Kimberlee Orth’s husband and four children all work at her $2.3 billion
wealth management practice, but she says she wouldn’t have considered hiring them if they didn’t fit her demanding, client-first culture. “It’s a wonderful business, and I’m not interested in ruining this business because you happen to have some of my DNA,” says Orth, a veteran advisor of 35 years.
Speaking with Barron’s Advisor, the head of Wilmington, Del.-based Orth Financial Group explains how she brought those family members aboard without ruffling the feathers of existing team members. She shares a lesson she learned as a rookie advisor that she passes on to her own employees today. And she reveals the reason she leaves her laptop at the office at the end of the day.
Where are you from? I grew up in New Jersey, in a small community on the Delaware River called Roebling. It was started by John A. Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge, as a mill town. That was our claim to fame.
Were either of your parents in financial services? No one in my birth family is in this business. But I do come from a family of entrepreneurs. My mother’s parents owned three businesses—auto body, truck rentals, and truck sales—and my mom, my uncle, my father and my grandfather’s brother all joined the business. So this concept of a successful family business is something I have a lot of personal experience with.
More about that in a moment. First, how did you become a financial advisor? I was working at a local hospital after I graduated with a business degree from the University of Delaware, and I wasn’t feeling the degree of satisfaction that I wanted to feel. My then-boyfriend, now my husband, said, “I think you should be a financial advisor.” This was 35 or 36 years ago. He said, “Everybody’s going to need a financial advisor. It’s an up-and-coming business. I think you should go for your [Certified Financial Planner] designation, and you should get into this business. You will be really good at this.”
He has a very persuasive personality. He helped me sign up for the CFP program. I might have taken one or two CFP exams—back then you took six different ones—and I found that I liked it and was good at it. He said, “You should apply for a job at IDS Financial Services—that’s what they do.”
Wait a minute. How did your future husband know all those things about the industry way back then? Was he an advisor himself? He was not. But he owned a successful business, and he was very interested in investments and money management and all of that. He had signed up for the CFP program before I did because he always thought he was going to sell his business and then go into this business. So I went to IDS and interviewed, and the division manager who interviewed me was astonished that I was in the CFP program. The rest is history, as they say.
How did you go about building your book of business? Did you just open a phone directory and start calling? We used to prospect a little differently. We would have seminars and do mailings and that sort of thing. I did some of that. My district manager was a big fan of asking for referrals: He thought it was the most effective way to acquire new clients. He told me: “Look, in every single meeting ask the client, after they’ve expressed satisfaction and happiness with what you’ve done, ‘Is there anyone else who you know who could benefit from working with a knowledgeable and trustworthy advisor?’” So I just learned from the beginning that this is what you do. I still do it. And I teach my team to do it.
Do you think it’s easier for advisors to break into the business today than it was when you started out? I never think this business is easy. I think it gets easier when you work hard, when you are knowledgeable, when you keep yourself knowledgeable about what’s going on, and when you know your clients. So I would say it’s different but not easier.
You’ve grown your practice to 25 people. What’s your philosophy when it comes to hiring? I’m very picky. I’m extremely protective of the culture at Orth Financial Group. We hire nice people, friendly people, hard workers, people who first and foremost want to help make good choices. We spoil our clients, and they’re used to it. If I hire someone who is a diva or who just wants to get on to the next thing and doesn’t really care about finishing the thing they were working on, that’s not going to work in this practice. We need people who are going to do their own work and do it at a high level, excel at that, and really develop deep and lasting relationships with clients and provide real value to clients.
Several of your family members work at the business now. Can you describe that process? My husband was the first family member to join my team. He sold his other business in 1993 and is an advisor on my team. Our daughter Katie has been with us for five or six years. She was 24 or so when she came to work with us. She had worked at
in London, and she wanted to come back to the U.S. My husband, who thinks financial planning is the best career on the planet, started to talk to Katie about joining us. She started in a financial planning role, got all her licenses, and was working as a concierge for me. We promoted her to advisor when she was ready. She’s had spectacular success, so when it was time for my middle two children to graduate from college, the conversation was easier. They’ve both been with me about three years now and were just promoted to advisor. My youngest child, a freshman at the University of Delaware, is an intern in my practice.
How did you avoid ruffling feathers among existing staff? I mentioned earlier how protective I am of my culture. And I’ve spent energy, time, and money building this practice. It’s a wonderful business, and I’m not interested in ruining this business because you happen to have some of my DNA. If you’re incapable of being a great financial advisor or a great worker on my team, there really won’t be a place for you. If you can be great, there is a place for you.
Six of the 11 advisors on my team are younger than me, and I think of them all as my children. I care deeply about the people that I work with every day. I don’t feel like I treat anybody differently. They might see it differently. My kids might say, “You’re harder on us than you are on anyone who’s not related to you.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. Maybe sometimes you speak more sharply to someone you’ve known since the time they were zero.
I presume your children will take over the business someday. Don’t presume anything. It will be a collection of individuals, most likely some of whom I am related to. I’m just starting to do work on this. It’s a very big project. The good news is I’m not ready to retire just yet. The bad news is at some point in the next 20 years, I will. So I need to start working on it, not just thinking about it. I want the most capable people running this business. And if some of them are my children, that’s great.
Speaking of your family, how did you manage to raise four children while building your business? It really does take a village, and it does help if you are very organized, have excellent childcare and excellent schools, and a very engaged partner. My husband and I are definitely a team when it comes to raising our children. We’ve always partnered very well. If I had to work late, he would pick the kids up from school or whatever, and he would get them home and get dinner started and all that. If I was able to do it, then I would do it.
Can you share a couple of keys to your own career success? There’s no substitute for hard work in this business. I think if you work hard, if you persevere, if you are persistent, if you go the extra mile for clients, you will have success. Having said that, you also have to know what your boundaries are. And it’s really good to have self-awareness as to how you work and when you’re most effective. If you know you really can’t get anything done before 10 a.m., that you’re just not a morning person, come in and start working at 10 and work until 7.
What do you mean by knowing your boundaries? I’ll speak for myself. I get so much satisfaction from this work that I would seriously do it all day long and all night long. So my rule is I leave work at work. When I go home, I’m home. I don’t take my computer home with me. I live five minutes from my office, so I can run over if I need something. But I also know that if I took my computer home, I would check my email, I would just do a little bit of work for one hour, which would turn into two, and then maybe I wouldn’t be spending time with my family or doing other things that are also important.
What is your market outlook for 2023? We’re expecting more volatility for most of the year. We like defensive stocks more than growth stocks, although if you already own growth stocks, hold them, I would say, ride through it. We like value. We like dividend generators, healthcare, financials, utilities, that sort of thing.
A lot of advisors are helping their clients through layoffs these days. Have you found yourself doing that? Yes, I have. Those clients, because they didn’t choose to leave their job, have a lot of anxiety. But the job market is still good. You can still find a job if you have a good skill set and if you have a good work history. It’s harder today than it was maybe a year ago, but you can still do it. Companies are still hiring. So it’s not dire, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just life. You lose jobs, you get jobs. There are births, there are deaths, marriages, divorces. It’s all part of life, and we’re here to help you get through all of it.
Given the past year’s bear market, are you a bit more hesitant to spend on the business? I don’t hesitate to invest. If you hesitate, you could miss a great opportunity. And while your margins might get tighter, if you invest at a time when the revenues are not as strong, you may miss an opportunity. Or when you’re ready to hire that next person or the next two people, maybe they will already be employed somewhere else.
How do you relax and recharge? I love to travel. I’ve always been a traveler. This year, I’m probably going on eight different trips. They include a partial Camino along the northern route from Santander to Santiago. [The Camino de Santiago is a network of historic pilgrimage routes ending in Santiago, Spain.—Eds.] I am also going to northern Italy and Rome.
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