered to women clients, and it didn't really turn out to be that way. We have a lot of women clients. I think at the time of the merger about a quarter of our clients were single women. But I think what was such a surprise to me was how much the men wanted to work with a female advisor. Sometimes they just wanted a different touch. Sometimes I think maybe they feel that women are less confrontational or it's easier to be vulnerable with a woman. In some cases they wanted to hire us because they wanted somebody that their wife could relate to and become involved in the process with. There were a lot of different reasons, but most of our clients were married couples and oftentimes it was the man and the couple that was doing most of the interacting with us. But I do think soft skills are important and that's certainly something we have a lot of. We had a lot of it Keetley wealth management, and even down to how we decorated our office. We believed it was very important that our office just convey a feeling when you came in and sat down that was very much like a whole home or a living room that we that we just we pay attention to all aspects of the experience. What do you think about the future for females in the financial advisory profession? I think this is a great profession for women. I also think it's a great profession for women who are wanting to have a second career, and a lot of women do. A lot of women are like me, are taking time out of their careers to be home with kids and this is a great a great profession for that. Should the last section. I wanted to touch on was was really, after the the great success you experienced with Keatley, when did you start thinking that maybe you needed to do something different from what you had done from the outside of the firm? Well, I really...

...was thinking about it pretty early on because I knew that what we were doing was not going to be ultimately sustainable. The growth was quick in some ways we struggled to keep up with it. So I knew that either I was going to have to I was going to make a decision. I was going to have to decide either just to stop growing anymore and just to hunker down with the clients that we had and the people that we had, or we were going to have to come up with a different plan. And it didn't seem didn't seem right for the employees or for the clients, for us just to sort of hunker down and and stop growing. I was very aware that, you know, I had had for other people who had gotten on the boat with me and that they had careers that mattered and that I needed to make sure that that their careers continue to advance and that we also had over a hundred client families that we're working with us. That we're going to need a long term solution and I know I'm not going to be working. Here's my announcement. I'm not going to be working when I'm seventy years old. That is that isn't going to happen. I don't know when I'm going to retire, but these clients, who are essentially my age, they're going to need somebody after my career ends. So I felt a responsibility to do the right thing and find a find a place that could just give us continuity and let it and let things continue without me when I was even after I was ready to go. So I started having conversations with other firms years ago, some including Helen's firm. But the demographics didn't work out well for Helen's firm because they were all hurt. The partners were wanting to exit in a time frame that that wasn't going to work. You know, the our ages didn't dovetail well. I would have been one of the youngest partners and I needed younger partners, not older partners. And then there were a few other conversations that were had, but you know, I think all came down to sort of the stomach test. Do you like the people. Do you trust the people? And in the end that's why we wound up with Modera. Talk to me about your team's reaction. Just at a high level. Car must have been on settling for them that they've got this great thing going. And then there's it uncertainty around well, what's this going to be? Well, I think you're right, and amy said to me something is actually in a different context. But Amy, my office manager, said to me nobody likes change, especially when it doesn't benefit them. I think there was early on a perception that maybe this wasn't really going to benefit them at all. Why fix it if it isn't broken? So, but they needed to understand that that it was going to get broken. I could see a day when it was going to get broken. We weren't broken, but we couldn't continue the way we were. So I think initially there was reluctance to do this. I think. I think now that we're here and now that we're in what month, ten, month eleven of all this, I think people are seeing the opportunities and the energy, the potential for growth. I think everybody's feeling really good about it now. But initially, you know, I think there was. I think there's some mixed feelings. So many natural yeah, you know, you guys had a great thing going as five. Yeah, and we we had and we still have a great time together. Yeah, exactly. So what about your client families? Was it some somewhat similar? Client families were really positive about it, I think, with the exception of one that I can think of who had some concerns, most everybody. I think they weren't surprised. I think they all sort of knew that I wasn't going to be doing this forever and that something was going to have to happen. Many had been even been asking me for years, Karen, what happens when you retire, and you know, I didn't have a terrific answer. I had a sort of a vague answer or promises law make sure everything's great, but I didn't have a specific answer. So I think many cases they relieved to know what the transition was going to look like. So I think I think it was really positive. So I'll wrap it up here and I'll wrap it up with one last question, which is what was the last non financial related decision you had to make today? And that's a real stump over question.

My life was has not been very complicated so far today, so I have to say it was probably just what am I going to wear? Thank you, care thanks very much for your time today and for sharing your perspectives. Thanks car, thank you, and thank you for tuning in. We hope you'll join US next time on decision dialogs for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now. Thank you for listening to decision dialogs. We hope you found today's stories helpful for your own decisionmaking. If you like to listen to more episodes, you can subscribe on your preferred podcasting APP or visit our website, where you'll also find show notes and important disclosures. WWW DOT moder wellcom forward slash decision dialogs. This has been a production of twin flames studios.

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