I think we need to communicate that financial planning is for everyone. In my experience, I think that a large part of the problem is that people consider financial management as something that’s only for the ultra-wealthy, and that’s simply not true.
Asa part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa McMillian. Ms. McMillian joined Westwood in 1999 and is involved in the development and maintenance of private wealth clients, including high net worth individuals, families, and foundations and endowments. Ms. McMillian has over 20 years of experience working with private wealth clients and meeting clients’ wealth management needs in the areas of investment management, trustee and estate services, and various wealth advisory services. Ms. McMillian graduated from Texas A&M University with a BBA in Finance with an emphasis in Accounting. She has worked as a mentor with high school seniors at Young Women’s Preparatory Network and served the Junior League of Dallas in a variety of capacities including the Finance Committee as well as the Research & Development Committee as a financial analyst. She has served in executive leadership roles in the Children’s Medical Center Children’s Trust, Stars & Crescents Philanthropies, Inc. and the Tri Delta House Corporation Board of Southern Methodist University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?
When I was a college student at Texas A&M University, I chose to major in finance as it seemed the right fit for my analytical personality. During college, I interned at Westwood and enjoyed the experience so much that I began working there as operations specialist immediately after graduation. I assumed I would spend my career behind a desk crunching numbers, but after a few years, I got the opportunity to shift to a client service role and start meeting with clients. In doing so, I realized my passion was helping clients meet their financial goals, big or small. I enjoy making clients feel comfortable discussing sensitive financial-related topics and letting them know I will guide them appropriately. While I love serving families with complex trust and estate needs, hosting summits to bridge discussions on broader family financial matters and helping philanthropies meet financial objects, I especially love working with female clients and empowering them to take control of their finances. It has been a fulfilling 20-year career at Westwood!
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?
What we do for our clients (long-term investing and planning) takes trust and patience from our clients, meaning that they believe that what we are doing for them will pay off in the long run. Financial matters are also very private and difficult for most people to discuss. So, having conversations with clients about private matters — that likely won’t pay off for a while — can be a challenging job. Rarely does someone say “thank you” — when they do, especially when there has been a loss of a loved one — it becomes something that means quite a lot. I recently had a widow write me a heartfelt thank you note for guiding her along the process of losing her spouse and navigating her new normal, and it meant the world to receive that handwritten note. The lesson I have tried to take away is to not take any person’s contributions for granted. We all need a little assistance to accomplish things in life.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working on a big project to create a state-of-the-art client portal for our high-net-worth clients. Our hope is to become an industry leader in applying technology to wealth management. The idea behind the portal is to provide an easily accessible repository for all of the client’s financial, legal and tax information. This repository can be shared with the client’s external advisors (legal, accounting, etc.) and will enable all advisors to understand the big picture and better serve their clients.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are quite a few things that make Westwood stand out, but there are two things that have meant the most to me.
First, at Westwood, everyone is a shareholder — from the receptionist to the CEO. We are all owners, and owners act differently than employees. We all have “skin in the game,” and we all want our clients to succeed. That’s what separates us from the big banks.
Second, Westwood fosters the development of young professionals by giving them new opportunities for growth. While I enjoyed working in the Operations department, I do not believe I would have been as professionally fulfilled as I have been without having the opportunity to directly interact with clients.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
The financial world has changed a lot in my years at Westwood, and I think much of that has to do with how the world has changed.
Susan Byrne founded Westwood in 1983 because she wasn’t able to find any men who would hire her to manage money. Since then, she’s built Westwood into what it is today. Susan has been featured in a “World’s Greatest Investors” issue of Smart Money along with Warren Buffet. She is both a mentor and a role model to women working in finance, and because I’ve worked with her from the beginning of my career, I didn’t see the barriers that women who went to work on Wall Street in New York saw.
Over the years, as more women have emerged like Susan, she has continued to encourage women like me.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this 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?
That’s a good question about a big topic!
For individuals in the banking industry, we should all be more open to listening to diverse perspectives and taking input and good ideas from anyone who might offer them.
For companies, one of the most important steps to rectifying this imbalance is offering mentorship and training opportunities to your employees. It’s important to work with organizations like Texas Wall Street Women, which offer networking and professional development for women in finance.
For society, I think we should all start realizing that finance and financial literacy is a job for everyone, not just a small elite group. If society educates more women about the role of finance in their lives, I definitely think there will be more opportunities for women, and more women will seek out those opportunities.
Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this 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?
First, I think we need to communicate that financial planning is for everyone. In my experience, I think that a large part of the problem is that people consider financial management as something that’s only for the ultra-wealthy, and that’s simply not true.
Second, I would love to see a basic finance class added to all high school curriculums. A lot can be done if we treat financial literacy as a core subject that needs to be taught in the formative years.
Third, we need to remove the taboo around talking about finance. Even within families, people are reluctant to talk about money matters. When I work with my clients, I have to emphasize the basics about budgets, debt and 401(k)s, and I think parents should incorporate that into what they teach their kids.
You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive essentials for smart investing what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
1. Start early — When you’ve first graduated from college and are just starting your career, that’s the most critical time. I think a good example of this is the compounding of a dollar, and the growth that a single dollar can generate if you start saving when you’re 22 years old instead of 32.
2. Partner with a trusted advisor — “Trust” is the key word here. You need to find someone you’re comfortable not just with handling your money, but also with communicating honestly and directly with you about personal information. Just like you should go to a doctor for medical care or a lawyer for legal help, you need a financial advisor for saving and meeting your financial goals.
3. Be prepared — Educate yourself about investing. Look online and review the various options available to you. Investing can take many forms, and it’s important you target the way that’s appropriate for you.
4. Set long-term goals — Investing is inherently a long-term process. If you have specific plans for your future, your career or your retirement, talk to your advisor about how investing can help you accomplish those goals.
5. Meet with your advisor annually — A yearly review of your investments is essential to make sure you’re meeting the goals you’ve set with your advisor.
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?
Brian Casey, our CEO, has been a huge help in my career from the beginning. He hired me right out of college, and then ultimately was the one who suggested that I start meeting with clients. He actually introduced me to some of his clients he had been working with for 15 to 20 years, and worked with me to take part in those relationships. This allowed me to get an expert sense of what a long-term financial relationship looks like. These days, investment management has become a commodity — and the personal relationship you have with your client is what makes you a good fit and a valued partner. Seeing Brian care so much for his personal client relationships, for well over 30 years, has been a remarkable example of how to be successful in my career.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is one that comes from Westwood’s founder, Susan Byrne: “We’d rather lose opportunity than capital.” I use this quote when meeting with clients. To me, it embodies Westwood’s risk-averse mindset. It shows that we don’t want to enter into ventures where we don’t know the downsides; it’s important to look at situations from all the angles.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to adopt the pay-it-forward mindset. Here’s what I mean by this: I’m where I am professionally because someone gave me an opportunity and when I see a new employee at Westwood who is particularly good at something, I try to give them an opportunity.
I think our workplaces and our lives would be a lot happier and more productive if we all adopted the pay-it-forward mindset.