June 13, 2024

My Journey to Becoming a Financial Planner

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Note: The following is based on an article written by the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners (ACP). They interviewed me and featured the interview as an ACP Success Story of the Month in November 2020 on the ACP website.

I am happy to support such a great organization. The ACP helped me start my RIA firm and tax focused fee-only financial planning firm. The ACP business model, processes, and methodologies for holistic financial planning were instrumental to my success.

A Paperboy Learning the Value of Money

Although financial planning isn’t Steven Clark’s first career, he can look back to his childhood and see where the seed was planted. From ages 11–16 he had a paper route, which helped him understand the value of money. He knew the work that went into making each week’s paycheck and he was the one who had to knock on doors to collect the fee.

Saving came naturally. “I loved taking the money I earned as a paperboy to the bank. Back then, you had a booklet made of paper called a passbook and each time you deposited or withdrew money, the passbook was updated. I loved opening the pages of that book and seeing how my money had grown with each deposit. Everyone at the bank was so nice to me every time I visited, so I really enjoyed going there,” he says. Though after high school, Steven enrolled in a tech school for electronics engineering, he never lost interest in personal financial planning.

From Electronic Technician to Software Engineer

Just out of school in 1982, Steven took a role as an electronic technician, working on equipment for a data communication manufacturer in Miami. He often worked with a team of software and hardware engineers who he came to admire and respect; he decided he wanted to join their ranks. Showing the same resolve that would years later help launch his own financial planning firm, Steven went back to school for a bachelor’s degree in software engineering while working full time. In 1989, he joined the engineering group at his company and stayed until 1999, when he left to join a smaller company to help create new software products, which enabled remote access to servers and IT infrastructure equipment located in data centers. One year later, that small company was acquired by a medium-sized company, and eight years later, Emerson Electric acquired it. Suddenly Steven found himself working for a very large company with 130,000 employees and under intense pressure to meet the demands of his new employer.

Though ultimately his career in tech would span 28 years, Steven always knew that someday he wanted to do something else, something that would allow him to run his own business. He understood that the high pressure and intense pace of the tech industry would eventually lead to burnout, and even as he was throwing himself into his software engineering career, he was considering what might come later. However, he was conservative about taking a big risk. “I wanted to have a strong enough financial foundation so that if I took a chance on myself and failed, everything would be fine,” he says.

Learning About Saving and Investing for the Future

“As a young adult, I became very interested in saving and investing for the future,” Steven says.  “I began slowly and started reading anything I could get my hands on about personal finance and investing. I would go to bookstores during my lunch hour and read as much as I could from personal finance and investment books. I usually did not buy the books but would instead scan the chapters, looking for ideas and absorbing the information. You would be surprised at how much you can learn from scanning the chapters of a book during your lunch hour. Once in a while I would run across a book that I really liked and I would buy it,” he says.

Steven considered pursuing his CFP® designation while continuing his career in software engineering, but he didn’t want to make the investment while being only half-in with his attention. It wasn’t until 2010, after a tough year of a demanding project, that Steven felt ready for a change. The stress of the job had been impacting his health, and he realized it was time to pivot. In an incredibly uncharacteristic move, he drove to work and resigned on the spot.

Becoming a Financial Planner and Starting a Firm

For someone who’d been working since they were 11, that first week of being out of work was tough. “I didn’t want to tell anyone at first,” Steven says. But giving up his career in software engineering gave him the time and space to dive into the next step. In 2012 he went back to school for his CFP® designation. Not long after that, he discovered ACP in Nancy Langdon Jones’s So You Want to Be a Financial Planner. “Right away I liked the ACP model, the long-term relationships, the tax planning component,” Steven says. In the same way he had once looked up to the engineering team at his first high tech job, he admired the ACP members and set his sights on joining them.

Rather than looking for a job working for someone else, Steven decided to open his own firm in 2014. ACP was essential in providing the framework he needed. Though Steven struggled the first few years to attract clients, he knew the ACP process had worked for so many others and he knew he just had to stay the course. ACP provided Steven a mentor, Troy Von Haefen. In the summer of 2015, Troy made Steven an offer. Troy needed some help in his busy practice, and he wanted to bring Steven in on a contract basis. Though Steven didn’t want to take his foot off the gas for his own practice, he decided it might be good experience to learn from the inside. For two years, he helped Troy and had the chance to see the ACP processes in motion. “I got to do a lot that I wouldn’t do in my own practice for years,” he says.

Steven also considers himself fortunate to have gotten help from a second ACP mentor. “Through some of my posts on ACP Connect, Karen Folk saw that I was struggling a bit and contacted me, offering to help”, he says. Steven and Karen worked together for about one year. “I will never forget Karen for her wonderful kindness in wanting to help me,” Steven said. “When I started out, I really did not put much thought into how important mentors would be to improving my odds of success,” he says. “I now believe the mentoring relationships I had with Troy and Karen were top ingredients for my success,” he says.

Steven’s instincts proved right. After receiving his CFP® marks in 2017 and continuing to stick to the ACP model, he found success. After a few years with just a handful of clients and prospects, he suddenly had dozens of prospects rolling in and by 2020 he had 20 open-retainer clients. “It’s really about putting one foot in front of the other because in this business, if you can survive, you’re going to be successful with the ACP model,” he says.

Sharing His Journey with Aspiring Financial Planners

As an ACP member, Steven likes to help people who are looking to break into financial planning for the first time. He is chair of the Student Membership Committee, where he helps aspiring advisors find their way. As a career changer, Steven wants to share his own story. He knows what it’s like to struggle in the early years and how helpful it can be to hear from someone who’s been through the same journey. He created an online community on FPA Connect called 2ndActGen. “It is a forum where career changers can share their experiences and seek help and support that is unique to them,” he says.  Folks from all over the county reach out to Steven for guidance. “I like to show people how many different paths there are. I like to open up the whole financial planning world for them,” he says.

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