INVESTMENT EXECUTIVE ARTICLE:
Advisor Jennifer Black is skipping the corporate route and succeeding by developing her own business model
BY: Patricia Chisholm
Financial advisor and mother Jennifer Black is the driving force behind her firm’s efforts to double the size of its book by moving to higher net-worth clients. Being her own boss provides key flexibility, Black says.
Jennifer Black’s office is on the modest side. It’s located on one end of a strip mall in Mississauga, Ont., the burgeoning, mostly residential city adjacent to Toronto’s western border.
But that’s where predictable ends when it comes to Dedicated Financial Solutions, the advisory practice that Black has been building along with her mother, chartered accountant Janet Baccarani, for the past decade.
Black is on a mission to double the size of their practice, (now at $50 million), shift it from 100% commission-based compensation to 100% fee-based compensation and change the client mix to a higher net-worth group while maintaining the overall number of 150 clients. She’s doing all this while raising two daughters, ages two and four, running regular client appreciation events and maintaining a busy website that dispenses free advice to people who are recently widowed. Black also recently published a book for this group called Managing Alone.
The debate over women’s failure to advance in the workplace typically focuses on the executive suite. But some women in business are making names for themselves by taking a different route. Like Black, they are skipping the relentless slog of face time, ladder climbing and the elbows-out competition demanded in many large companies, opting instead to build their own businesses in their own way.
So, how does Black do it? No, there’s no stay-at-home spouse; her husband works full-time in IT at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. And Black doesn’t stint on her other activities, playing tennis regularly. (She graduated in science and education from the University of Nebraska in 2003 while on a tennis scholarship.) So, how does Black not only maintain — but expand — a busy practice in an intensely competitive field while projecting not only composure but genuine enthusiasm for her work? Apparently, through an intense, court-style concentration that makes every move count.
Black draws clear lines between home and work, but those lines look a lot different than they do in the lives of many professionals. The key concept for Black is a wide-ranging flexibility that is independent of a daily formula. Work is always there — but so is family. “I was just at my daughter’s soccer game, working on my iPad,” she says, describing a particularly demanding period this past summer when she was finishing the book.
It helps when work is more than a job. “I really enjoy what we do here,” Black explains, “and I do work outside the office. But that’s why having the flexibility is so important. I know that if I want that break, I can take it. I can sit down with my kids and play that word game, or whatever. But I know I’m going to get some of this [work] stuff done tonight.”
Black also cites the support she enjoys by working with people in whom she has complete trust: her mother and the firm’s junior member, Kim D’Angelis. While Black puts in full business days, and has both before- and afterschool care, she also has the option of stepping out of the office early if she needs to. All of the firm’s records are digital, and Black keeps a mobile connection (usually, an iPad) with her at all times. And while she definitely keeps the business in its place when she’s at home, she does have a home office and will talk with clients in the evenings on occasion.
What’s key for working mothers, Black notes, is flexibility that extends beyond daily routines. For instance, Black and her husband recently purchased a home and the task of shifting the family from one house to another will take much more time than anticipated. But because Black works for herself, finding that time will be far less stressful than if she had to make special arrangements with an employer.
Not having to worry incessantly about family matters while at work, Black is able to deploy her full energies to the job. In her case, that means something of a wholesale overhaul of the business. While Black describes her mother’s practice as having been “comfortable” when Black joined a decade ago, she realized early on that “it was time to get moving.”
Others seem to be noticing. The firm is this year’s winner of the Top Choice Award for financial planners in Mississauga. Black is proud that many clients travel from as far afield as New York, Windsor, Ont., and Bobcaygeon, Ont., which is northeast of Toronto. Says Black: “They drive past hundreds of advisors to come and see us.”