Published February 17, 2009
Volume 17, Number 2

Financial Planner Rick Gross Advises: 'Focus on What You Can Control

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

What is life like for a financial planner these days? Rick Gross, a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor,  who owns an Ameriprise Platinum Financial Services practice in Hacienda, is taking the uncertain economy in stride.

Financial planning is a disciplined approach that helps manage emotion about money, Gross explains. "Many people right now are having a hard time making decisions," he comments. "There's a lot of paralysis."  But while acknowledging that this is an "unprecedented" time in our economy, he also points out that "it's not like we haven't seen events like this before—for example, large drops in the market.

"I see clients who have a financial plan responding to this economic turmoil much better than those without one," he continues. "A plan helps you weather the storm better, to be prepared for traumatic events. I think people need to focus on what they can control—their response to the environment. With a plan it's a little easier to know what to do."

As a financial advisor, Gross finds that his job entails a mix of discipline and encouragement. "Part of my role is to highlight the positives," he notes. That includes reminding clients of the wisdom of a diversified portfolio. "Not one of my clients is fully invested in the stock market. That's part of what we do," he remarks. Plus, "those with a plan are apt to have cash reserves, so if there is a sudden job loss they don't have to sell from their portfolio at the worst time. They are likely to have life and disability insurance, so if the unexpected happens, their families can still maintain their lifestyle."

In fact, it was the desire to prepare for his own family's future that led Gross to make the career change to financial planner back in January 1996. But even before that, there was his almost-accidental introduction to the field. When he and his wife, Melinda, were first married, in 1990, they soon found out that they held different views about things financial. The American Express bill came with a flyer inviting them to meet with a financial adviser at IDS, which is what Ameriprise was known as then. The couple accepted. "I still have the silver dollar offered as an inducement to go to the meeting," Gross smiles.

Growing up in Maynard, Massachusetts, the home of minicomputer manufacturer Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), he always had an interest in finance and investing. It was impossible to ignore DEC's meteoric rise during its glory days of the 1970s and 1980s. This was especially true for Gross since his father worked there as security guard. As a high school student, he got a summer job on the company's grounds crew. He eventually moved into the purchasing department, where he wound up working full-time while finishing his last two years at Boston College, for which DEC picked up the tab. After graduation he went through the company's sales training program, choosing to launch the next phase of his career in the burgeoning technology Mecca around San Francisco. Gross built up DEC's business in the education market, then advanced to the team selling to Pacific Bell. He left DEC in 1991 to join arch-rival Sun Microsystems, spending most of his five years with Sun in the building right across the courtyard from his Ameriprise office at 3825 Hopyard.

What prompted him to make the move into financial planning is a personal story Gross is accustomed to sharing. He and Melinda, a Southerner, got to know each other while both in sales at DEC. "The Mason-Dixon line met in California," he quips, alluding to their different backgrounds and preferences. When they married, their family included Rich, Melinda's eight-year-old son from her first marriage. Then the couple had a son, Kevin, born in 1991. When he was eight months old Kevin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. "He wasn't supposed to make it to his first birthday, but he will turn 18 this October," Gross confides. "He is a special needs child and he will always need extra care."

It has been a long journey for the family, as Gross recalls sleeping alternating nights in Kevin's hospital room during a course of chemo because he and Melinda decided they never wanted him to be in the hospital by himself. Later, there were six weeks of leaving work every day at 11 a.m. to drive Kevin to Sacramento for radiation treatments.

"We were very fortunate that our employers gave us the ability to take care of our son and keep working," Gross reflects. To ensure the flexibility continued, he decided to transform his own interest in financial planning into a business that would give him more control over his livelihood and work environment. "Once I leave the office, I become a care-giver. Kevin needs 24-hour attention," he relates.

As his practice grew, Gross acquired another Ameriprise office in South Lake Tahoe, where he now schedules several full days of appointments every few weeks. It was part of a long-term strategy not just to expand but to establish a base from which he can hit the ski slopes. "I grew up in New England, so I don't mind the cold, but Melinda, being from the South, wouldn't live in Tahoe full time. This is our compromise," he explains, quickly adding this caveat: "Never work with a financial planner who doesn't have his or her own plan!"

As essential as they are, all financial plans are unique, developed only after homing in on the specific needs and individual circumstances of each client. "Most important, we start with goals and dreams, asking 'Where do you want to go in life?' Ultimately, clients have things they want to accomplish. Savings and investments are a means, not an end in themselves," Gross advises.

Watching those dreams materialize for his clients has been an ongoing source of satisfaction. "I really love what I do," he comments. "It's tremendously rewarding to see people work towards their goals—educating their children, traveling, paying off their mortgage." Staying visible and available to clients is the cornerstone of his current strategy. There may not be too many opportunities to make money, but there is always work to do rebalancing portfolios, he says.  

Lately he has noticed a spike in calls from clients asking how he is doing. "My personal situation is very inspiring. These experiences also bring value to clients because I know what can happen," he contends.

Continuing in the vein of someone who practices what he preaches, he points out that he enters the year knowing that his income is going to be challenged. "I'm sticking with the plan, and I tell others to do the same thing. If you don't have one, what better time is there to figure out what you need?" Pausing to summarize his perspective, he opines, "We've had significant drops in the markets before, and they have recovered. In some cases it took a few years, but in this 'microwave-I-need-it-now' culture, patience is a hard thing for some people. We bring an incredibly emotional topic down to a non-emotional level so decisions made now will not be a matter of regret later."

For more information, visit www.ameripriseadvisors.com/richard.w.gross.


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