Encourage middle and high schools to incorporate personal financial basics into their courses. Before a student graduates from high school, they should understand the importance of budgeting, saving for short term and long term, how to open up bank accounts, the risk/reward of credit, basics of personal taxation, and how to file a simple tax return.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie L. Sullivan, CPA, CFP® Chief Financial Officer at tru Independence, where she supports the organization’s mission of empowering investment professionals with the tools and support they need to create successful independent investment advisory and wealth management firms — while maintaining 100% ownership stake of their new entity. Jamie has considerable years of finance and accounting experience and enjoys sharing her strategic insights, financial management wisdom, and leadership skills with tru Independence and its independent financial advising clients. She started her career as an auditor with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she primarily worked within the investment management sector. She then worked as a financial advisor and CFO for a boutique independent advisor firm before transitioning into the niche market of providing middle- and back-office services to independent financial advising firms. In this role, she harnesses her expertise to provide value and guidance to a larger audience of financial advisors, executives, and business owners.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
When I look back at how I got to where I am today, both in my personal and professional life, it’s quite an ironic and amusing tale. My own version of the Alchemist, if you will. I started my career as an auditor with one of the big four accounting firm’s in Pittsburgh where I was placed in their Investment Management (IM) division at random. Though auditing investment funds may not have been my first choice, it was because of that specific sector that I was able to easily relocate with the firm to San Francisco.
After a number of years with the firm, I came to a point of internal struggle and angst. As many are aware, the formative years at one of the big four firms are rigorous, intense and all-time consuming. Despite the foundational accounting and industry knowledge and expertise I had gained, I felt a greater balance missing in my life. A longing that could only be alleviated by taking a leap of faith.
Despite a promotion, and against the advice of many, I left the firm and a promise of the partnership track and threw myself into non-profit/community-minded endeavors. The journey started with me joining AmeriCorps, where I performed environmental conservation work throughout the wild and public lands of California. I then continued on to the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona to fully immerse myself in sustainable farming, which later led to me doing community and economic development work in the border town of Nogales, AZ.
Despite my social services period, I always found my natural analytical abilities continually peeking out, and felt an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, intellect and professional comradery. So with that, I thoughtfully moved into the financial advice industry where I knew I could achieve the necessary balance between my personal and professional interests and needs.
The lesson I glean from all of this is to follow the desire of the heart and soul, expect obstacles, hurdles, and doubts, and don’t be surprised if you come back around full circle. Sometimes it’s taking the long way around that makes you realize and appreciate your unique gifts and talents.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Well, as I write this we are in the throes of a global pandemic environment that has and will impact the lives of billions. Given this, the current project at hand relates to ensuring our company’s financial position is in order to maintain our service levels and expertise for our independent financial advisor clients, and ultimately their end-clients. In these times of fear and volatility, it starts with performing stress tests and projections to make certain we are braced for a variety of situations and understand how to maneuver through and around them. During these times, I lean more towards being realistically conservative from a financial perspective so our firm is spending our money wisely and knowingly making every dollar count. The government stimulus package has also added new elements to the equation, we as a firm, are researching and exploring with other thought leaders to determine what we can internally incorporate into our firm, while providing guidance and insight to our clients and greater professional networks. Despite the global quarantine and volatility, I, as well as the rest of my leadership team, have great optimism and see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s our job to light that path for others.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I graciously joined tru Independence because of the culture and collective intellect. Our culture is based on appreciation, empowerment, and a ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality. Couple that with the decades upon decades of collective experience and knowledge amongst all the personnel, and you have an ideal firm to call home. As culture and intellect are the foundation of this firm, our sense of purpose and optimism across the board glue it together. It is a refreshing and motivating environment to work in knowing there is a caring work-family that always has your back. It’s evident that tru Independence has spent its formative years building an intimate and agile firm, and we’re all excited to take it to new heights.
Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all boys club.” This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
This is a very deep question as the progress toward equality has been thousands of years in the making. Based on written literature, articles and first-hand tales, it took generations of women and other minority groups champing at the bit, persevering, and pushing the boundaries to get to where we are today. We are standing on the pillars of many that came before us that questioned the status quo, got their foot in the door, and helped bring others in. It also took members from the other side, the so-called ‘boys club’, to open up to the idea that the workplace can be filled with all walks of life, and not just the privileged few. We all bring plentiful cards to the table, and it took many attempts to finally get to play a round. Though, it’s worth noting how far we have come today, we still have a ways to go in terms of diversifying Wall Street and the greater finance industry.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to a report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?
1. Listening vs. Speaking. Understanding when to listen and when to speak. All great leaders have an innate ability to genuinely listen, which is such an important trait to embody. On the reverse side, it’s very important also to have the confidence to speak up and ensure you voice is being heard.
2. Tone and Culture. Company leadership needs to acknowledge that they ultimately set the tone and atmosphere of the workplace. An encouraging and mentoring environment fosters immense joy, drive, and productivity across all personnel levels. Workplace culture is defined by the tone from the top and foundationally supported by the greater workforce. To have both leadership and staff in unison, that’s where company growth and progress can really take off.
3. Inclusivity and Mentorship. Many of us got to where we are today because of our own personal drive and the assistance of a few helping hands and mentors. It’s important to bring people under your wing and mentor them. Be the leadership you seek.
According to a report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience, what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?
Financial literacy starts at home and needs to be further reinforced as part of our schooling (primary, secondary and college). The unfortunate numbers we are seeing in Americans today are most likely due to shortfalls in parent’s and educator’s basic financial principals, which impacts their ability to deliver it to their kids and students. You do not have to be brought up in the priviledged household or in the financial industry to understand the very basics of how to manage your own finances.
Three things I would recommend:
- Encourage parents to get educated on their own financial situation first, and explore different ways of teaching their children the value of money and the variety of ways it can be used — spend, save/invest, and giving. For many years money seemed to be a topic that families did not want to discuss, and that mindset seems to have caused a bit of a rout in how we’re educating the next generations.
- Encourage middle and high schools to incorporate personal financial basics into their courses. Before a student graduates from high school, they should understand the importance of budgeting, saving for short term and long term, how to open up bank accounts, the risk/reward of credit, basics of personal taxation, and how to file a simple tax return.
- Colleges offering (and potentially requiring) a personal finance course to all students, not just those in business-related programs. It may sound redundant, but I learned and grasped concepts much differently in college than I did in my secondary schooling. The personal financial planning and taxation courses I took in college still form the bedrock of my financial mindset today.
You are a “finance insider.” If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.
Cash Flow/Budgeting — Everything about personal finance starts with understanding your own personal/household situation. At a minimum, I would recommend putting together an annual budget, and updating as needed, especially if there are any major life-changing events that are on the horizon (new job, marriage, new baby, etc). Generally, I would start with historic financial spending data (from bank and/or credit card) paired with your pay stubs. From there, you can fill in categories for income, savings, retirement savings, debt payback, and all other household expenses. This process makes one come to grips with the income they bring in and where that money will most likely go. Next, start setting goals, managing overspending categories, and tweaking where to put more of your money. There are great apps/software and templates available that make this process easy, and dare I say — fun. Personal Capital and YNAB are great options for folks looking to modernize the budgeting approach and trying to get serious in evaluating their actual cash flows.
Short-Term Savings — Savings can be thought of in a variety of categories, but ultimately it comes down to short-term and long-term savings — each with their own taxation nuances. From a short-term aspect, it should be a goal of many households to build up a short-term, rainy day savings of at least six months (more or less based on your situation). This account can help a household cover unexpected expenses (car repair), weather a storm (COVID-19), or help manage larger annual/semi-annual lump payments (car insurance). I’d go another step further and recommend working with an expert to put it in a high-yield savings account, and consider setting up direct deposit to ensure you maintain your saving goals. If you are saving for big ticket items, like buying a house, consider keeping those funds in your high-yield savings account where they are safe from any market fluctuations or volatility.
Long-term savings — We are no longer in the era of pensions. They are still around, but not the prominent retirement fixtures they once were. It’s tremendously important to realize that individuals and households are responsible for their own retirement savings. One should make it a goal to be saving at least 10–15% of their pay towards retirement. This could all be done with a company offered plan (like a 401k or 403b), self-employed retirement plans, and/or an individual retirement account (IRA). In an ideal world, the goal for each individual would be to max out your company plan and an individual IRA. Since that may not be possible for many, the goal should be to contribute however much you need to max out your employer match, and from there, increase your contribution 1 percent at a time if you are feeling cash constraints. Another tremendously important tip — save as much as you can when you are young and single. Time value of money is a blessing, and the only way to reap the benefits is to save and invest money for as long as you can.
Credit Cards — Credit worthiness can make or break an individual or household. Respect the credit game at its basic level and you will set yourself up for financial success. While credit cards can be lifesavers for many and heaven for perks and points for others, before you sign up for any credit card, understand the risk that’s involved. The best recommendation is to pay off your credit card balance in full each month. This will be the quickest way to build up your credit. Do not use the credit card to help pay for frivolous expenses that you shouldn’t or can’t afford. Use a credit card wisely. Try not to fantasize or get pulled into the lore of points/perks. That skill level is best reserved for someone that has a very good handle on their financial situation. If you are having trouble getting a credit card, start with a prepaid card, allow yourself to buy a couple things you know you can pay monthly. Even if it’s just your phone bill or a tank of gas– start there, pay the balance in full each month, and eventually, you will reap the rewards of having a good credit score.
Debt — Like with credit cards, know what you are getting into before you sign the dotted line. Understand the terms and how much money it’s going to cost you to pay it back. Do you really need the bigger house, because your lender says you can afford it? Or can you get by with a smaller house/mortgage? Student loans may be hard to avoid, but think long and hard about taking out $80–100k in loans, unless you know the earning potential is there after school. Consider creative alternatives to avoid student loans, or take a very hard look to ensure your education will eventually reap the benefits to pay loans and allow the life you want.
Taxation — Work to understand the very basics of personal taxation and how they relate to you/your household. Retirement accounts, health savings account, and education saving account offer many taxation benefits. You will want to make sure to utilize those accounts to the best of your abilities.
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?
There are a handful of people that have mentored and aided in my trajectory. One of the dearest is Lisa Gaston, a senior manager from a previous job in San Francisco. Lisa was a leader in the firm’s Sales and Marketing department, and she was a welcomed breath of fresh air after coming off of a long busy season. Working in tandem with her gave me the opportunity to see different facet of the firm and its stronghold position in the greater marketplace due to the efforts of the Sales and Marketing team.
There were a variety of things I learned from working directly with Lisa — mainly that it was possible to love what you do and who you do it with. Whether she knew it or not, many of our conversations were mentoring sessions and just the medicine I needed to put myself out there in the world. Through Lisa’s encouragement, I became very involved in volunteering endeavors throughout SF and also led several company-wide volunteer events.
Through the years, Lisa and I have always stayed in touch, and she is still a huge reason I continue to push myself. She never questioned my decisions, and has always been encouraging of me leading with my heart and shooting for the stars. I see what she has done with her life as a successful woman — owning property in SF, finding time to globe-trot, volunteering her time, and pushing her dancing body to the limits. It’s inspiring, and I know I can always count on her for support and guidance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
I’m not sure if this counts as a life lesson quote, but it has surely crept its way into my head and heartstrings through the years. Dare I say this quote may have been the tipping point of my decision to move across the country. Leaving behind the only family and friends I’d ever known, I packed up my tiny Corolla with all my belongings and headed for San Francisco. With the help of my own gumption and plenty of helping hands, I slowly but surely found my way. There have been plenty of other moments like this over the years, but the initial move out west will always be my first major blossoming moment.
There comes a point in life where one gets the signal that it’s time to move on. Whether it’s a leaving a bad situation, job, relationship, or moving out of a place of complacency or comfort, knowing that there is something more or different waiting for you. Trust in yourself, your network, and the universal helpers that will come out of the woodwork to get you through the next phase of your life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
To be more inclusive of people from different backgrounds and lifestyles. We are so fortunate to be alive during this time, but there’s still work to be done to equalize the playing field and diversify our lives. Inclusion to me means bringing more folks, especially those of different backgrounds, upbringings, social-economic classes, ethnicities, and sexual and gender orientations to the table. We all want a positive and caring world to live in, and it all starts with the relationships we keep in our personal and professional lives. Bring everyone into the conversation. Listen. Educate. Mentor. Finally, be open to schools of thought you didn’t know existed. All those familiar with the classic advice to diversify your investments, ‘don’t put your eggs in one basket,’ will understand why it’s so imperative to diversify the workplace and communities we keep.