“Find ways to re-energize.” with Ben Birken and Tyler Gallagher

Are they always they obligated to put a client’s interest ahead of their own? Different types of advisors have different legal standards they must adhere to. Without getting into a debate about what’s good and what’s bad, prospective clients should know — in clear, unambiguous terms — when an advisor is and isn’t acting with their best interests […]

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Are they always they obligated to put a client’s interest ahead of their own? Different types of advisors have different legal standards they must adhere to. Without getting into a debate about what’s good and what’s bad, prospective clients should know — in clear, unambiguous terms — when an advisor is and isn’t acting with their best interests at the forefront of every action.

As part of our series about what one should look for when hiring a financial planner or adviser, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Birken, CFP® at Woodward Financial Advisors in Chapel Hill, NC. Ben started his financial planning career with Woodward Financial Advisors in 2007. His principle role is serving as a Lead Advisor in client relationships. He is also responsible for bringing new technology and innovation to the firm, developing financial planning strategies, and providing leadership for the firm’s business development initiatives. Ben is originally from Los Angeles, CA. After obtaining a Master’s Degree in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he and his wife moved to North Carolina in 2004. Shortly before they got married, Ben and his wife came to Woodward Financial Advisors as clients. Based on that experience, Ben decided to upend his professional life and pursue a career in financial planning. The rest is history.

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?

I’m a career changer: my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in kinesiology and applied physiology, and I trained as an Exercise Physiologist. I also started as a client of the firm where I currently work. My wife and I were about to get married, and I wanted an objective, third party to advise us on how best to merge our finances. But I’d developed an interest in personal finance and investing, and mid-way through our planning engagement I blurted out that I’d read all the books on our planner’s bookshelf, which, I suppose, most clients don’t do. Most clients also don’t straight-up ask about an internship possibility at the end of their planning session, which I also did. I got lucky, because the firm said yes. Nine months later I asked for a full-time job. That was 12 years ago, and it remains one of the best decisions I ever made.

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 confidently told a client that their children wouldn’t have to take Required Minimum Distributions from any inherited Roth IRAs, which of course is completely wrong. Luckily, another planner was in the meeting, and she corrected me in the nicest way possible.

I learned a couple of lessons from that. One, it’s important to know the extent of your knowledge, and it’s ok to say you’re not sure about something and that you’ll investigate it and report back. Two, the information imbalance (perceived or real) between financial advisors and clients can be so vast that some clients will believe whatever a trusted advisor says. That can be very powerful, but it can also lead to gross manipulation and abuse. To slightly rephrase an important message from Spider-Man: with great trust comes great responsibility.

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

Any great firm is always working on something new, because there’s always room for improvement. Some of our current projects include a deeper analysis of which accounts we debit client fees from (which can have some tax advantages after the 2018 tax law changes), reviewing how we can improve our client experience, strengthening our tax planning/tax projection capabilities, and analyzing the various aspects of our service where technology can make us that much more efficient.

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?

I can think of a few. One was the fact that I came into the industry right at the beginning of the Great Recession. I hope that’s a lesson that no one ever needs to learn, but inevitably, it will be. The “tipping point” there was that we didn’t panic, which gave our clients permission not to panic. And as we emerged out of that time period and into the current expansion, the depth of the relationships I formed during that crises period turned into more referrals for the firm.

The second was when my mentor retired. She’d formed many relationships with local CPAs and estate planning attorneys, and was kind enough to introduce me and include me in some of her coffee/lunch meetings with those folks. But the “tipping point” came when she was no longer there, and I had to form my own relationships with them. That takes a lot of time, and it was more than I’d anticipated. But putting in that leg work over a period of years turns business relationships into friendships as folks get to know each other better and deeper. And THAT work has resulted in more and better referrals from folks who truly get me.

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?

1. Don’t check your emails on weekends. Or if you feel compelled to do so, don’t respond. But once you set the precedent that you’re always available, clients will expect that. Nothing is so important that it can’t wait until Monday. And if a client believes that every message of theirs requires immediate responses regardless of the time of day, consider if that’s truly the type of person you wish to work with. Which leads me to #2…

2. As best you can, don’t work with clients you don’t like or respect, or who don’t treat you with the appropriate professional respect. When that happens, you’re only breeding resentment.

3. Consciously find ways to disengage and re-energize. That could be as low-level as taking walks outside in the middle of the day and making sure you get enough exercise, or as high-level as looking into taking extended time off. At our firm, employees can take a 1-month sabbatical (in addition to the regular PTO) every five years.

Separately, I’d encourage folks who are doing life planning or other forms of deep relationship planning to consider working with a therapist of their own. Carrying the weight of your clients’ financial future can be heavy and stressful. Working with a professional to help understand and process that stress can be incredibly valuable.

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?

1. Do they ask good questions?

Many financial advisors will look to wow a prospective client with charts, graphs, PowerPoint presentations, etc. to barrage a prospect into believing they are the most amazing advisor that ever walked the face of the earth. A great planner knows to ask questions of potential clients to get an understanding of what’s truly important to them. In your introductory meeting with an advisor, you’ll know it’s going well if you do most of the talking and the advisor does most of the listening.

2. Do they make promises that we intuitively know they can’t keep?

Any advisor that claims to have an investment strategy that will always beat the market or is “guaranteed” should be shown the door immediately. No one can do that. And if they can, there’s a good chance that the advisor will end up in the headlines or in prison (or both), because whatever they’re doing is probably against the law.

3. Do they focus on what matters?

We often see prospective clients start the conversations by talking about investments. An advisor who starts the conversation here is focusing on the engine without building the car. Unless a prospective client is only looking for investment advice, a true financial planner will talk about financial and life goals, how to get there through savings/spending/investments, and how to protect what a client has built through proper tax, estate and insurance planning.

4. Are they always they obligated to put a client’s interest ahead of their own?

Different types of advisors have different legal standards they must adhere to. Without getting into a debate about what’s good and what’s bad, prospective clients should know — in clear, unambiguous terms — when an advisor is and isn’t acting with their best interests at the forefront of every action.

5. How are they compensated?

This is a big deal in the advisory world. More advisors are moving away from compensation coming from commissions, but those folks still exist. Is the advisor compensated based on a percentage of assets being managed? If so, is every service bundled into that fee, or is there a separate fee for planning and investment management? Some advisors — like our firm — charge a flat fee that is customized to each client’s unique situation. Others charge hourly, or on a monthly subscription model. Each method has its pros and its cons, and none of them are perfect. But understanding the model and deciding whether it aligns with your values is important.

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?

I’m admittedly biased, but just about anyone would benefit from hiring a financial advisor. There is tremendous value in working with someone you trust who can provide objective, empathetic advice. Our brains aren’t wired well for the types of financial decisions that make or break long-term financial plans. We need an outside perspective, and quite honestly, we need help protecting ourselves from ourselves. The best thing a financial advisor can do isn’t getting you a slightly better investment return. Instead, it’s keeping you from making a huge, painful, expensive mistake.

Beyond that, folks going through significant transitions (weddings, divorces, funerals, new children, retirement, etc.) probably get the most immediate bang for their buck in working with an advisor, if we’re looking at the short term. But longer term, again, everyone can benefit from having a trusted advisory relationship.

That said, not every advisor is right for every person: some firms are truly geared to work exclusively with wealthy people. But we’re seeing more advisors experiment with pricing models that make it possible for people to work with someone, even if they haven’t accumulated huge balances (or in some cases, any balances).

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?

Both the original owner of my firm (who hired me) and my mentor (who taught me) were not only instrumental but critical in helping me get where I am today. My career is the picture-perfect definition of right place/right time. I was lucky enough to find a firm in my town that did exactly the kind of planning work that inspired me, and that was comfortable taking a chance on someone with no industry experience. And if I’d come to them one year later — in the middle of the Great Recession — I think it’s unlikely that they would have had the resources or the mindset to take a chance on me. I owe pretty much everything to their generosity and openness.

Separately, I’ve benefited from having an amazing study group. Over the years, the four of us have openly shared our goals, fears, achievements and frustrations, and we’ve served each other as listeners, soothsayers and truth tellers. Being a financial advisor can sometimes be a lonely experience, even in a multi-person firm. Developing a deep relationship with industry peers can get you through some difficult times.

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. 🙂

For the sake of this question, I’ll assume that someone else has adequately figured out how to make sure that no one goes hungry, that we all have clean drinking water, and that climate change hasn’t reconfigured what is and isn’t waterfront property.

I’d love to see a movement that improved people’s ability to listen with emotional intelligence. As technology automates jobs away, people are going to need to have interpersonal skills well above where most folks are today. That’s where jobs will be: caring professions that can’t be replaced with a robot. But even absent that, I think we’d all be better off if we collectively improved how well we can truly hear other people without judgment.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My twitter handle is @WFA_Ben, and you can follow our firm’s blog and sign up for our newsletter at

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

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