“Expertise and focus.” With Mary Lago & Tyler Gallagher

I believe strongly in the potential that can come from Incorporating personal financial education into schools. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that bring this information into select classrooms, but they don’t have the resources to reach every student consistently. There are many positive changes that occur with families through education. The more education […]

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I believe strongly in the potential that can come from Incorporating personal financial education into schools. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that bring this information into select classrooms, but they don’t have the resources to reach every student consistently. There are many positive changes that occur with families through education. The more education that all family members are exposed to regarding financial literacy, the more empowered individuals and families we will see in the future.

I had the pleasure to interview Mary Lago. Mary is a member of Ferguson Wellman’s investment team and wealth management committee. She is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional (CFP®) and portfolio manager with individual and institutional clients concentrated in Portland, Medford, Seattle and Vancouver.

As a certified trust and financial advisor with over 20 years of wealth management experience, Lago is a valued resource for individual and multi-generational family clients regarding investment, planning, and trust/estate matters. She also advises charitable organizations on endowment management and planned giving techniques.

Prior to joining the firm in 2015, Lago worked as a vice president and Oregon region manager for Washington Trust Bank in its wealth management and advisory services division. Lago previously worked for Union Bank and First Republic Bank in their private bank and trust divisions. She received her B.S. in business administration from Linfield College where she graduated magna cum laude.

Lago currently serves on the board of the Oregon Health and Science University Foundation, as President of the Estate Planning Council of Portland and also serves on the Albertina Kerr Centers Foundation Investment, Gift Acceptance and Planned Giving committees. Previously, she served as Chair for Albertina Kerr Centers Foundation and Co-Chair of the Community Promise Campaign. She was recognized in 2013 by the Portland Business Journal as one of Portland’s “Forty Under 40.” She and her husband enjoy spending time with their daughter, water sports and cooking.

Thank you so much for joining 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?

While I would like to share a story of great intent and planning, my career was a bit of an accident. I started my college career studying biochemistry, and only took economics as part of liberal arts coursework. I loved it. After graduating with a degree in business and working as a bank teller, I was exposed to trust and financial services through a friend-of-a-friend. I wouldn’t have guessed that a career involving investment markets, real estate, other industries, tax planning, family psychology and legal matters would be so exciting. It wasn’t long before I could appreciate the positive influence that good technical understanding and a heart for helping, could have on families and our community. Looking back, I consider my career to be a fortuitous accident.

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?

I quickly fell in love with the power of smart financial techniques to empower family and philanthropic legacies, improve family harmony and reduce income and estate taxes. Early in my career, I assumed every client was as interested in the detail behind the solutions as I was. Each client is unique, and some want to rely more on the knowledge of others. This point was really driven home for me when I was explaining technical detail to a potential client and they looked at me thoughtfully and said, “I just want to know where to sign.”

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

I am excited about a new investment offering our firm introduced last year that aligns clients’ investment approach with their values. We call the strategy Global Sustainable Investing; it incorporates traditional fundamental research with corporate behavior in environmental, social and governance matters. The strategy not only has the potential to increase client engagement with their investments, but also to drive long-term changes in corporate behavior leading to a cleaner environment, safer products and stronger corporate governance.

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?

My tipping point happened when I saw the real difference a responsible and collaborative advisor could have on families — versus one who just checks all the boxes, but doesn’t feel personally invested. I was introduced to two widows with small children. Both families had completed smart tax planning prior to the death of the husband. Unfortunately, the structure of one of the family’s planning resulted in restrictions that would not provide for the continuation of private school for the children while the other family had all the tax benefit and could provide for the children. A seemingly esoteric difference had a tremendous impact. That’s the moment it became a passion rather than just a job.

Financial management is full of examples where a simple tweak can change the outcome. One of my favorite sentiments is that the tax code favors the well informed. My career advice: Find your passion and work hard. My advice to clients is to find an advisor who is passionate about using their knowledge for your benefit.

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?

Motivations vary a lot from person-to-person. I thrive by knowing that I am making a tangible difference in the life of clients and believing that they will use the additional resources to benefit others — their family, their community or our world. I also thrive by staying true to my values of being present for my family and my faith.

When my father was dying, I took considerable time from work to research treatment options and ultimately provide his end-of-life care. This might seem incongruent for someone who normally worked very long hours and seemed to be “climbing the ladder,” but it really was about knowing my values and honoring them. To avoid burnout, I think we need to honor our most precious values in our daily life. Those values might be wellness, faith, community or other things, but live your daily life knowing it will be your legacy.

Let’s now move to the core focus of our interview. As a “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?

Depth of Expertise: With the advent of mutual funds, some firms have formed without the necessary investment knowledge. One gauge of the level of expertise is the number of professionals who hold the Chartered Financial Analyst® designation. The CFA® designation is globally recognized as the most rigorous accreditation in the investment management profession. Also, consider if the firm has a strong structure, such as an investment policy committee monitoring and shaping the macro decisions, in addition to research analysts covering individual sectors of the economy. Each of these items suggest a depth that is likely to benefit clients, particularly in market downturns.

Breadth of Services: Large institutional clients may be primarily seeking investment discipline, whereas individual clients and families often benefit from a firm that can help them evaluate how their assets should be invested in light of their specific wealth, goals and the risk they can handle while continuing to sleep well. The good news is that this is an area where many firms have evolved and can provide a holistic evaluation with consideration to income tax planning, legacy and estate planning, philanthropic strategies, education savings, risk management and more.

Open Architecture: In order to avoid constraints on the investments your advisor can use in your portfolio, look for a firm with an open architecture. Often, firms that are not open architecture are receiving kickbacks from the products they choose to offer.

Fiduciary Without any Conflicts of Interest or Layers of Fees: Selecting a fiduciary will avoid the need for you to question if the advice you are receiving is in the advisor’s best interest or in your best interest. Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) and bank trust departments are the most common fiduciaries. Some brokerage firms may also have subsidiary businesses structured as RIAs/ fiduciaries. Some fiduciaries do receive product-based compensation, but firms without ANY product-driven revenue should offer the greatest protection.

Confidence and Comfort with your Representative: At the end of the day, you are not likely to make the time to listen to, or follow the advice of, an advisor that you don’t trust. Select an advisor, and team, that you believe will provide you a high level of service and will have a passion for supporting your unique goals.

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?

While those with the largest balance sheets may benefit the most in terms of dollars from a financial advisor, those with limited resources may be able to have a bigger impact on their quality of life and their peace of mind by optimizing their financial resources with professional guidance. Consider a couple of executives with $15 million in savings earning $400,000 annually compared to a young family with limited savings earning $50,000. The young family is more at risk if they were to make a bad investment, lose their employment or experience a death in the family. Smart education savings may be the difference between a college opportunity for the resource-constrained family, while the more affluent family may be able to save over a million dollars in estate taxes, minimize income taxes and support community philanthropy through fine-tuned planning. Both matter, but they are different.

A few valuable things an advisor can offer include:

Discipline: Emotionally, investors want to buy when the markets are strong and sell assets when the markets are weak. Investors make money by buying low and selling high. A trusted advisor can help clients develop a long-term strategy that is appropriate to their goals and resources and then stick with the plan even through tough markets.

Time savings and timely implementation: Some are interested in and feel confident they could do a good job of researching investment opportunities, track evolving tax rules, and the monitor the economic environment, but realize they are busy and either won’t make time to manage their own finances or will be better off using their time to focus on their strengths and outsourcing their financial management to experts. Advisors have the potential to bring these insights and to respond quickly to new risk and opportunities.

Expertise and focus: There are many issues that affect clients successful financial management such as global economic conditions, an appropriate risk-return balance, diversification, and taxes. Keeping apprised of the investment and tax environment and the impact on each clients portfolio requires expertise and commitment. Over the long term, asset allocation will have the greatest impact on a client’s financial success and requires an understanding of a client’s unique goals and risk tolerance. In repositioning portfolios, advisors should be considering the impact of realizing short-term gains versus waiting to sell the position until it has been owned long enough to convert into long-term capital gains for preferential tax treatment. In a typical day, an advisor could be reviewing an estate plan for necessary updates to share with an attorney, determining how China’s PMI will impact investment portfolios and evaluating whether municipal bonds, treasuries or corporates will have a higher after-tax yield for a particular client. Focusing on these issues for clients requires dedication and can be very satisfying in terms of the impact they have on the future.

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

There are many people who have supported my success. What most of them have in common is that they took a chance on me. I was a homeschooled girl from a small foothill town without connections. I was far from a sure bet and am grateful for all the opportunities I have been given. One person who has shaped my career is a trust officer in Palo Alto. I was just out of college and she taught me how to do things right. I recall spending several days on a letter. She didn’t just want me to take the right steps, she wanted me to be able to explain precisely why each step was necessary and do it in a concise and grammatically correct format. Her patience has shaped how I tackle new challenges and opportunities.

Another person who supported my success would likely have no idea. The truth is I don’t recall his name, but he helped me to understand my place. I was in my early 20s and in a prospective client interview alongside several grey-haired, highly respected, male colleagues. After about 30 minutes of competing voices, the potential client, a retired Fortune 100 executive, looked at me and said, “I would like to hear from you. I am pretty sure you had to work the hardest to get in this room. It was powerful to know that he thought I could bring value — and I did.

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. 🙂

I believe strongly in the potential that can come from Incorporating personal financial education into schools. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that bring this information into select classrooms, but they don’t have the resources to reach every student consistently. There are many positive changes that occur with families through education. The more education that all family members are exposed to regarding financial literacy, the more empowered individuals and families we will see in the future.

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