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“Ask the right questions.”, With Tyler Gallagher, David Greene and Joel Poznansky

Look for someone who is specific about returns as a % and relates them to an appropriate benchmark and the risk that implies (e.g. a large-cap US equity portfolio to the S&P 500 Index). And explains about risk and return. AND talks about variability. Having said which, it is fascinating that I heard from one of […]

Look for someone who is specific about returns as a % and relates them to an appropriate benchmark and the risk that implies (e.g. a large-cap US equity portfolio to the S&P 500 Index). And explains about risk and return. AND talks about variability. Having said which, it is fascinating that I heard from one of Bernie Madoff’s largest and smartest European clients that he trusted Madoff because the returns he promised were relatively modest.

As part of our series about what one should look for when hiring a financial planner or adviser, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Greene, principal and financial advisor at Bernstein Private Wealth Management, and his client and friend Joel Poznansky, president of the toy company, Wicked Uncle USA. David Greene received his MBA from Harvard Business School before joining McKinsey & Company and then the Washington Post Company, where he served among other roles as the president of Post-Newsweek Tech Media. David joined Bernstein Private Wealth Management as a financial advisor in 2008. He is the author of “Dollars and Sense: Ten Fundamentals of Financial Success” and the host of the Dollars and Sense podcast. Joel Poznansky, also an HBS and McKinsey alumni, sold a music education company in 1999 and ran a publishing services company before purchasing CBIS, a 50-year-old Washington specialty business directory publisher. He is the author of “Information Unbound: Publishing in 2020”. In 2016 he became Chairman of CBIS and moved to his first startup, Wicked Uncle USA.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

David: Money can be mysterious when you don’t have any, and it can be mysterious in different ways when you do. In my 20s and 30s, I was very interested in making money. When I achieved financial independence in my 40s, I became more interested in making money meaningful. I feel privileged now to help others along on that same journey. In my book I suggest that career success comes most easily where talent, marketability, and passion intersect. For me, that intersection has been in wealth management.

Joel: I left business school determined to run a business or organization. I had very much enjoyed my brief time at McKinsey but enjoyed my time in the military, as a platoon commander, even more. But taking my studies at business school too literally I did not differentiate between businesses and went into a beautifully run, public company, with a wonderful boss, in a growing, prosperous industry- electronic components, and got the precise job I wanted as the youngest President of a manufacturing division on Long Island. It only took me 5 years to get myself out of that job, by successfully selling the company — and I begin looking for an industry in which I would actually be interested. And thus essentially to publishing and my own company.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting in the industry? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Joel: Well, my first mistake, on reflection after just completing over 20 years in publishing was probably not to listen to David’s excellent career advice to stay away from such a challenging industry in meltdown as a result of the internet — which he had first-hand experience of at Post Newsweek.

I have taught a master’s course on the business of publishing and I start by asking if anyone can think of an industry shaken by the entrant of a major new player offering very comparable services for free. Which essentially is what the internet began providing in the late 1990’s for many forms of publishing. Particularly news publishing, reference publishing and directory publishing. Sometimes a student will mention the ice industry. But I was intrigued by the answer in my last class. One student suggested prostitution has had the same challenge with the rise of casual, relatively free sex since the 1950’s! For my next career, I will probably listen more closely to David’s career advice.

David: The mistake I keep making over and over again in my life is not remembering the difference between the things I can change and the things that I can’t change. Sanford C. Bernstein, who founded the investment firm where I work today, said that good investors know that they can’t control the markets. But they can and do control how they react to the markets.

When I was a newer advisor, I didn’t understand how much investor psychology impacts investor success. I didn’t fully understand how different investors define success differently. As I’ve gotten more experienced as an advisor, I tend to have a lot more humility, and I ask a lot more questions.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Joel: After 20 years in publishing, and particularly after the acquisition and attempted turnaround of a larger publisher, Thompson Information Services, I wanted a change. And my project now has been helping a British friend set up a very interesting, curated children’s gift company. It is a commercial venture, and I have had to learn a whole lot about e-commerce and SEO, but, in addition to the fun of testing unique toys and trying to match them to children, we do handwritten birthday and holiday cards. The company, Wicked Uncle, was designed for gift givers looking for unique and new ideas, but the cards really connect you to the gift givers. You see how important gift giving is and writing loving messages from grandparents, relatives or friends to a child is very therapeutic!

David: My podcast is an extension of my journey into understanding what makes money meaningful. How much money is enough? How do we help our children become good stewards of wealth? How do we integrate our values — around the environment, social responsibility, or other issues — into our investing? How do we integrate philanthropy? What do we want our legacy to be? The podcast is exciting to me for a lot of reasons. Learning the ins and outs of podcasting — audio engineering, posting and promoting audio content online — has been an adventure.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

Joel: I absolutely had a “tipping point”- and fortunately it was in that first position running a company. I had been sent over to report on and then run a troubled company. We stopped losing money relatively quickly but then it was hard going to improve further, and, frankly, no fun, until I recruited a new CFO when the old one retired. A brilliant guy from the Bronx, and he became my mentor. My mistake was very simple. If a business has been run into the ground, chances are the senior management has something to do with it. And, in a business turnaround, getting better people is key. So obvious in retrospect. Finding better people is not easy, but once we did, we began seeing success. And some of those excellent people were already in the company, but stifled and demoralized by senior management. The takeaway for me was obvious. With the three other major turnarounds I have been involved with, I have moved much more quickly. But then two years before changing any personnel is a low bar!

David: Getting started as a financial advisor can be difficult. Until you have a track record of delivering good advice and great client service, people are (for good reason) slow to trust you. This is a business built on trust. I was fortunate to have a great mentor at Bernstein who brought me under his wing in 2008. That was a difficult time and we served our clients well through the stormy waters.

What three pieces of advice would you give to your colleagues in the finance field to thrive and avoid burnout? Can you give a story or example?

David: Confucius said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I feel unbelievably blessed to do what I do. I work with people — my clients and my colleagues at Bernstein — whom I respect and appreciate and learn from every day. In finance and in every other field where I have any experience this has been true — the secret to success is people, people, people.

Joel: So your three pieces of advice are “people, people, people?”

David: Absolutely. Who you work with and who you work for.

Joel: And I thought you told me the secret of career happiness and avoiding burnout was “Vocation, vocation, vocation”!

Ok. Thank you for all of that. Let’s now move to the core focus of our interview. As an “finance insider”, you know much more about the finance industry than most consumers. If your loved one wanted to hire a financial advisor (not you :-)), which 5 things would you advise them to find out about before committing? Can you give an example or story for each?

Joel: We agreed David should go first. So this is based on David’s experience as a financial advisor and my experience as a client. And it’s interesting that our lists didn’t totally coincide. We both agreed on the obvious things — checking that the person works with people like you in terms of personality and scale of assets and checking that they understand you well enough even before you meet in person to give you references that are similar to you. Checking that they have decent credentials and just their professionalism in terms of their efficiency and intelligence in getting back to you.

But over to David, for the 5 less obvious things to investigate before you hire anyone.

David:

  1. Ask who manages his/her mother-in-law’s money. Everyone always asks: do you manage your own money alongside your clients’ money? That’s a good question. But I worry much less about investing my own money than I worry about investing my clients’ money. As a fiduciary, I have an equal responsibility to all my clients. But who do I most worry about pleasing or upsetting? My mother-in-law….
  2. Ask what kind of car he/she drives, and why. At the end of the day, wealth is built or destroyed by spending decisions as much as by investing decisions. Just as there is no investment program that is right for everyone, everyone spends money on different things in different ways. But someone who is good with money is good with money — that person thinks thoughtfully about both how they invest and how they spend. See if you can understand how your advisor thinks about money, and whether his or her thought process resonates with you.
  3. Ask whether he/she owns or leases their car and why. You’ll learn a lot about how your advisor thinks about complex issues like leverage and debt by talking through simple examples of those practices — like the decision of whether to rent or buy a home, own or lease a car. If your advisor can answer simple, real-world questions in a clear, concise, and compelling manner — you’re off to a good start.
  4. Ask where he/she thinks the market will go from here. If the answer is anything other than “I don’t know — and neither does anyone else” — you should be worried. One of the most important predictors of investment success is humility. If you’re not honest about what you know and what you don’t know — honest first and foremost with yourself — you won’t make good decisions.
  5. Ask him/her to tell you about his biggest regret (when it comes to his own financial experience or the advice he has given his clients). Again, this is about humility, and learning from experience. People in our culture are so focused on success. But success is built on experience, and experience comes from making — and learning from — mistakes.

Joel: All great questions — but interestingly they didn’t overlap with the ones I asked before selecting David. And it was actually thanks to certain questions — and his answers — that I did choose him, even though, of course, we had already known each other well and were friends.

So here goes with my 5 Questions to ask.

1. Will he tell you where he keeps his funds and how he allocates them. To me, that is like a car salesman demonstrating that the car he sells you is the one he always drives. Check- David did. And a financial adviser would need to explain why his risk profile is different from yours or why he is not using the firm he represents.

2. Did he work at a senior enough level in another business that they show a real understanding of businesses and understand the analysis being done by the analysts so they can explain it clearly. Check- see David’s resume.

3. Look for someone who is specific about returns as a % and relates them to an appropriate benchmark and the risk that implies (e.g. a large-cap US equity portfolio to the S&P 500 Index). And explains about risk and return. AND talks about variability. Having said which, it is fascinating that I heard from one of Bernie Madoff’s largest and smartest European clients that he trusted Madoff because the returns he promised were relatively modest.

4. Does this person volunteer whether these returns being discussed are before or after fees.

And 5. Does this person disclose openly how risks involved are not just about the scale of % returns but about the variability of the returns. That very smart Madoff investor regretted that he was not suspicious about the lack of variability of those returns.

I think most people think that financial advisors are for very wealthy people. This is likely not actually true. Can you explain who would most benefit from hiring a financial advisor and why? Can you give an example?

David: Very wealthy people and less wealthy people have different financial problems. Their advisors need to have different sets of skills and access to different kinds of investment solutions to help solve those different problems. People who have complex financial lives benefit from finding an advisor who can help navigate that complexity successfully. The complexities facing a young entrepreneur at a start-up are different from those facing a senior executive at a public company, which are different from those facing a family with children with special needs or a couple going through a divorce. But if you have complexity in your financial life, you will probably benefit from working with someone who has helped others with similar kinds of issues before.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Joel: I know it’s trite but there are just too many people. But I would like to single out my first company commander, Anthony Biggs, and the head of the first company I worked for, Peter Curry, founder and leader of Unitech plc. Not just for trusting me with my first operational roles — but for a very similar, insightful and practical clarity of thought. Unitech operated about 20 separate companies, with centralized financial and strategic oversight, but a lot of freedom given at the company level. At one point, I was required to negotiate hard with a sister company for transfer pricing on an item we were going to distribute in the USA. To me, it didn’t make sense: we were one company after all, and both the MD of the UK company and my US company both held stock in the parent company. Peter explained that the culture was one of decentralized authority, and if he interfered in the transfer pricing issue, that wouldconfuse what each President was and felt responsible for and have other negative repercussions. As he said, a corporate group could be decentralized or centralized in terms of culture, but not both.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

David: Each and every day, we can spend our money and our time in ways that make the world a better place — or not. What’s important to me and you — what I prioritize and what you prioritize — will be different things. I’m not here to tell you what to prioritize. But I do want to help you make your list. Because too many people don’t think these questions through. It is so easy to be passive and reactive when it comes to big, important questions — because the little, less important questions take up so much time and space in our lives. But if you don’t have a plan, you’re much less likely to reach your goal. Without a map, you’re more likely to get lost. I’m trying to figure out the answers to these questions for myself. How do I make the two things I have to give in life — money and time — most meaningful? Helping others to think through these same questions is incredibly helpful to me on my own journey, and hopefully I can be helpful to others as well.

Joel: Is that a movement.

David: If inspiring people to explore and express meaning in their lives isn’t a movement, then I guess I’m not interested in inspiring a movement.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Joel: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joel-poznansky-9816544/

David: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidpgreene/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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