Published September 18, 2012
Volume 20, Number 9

Frontier Wealth Strategies’ Mary Hanson: Inspiring Clients to Reach Their Goals

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Not counting her childhood lemonade stand, Mary Hanson, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), is in her third career, and if she has her way this is the one that will take her into retirement.

Like many people who have shifted professions, she first encountered the field from the customer side, in the process of working with a financial advisor to sketch out her own retirement. The planner, a friend, observed that she took to the discipline naturally, thus planting a seed that took some time to germinate. Five years later, she made the decision to leave a successful career in real estate to establish a new career as a financial advisor.

After earning the requisite professional credentials, she joined an existing wealth advisory firm. Six years later, in late 2009, she and another colleague broke off to set up a boutique independent planning firm. They have since welcomed two more CFP colleagues, all working under the umbrella of Frontier Wealth Strategies. Each has their own practice and set of clients, but they do partner on some cases and benefit from sharing infrastructure support.

Another thing they share is a high regard for the CFP designation, “the concept of giving individual advice without being beholden to any corporate product or service.” Frontier Wealth Strategies is small and independent, but its network of relationships gives it “larger-company backing.” Cambridge Investment Research handles most back-office and compliance functions, and TD Ameritrade acts as the custodian and clearinghouse for most transactions. “They hold our clients’ money, which provides a level of safety and security,” she comments.

This past March, Hanson decided to make life easier for her Tri-Valley clients by opening a second office in Hacienda's Pleasanton Business Center. “I have a lot of contacts in the Pleasanton area, and decided it was time to set up shop here.”

Hanson developed her Tri-Valley contacts during 17 years selling real estate, career number two. It was an excellent fit and she was quite successful. She specialized in residential transactions but also took on occasional commercial properties, such as 1031 exchanges and multi-family units for the small investor.

In 2004 she left the real estate industry. Even though the market was still booming, Hanson felt it was time for new challenges and business opportunities. She had earned an M.B.A. in finance and understood the importance of sound money management. The seed that had been planted during her own retirement planning had sprouted and was ready to branch out.

Some commonalities between her old and new professions made for a smooth transition. “Being a CFP allows me to take what I learned in real estate—the interaction with clients, the ability to see results. I went from helping people with the housing part of their lives to helping them look at the entirety of their financial picture.”

The big picture view was something she had been seeking since her first career, which started after she graduating from Cal State Sacramento with a degree in business. Hanson had been recruited by Pacific Telephone and moved back to the South Bay, not far from where she grew up, to work as a project manager. It was “interesting and fun,” for a while but eventually became frustrating as she got to see only a few pieces of “the gigantic puzzle.” Ultimately, Hanson determined it was not a good match. “The corporate world is very much about drawing inside the lines, while I kept wondering what would happen if I could step outside the box.”

Having done clerical work in real estate offices while in college, she got interested in the residential market and studied for her license. “I worked part-time for a while, and then morphed into full time in 1987.”  Her initial focus was the Tri-Valley, later expanding north to include Walnut Creek and Concord.

Throughout her business career, Hanson has always seen herself as a leader, a position she continues to occupy today. Perhaps the most striking leadership lesson she recalls is the one that came from many years in the volunteer community, working on projects for her church, Habitat for Humanity, the American Association of University Women, and Shepherd’s Gate, among others .

“Leadership is probably more challenging in the volunteer world,” she comments, pointing out that in business, employees must follow directions and get along, or their jobs are at risk. By contrast, in the volunteer world roles and rules are much less clear, and “you can’t fire someone.”

The key is knowing how to motivate others, a skill carefully applied to her planning practice. “I can’t just tell clients what to do, I have to inspire them to act. My style is to explain what we are doing and why it makes sense, how it fits in to the big picture. For example, I might point out that if they saved $500 more per month, they would be able to reach their goals that much faster. When they see they are moving in the right direction, they are very encouraged and keep at it.”

Hanson’s practical approach to leadership has also taught her that the same objective can be accomplished in several different ways. “I had always viewed finance as a science—you crunch the numbers, and math doesn’t lie.”

Planning, however, entails dealing with an assortment of investment scenarios, uncertainty, and divergent personalities. To create the most appropriate strategy, Hanson asks clients what they want their life to look like well into the future. “What’s on their Top 10 list? What are they passionate about?” Brainstorming follows to arrive at the best set of solutions, typically a blend of strategies, for meeting those goals.

“Clients often have several accounts, for short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. We affectionately call these ‘life’s buckets.’ Although most people don’t view it this way, finance is in many ways an art. I myself only realized this in the last couple of years.”

Hanson also had an “aha!” moment recognizing the importance of chemistry with colleagues and clients. “If it's not there, you shouldn't work together, but when it is present, it builds relationships and enhances the results you can achieve,” she observes.

In addition, an individual's social “personality” does not necessarily match his or her financial “personality,” also known as risk tolerance. Hanson has encountered many “go-for-the-gusto” entrepreneurs who are very conservative financially, and vice-versa. Thus her conclusion that planning “really is a mix of art and science.”

That blend is apparent in her own life’s journey. During her childhood in Saratoga, considered a wealthy community, her parents insisted that when she wanted special treats she could earn the money to buy them. Even back in elementary school Hanson exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit, overcoming shyness to knock on neighbors’ doors looking for odd jobs.

That strong work ethic, coupled with her sense of independence, have led Hanson to a career in which she flourishes by inspiring others. “I think there’s enough here to keep me challenged for the next 15 to 20 years.”


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