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Sunday, November 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Blanca Torres
William Swayne Sr. wanted to be a doctor, but now instead of improving people's health, he improves the health of their pocketbooks and bank accounts.
As founder of WMS Financial Planners in Seattle, Swayne has built a profitable family business based on earning clients' trust and helping them manage their money.
"People's money is very emotional," he said. "You have to know what people want and what they are trying to accomplish."
Financial planners untangle the messy web of personal finance that many people never quite learn to navigate on their own.
The demand for them is expected to be strong, increasing up to 35 percent through 2012 because of a growing number of wealthy and retired people seeking their help, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Also, more people are using 401(k) and other self-directed accounts to save for retirement or their children's college education and need professional advice to make the most of them.
"Today, with the Internet, people dabble in economics," he said, "but people are the same today as they've always been."
Planners help individuals meet financial goals by providing guidance about investments, spending and insurance.
They can set up retirement accounts, plan estates and determine how to pay for a child's education.
"I get to meet with people every single day, provide them with unique solutions," said Joshua Swayne, who works with his father at WMS.
"It's kind of a big jigsaw puzzle," he said. "They come to me with goals, such as when they want to retire, and I have to put them together. I help people afford to have things that are important to them. ... It makes me feel good when there's a success in one of my accounts."
A family affair
William Swayne Sr. graduated from the University of Washington in 1970 with a psychology degree, planning to go to medical school.
But he found himself low on funds, so he postponed that idea and took a job selling insurance. In a couple of years, he was a top agent and moved into management.
It was then he decided to take a different approach; he looked at what else clients were doing with their money besides buying insurance.
Swayne left the insurance industry in 1980 after having started a financial-planning business on the side in the early 1970s.
His wife, Candace Swayne, is the president of the company; his two sons, William Jr., 29, and Joshua, 26, came on board a few years ago.
The firm has about 150 clients. They accept only people who have an asset base over $350,000.
As teenagers, both sons told their father they wanted to join his business, but he told them they had to gain other work experience first.
William Jr. ran a painting business for about nine years, and Joshua worked at a bank for three years as a financial planner.
Joshua said starting at a large bank made it easy for him to find clients, but he was limited in the types of investments available for him to recommend.
"Here, working for a family company, the competition is gone," he said. "I don't have to worry about my dad or brother stealing my accounts. That just doesn't happen here."
By being their own bosses, the Swaynes reap a certain independence. "The work I do belongs to me," William Sr. said.
On the other hand, it took him years to build a solid client base. Like many small-business owners, he endured periods when he made little money and had to use credit cards to keep the office running.
The sacrifices have paid off, and his sons are grateful.
"My dad is an expert," Joshua said. "He's teaching me his secrets, the secrets he's used to be successful for 32 years. In that regard, it's incredible."
To succeed as a financial planner, one must be able to work well with both numbers and people, according to William Sr.
"I would say that the one thing that I learned is to really be honest and upfront with people, disclose the risk and make sure that you're sticking to their strategy," Joshua said.
A financial planner must also have intricate knowledge of tax laws as well as a good grasp of math, economics and finance.
"Being a financial planner is like being a general practitioner," William Sr. said. "You are not specialized in any area, but you know how to help people."
To get started, he recommends getting to know financial planners in your area and attending industry meetings and functions to get a feel for what the career is like. Taking a few business classes also can help.
Financial planning does not require a particular degree, but having certification and an advanced degree such as a master's in business administration is beneficial.
The WMS office, near Lake Union on Eastlake Avenue East, is in a sturdy, century-old house with a homey, welcoming atmosphere.
Two small dogs, Bogart, a Maltese Shih Tzu, and Cagney, a Maltese poodle, greet customers. The walls are a soothing yellow, and the home's thick wooden support beams offer a sense of security.
"It's a family place comfort is very important," the firm's founder said. "You feel like you've gone to your neighbor's house."
Another way to make clients feel comfortable is by involving them in the process, he said.
"The most important thing is to educate your client. As long as they have an understanding of what you're doing, why you're doing it and what your expected results will be, you're going to have much happier clients."
William Sr. teaches a retirement-planning course at Shoreline Community College. Some students end up as clients or get interested in becoming financial planners.
For the Swaynes, their greatest reward is when clients come into their office and say, "Thank you."
"People are giving you their life savings," Joshua said. "That's a big responsibility not to screw that up."
Blanca Torres: 206-515-5066 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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