Bonnie A. Sewell has been working with families as a Certified Financial Planner since 1992. Previous to that she owned a tax practice. She also earned the Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF) designation and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) designation, and earned an MS in Financial Planning. She served on the following boards: National Board for the Financial Planning Association (FPA), South Region Board for the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), and Foundation for Financial Planning board. She is past president on the Board of Directors for the non-profit Loudoun Therapeutic Riding. In addition to expert testimony, Bonnie has been a subject matter expert in divorce for other advisors for a software company in New York.
Sandra L. Havrilak (SLH): Please tell us about yourself.
Bonnie Ashby Sewell (BAS): I have been a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) since 1992. I own my own business, American Capital Planning, LLC in Leesburg, Virginia. In addition to being a Certified Financial Planner, I hold the following credentials: CDFA, AIF, and CEPA. It can be hard to tell a difference between advisors, and one important difference is that we are paid only by our clients (like attorneys). I am not paid to sell insurance or annuities or any other product. I served on the national board of the Financial Planning Association (FPA) and am a past president for the nonprofit Loudoun Therapeutic Riding. Additionally, I serve as a pro bono advisor for the Building Homes for Heroes veterans’ program.
SLH: Do you work with attorneys?
BAS: I do! I work with attorneys primarily in family law cases, but also in other fields. The best attorneys we work with are tough, frank, clear in their communication, and relentless in pursuit of a great outcome for our clients. I try to make the best attorneys we work with look like heroes. I can provide great support to the financial models before and during negotiations. We’ve had some substantial wins for clients because I was in the room during negotiations and able to model changing terms in the moment—but I credit the smart attorney who does not get caught in the financial weeds, runs with that information, and successfully negotiates a better outcome for the client.
SLH: What do you do?
BAS: We do three things: We help you successfully and financially work through life transitions. We map your finances to the things you tell us you care most about. Finally, we manage your finances long-term so you can go live your life, enjoying the resources you’ve built.
SLH: What are the top three tips that you would give to a lawyer who wants to be a successful rainmaker today?
BAS: First, I would suggest that they get out of their office and drop in on non-lawyer organizations and events in order to expand both their network and their base of knowledge. Second, I would encourage them to speak locally, volunteering their time and experience. Finally, when talking to prospective clients, in addition to selling yourself by your accomplishments, use storytelling to give concrete examples of how you help and what you are able to provide.
SLH: What is (or was) different, either about you, or your firm, or anything else, that has allowed or enabled you to become a successful rainmaker?
BAS: People do business with people they like. It takes time to get to know people. So in addition to spending direct time with people who you want to hire you, learning about them, and what they need, there are ways for them to confirm you are who you say you are. I live by three tips: 1) I write. I have self-published a book and blog regularly. This has allowed me to share what I’ve learned with as many people as possible. 2) I include short 1-2-minute videos in emails to help make a connection with the people on the other side of the screen. 3) My firm keeps up with the latest technology to ensure that we can compete with businesses that have a bigger staff.
SLH: In a typical marketing year, how much time do you devote to marketing?
BAS: It’s difficult to devote as much time as we would like to marketing. This year we have made it a bigger focus and dedicated a budget (9% of our revenues) to make it a priority.
SLH: What types of marketing activities are you engaged in?
BAS: We pay for experts to improve our SEO so we’re easy to find online. Over the years, we’ve been quoted in major publications and we’ve built relationships with journalists who know they can call us for background or quotes. We try to be engaged locally. We show up at events where our ideal client is likely to be. We speak at a free monthly workshop. We also engage on a national level, particularly with Tiburon Summit, where I can network with bigger firms to understand what is working for them.
SLH: What type of marketing support do you have from your firm?
BAS: We are a small firm. We are two people and a lot of technology. I get a vote or a veto in every decision we make. This allows us to effectively support each other because we know the ins and outs of the office so intimately.
SLH: Do you have a marketing team? If so, please describe it.
BAS: I am CEO, and Jessie is our client relationship manager. It’s the two of us in our immediate office, but our “team” includes a deep bench of professionals outside of our office with whom we have developed relationships. They help us and we help them. These professionals include other CPAs, attorneys, and therapists. We outsource bookkeeping, invoicing, performance reporting, and other administrative tasks. Finally, we use software to deliver reports and information to clients.
SLH: If you could only engage in one type of marketing activity for the next 12 months, what one activity would you choose?
BAS: I would choose videos, like the ones we currently include in our emails.
SLH: What would that activity look like?
BAS: I would spend on more professional production. These are under two minutes long and deliver a specific message. We always include an invitation at the end for the listener to contact us if they want to know more. These are never pitches. Instead, they deliver relevant resources or information we think the listener would benefit from hearing.
SLH: Why would you choose only that one?
BAS: Video is very flexible. There’s no travel. The format can be long or short, personal, formal, or fun. We are able to include more people and screens, letting us take technology further and connect with the people we are attempting to reach.
SLH: If you could only choose one more activity, what would it be and why?
BAS: Speaking. For many advisors, speaking is like breathing. Even when I’m in front of a large crowd (my largest crowd was in New York City and there were a little over 600 people), I view it as a conversation between me and my audience. Conversations are just sharing information, and I really enjoy that.
SLH: How did you get your first client?
BAS: This Registered Investment Advisory (RIA) (American Capital Planning, LLC) is 11 years old. I had sold my first RIA in 2008 to a Florida firm that I was expecting to buy. When it didn’t work out, I brought five of my old clients with me when I opened this RIA. But I think my very first client came from a referral for fee-only advisors in our industry.
SLH: Where did you get your most recent client?
BAS: My most recent client was a referral from a therapist, one from our bench of professionals.
SLH: How did you get your best client?
BAS: We enjoy all our clients, but a client I enjoy in every interaction is a woman business owner. I was her customer before she was my client. She then asked me to invest for her own account and a couple years later, when she divorced, we were instrumental in getting her a substantial settlement, including her marital accounts, which we still manage today.
SLH: How did you get your most unexpected client?
BAS: My most unexpected client was a couple referred to us by another advisor. He described them as being a pain and having small accounts. It was early in my first RIA and I took them on. They did demand a good bit of time in the beginning, but really, she was just trying to get her (quite common) questions answered so she could understand their finances. They were overspending for what they had accumulated. It took four years to get them on track. They are elderly now and still my clients. They are lovely people who are doing the best they can with what they have saved.
SLH: How do you get in front of clients/get asked to respond to RFPs?
BAS: I look at every opportunity like it is a marketing opportunity. I ask for speaking opportunities, or a coffee or meal. My business has a long lead time and it can take months to get in front of a potential client. And then it can take months from there for both us and them to decide to work together.
SLH: How do you “close the sale” once you are in front/in contact with a client?
BAS: After I present our proposal I assumptively ask, “Shall we get started then?” We then calendar our upcoming work and meetings and welcome them to the firm. We make sure to let them know how excited we are about impacting their fabulous financial future.
SLH: What obstacles have you overcome to build your book of business? How did you overcome them?
BAS: We’re still in growth mode, so I don’t know if I have overcome them all. The biggest hurdles we face are the unfavorable reputation of advisors and sometimes, I believe, our gender. We overcome them by being the change we want them to see. We live what we teach clients to do and we show them this by having my office in my home, and by getting out there so they can see what and who they are paying for. It’s an intimate relationship in terms of shared information and we use the trust our clients put in us to deliver superior work.
SLH: Knowing what you know now, if you were starting over as a business owner today, what would you do differently?
BAS: I would have specialized the first time out. Today, we do exits. If you’re leaving your job, your spouse, or selling your business, we are experts in making those big exits a transformational and positive change. The modeling we can do for clients lets them see their financial future before they live it. It lets us really play with the possibilities – this is especially critical in divorce. Why wonder how things will work out when we can model it to see if it will work out before you sign?
SLH: How has the world of marketing changed over the last 3-5 years?
BAS: Marketing has gone a lot more digital. Delivery needs to be excellent to get above the noise. I do think social media is oversold as a marketing channel. Our ideal clients aren’t spending their days online. That said, you can make a part-time job out of digesting data from your marketing efforts. We pay other people to do that. Broadly, some clients care a lot about something like a website and social media presence, and others only want to know about the work you can do for them.
SLH: What, if anything, do you plan to do differently with respect to marketing your services next year or in the future?
BAS: The main difference is execution and spending. We have a written marketing plan that we are executing, and at certain points in the plan, it requires paying outside vendors like a videographer or graphic artist to deliver our message.
SLH: How did you get into the financial field?
BAS: I grew up outside of Chicago in a single-parent home with my older brother and younger sister. My mom did not ask for alimony and rarely received child support. She was a secretary who ended up waitressing so she could earn enough for us to stay in our home. We were one of two “broken” families in our small town. Truthfully, we were broke, but never broken. Out of college, I was a cost analyst for an engineering company. My husband at the time got transferred to California so I moved there with my 4-year-old and started doing tax returns, which I loved, and which was transferable, as there were years of transferred moves. His compensation packages became more complex, we had a second son, and at age 35 I decided to pursue the Certified Financial Planner designation. At age 40 I pursued a master’s degree in financial planning. I worked for others before opening my first RIA firm in 2001.
SLH: Is it competitive with men?
BAS: This year is my 30th year in this field. The number of women advisors remains at less than one-third of all advisors. The number of women who own a wealth management firm is even smaller, at less than 15% of all firm owners.
SLH: How did you break the glass ceiling?
BAS: I left the room with the ceiling! I started my own firm. No ceiling. I control my destiny and my success. I would sleep in my car before I would leave my success to others.
SLH: Describe how you have become successful.
BAS: Slowly, and over time. As a business owner, it takes time to build profits, and I built a business I can sell someday. We’ve done the same thing for our clients. We have helped them build successful financial lives that feed their dreams.
About the Author
Sandra L. Havrilak is the principal of the Havrilak Law Firm, P.C., in Fairfax, VA. Her practice is focused primarily on family law matters.