How one advisor transformed her business off a life event

Episode 95: Andy Hart and Julia Carlson join Ben Jones for a special fireside chat on breaking the status quo and transforming your business.
December 2019

Julia Carlson

Founder, Financial Freedom Wealth Management Group, LLC


Andy Hart

Vice President, Regional Wealth Consultant, Northwest Territory, LPL Financial


How one advisor transformed her business off a life event

Status quo can be a hard thing to break away from. For one advisor, it was a life event that turned into a springboard for transformation.

In today’s episode, Andy Hart and Julia Carlson join Ben Jones for a special fireside chat. Hear how Julia broke out to build a thriving practice and how she has translated her vision into reality. You will hear several actionable strategies from both guests that you may want to leverage as you charge into 2020 and beyond.   


In this episode:

  • Can adding a “coach” to your team help guide your practice in the right direction?
  • Andy’s use of the VPR framework: What it means and how it intersects your practice and your goals
  • Top tips for hiring and developing staff
  • Ways you can manage personal relationships as your firm grows

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Emily Larsen – 2019 has been a busy one, and we’re taking a break.  This is our last episode for the year, and we’ll return in early 2020 with our annual best of episode.  

Ben Jones – But before we head out for the holiday break, we just wanted to take a moment and say we are sincerely grateful for you.  Thank you for listening, commenting and connecting with us throughout the year.  May you have a wonderful and happy holiday!  

Andy Hart – If you have a waiting room, go sit in your waiting room.  Tell me what you see.  Are your magazines up to date?  What do you hear?  What do you smell?  Do they have to take an elevator up there?  What does that look like?  When they leave your office, do you walk them to the car or just the elevator?  What happens?  How about that?  And so it’s all part of that personal touch, personal experience that are going to separate you from the other folks that are out there.  

Ben Jones – Welcome to Better conversations. Better outcomes. presented by BMO Global Asset Management. I’m Ben Jones.

Emily Larsen – And I’m Emily Larsen. On this show, we explore the world of wealth advising from every angle, providing actionable ideas designed to improve outcomes for advisors and their clients.  

Disclosure – The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of BMO Global Asset Management, its affiliates or subsidiaries. 

Emily Larsen – Growing your business is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  The direction you take when deciding to expand your practice depends on where you want to end up.  How large will your enterprise be?  How personal?  What does success look like to you?  At the top of the show, you heard from Andy Hart, vice president and regional wealth consultant at LPL Financial.  Andy spends his time coaching advisors on how to build their businesses to be more fulfilling, effective and profitable.  

Ben Jones – Earlier this year, Andy and I concocted an idea to host a fireside chat with an advisor who had successfully implemented their vision of success.  The idea was to share best practices used to build their business in an intimate setting, peer to peer.  Today’s episode was recorded at one of those fireside chats in front of a live audience in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I was joined by Andy Hart and Julia Carlson, founder of Financial Freedom Wealth Management Group.  Julia has a powerful story about how she developed her practice and why.  Listen to this.  

Julia Carlson – From a young age, I remember sitting on my grandpa’s lap and watching the ticker go across the TV, and the stock world.  I was very entrepreneurial spirited when I was younger as well.  And so when I started out, I had a lot to prove.  Here I was, 23, starting my business in a male-dominated industry, and I was going to prove myself successful.  And I think in 2009 is when I started totally independent, started my business with LPL.  I was going for —  

Ben Jones – That’s an interesting time, 2009.  

Julia Carlson – Right?  I always say, if you’re going to make a big shift in business, I always feel like it’s best during a bear market, because you need to be in touch with clients more so at that point.  And it’s always — they want to have changes, even though they probably shouldn’t do changes.  They want changes at that point, so — hindsight.  So about 2012, I was three years into building my business, thinking I was successful, and I had rented out a boat to take clients on a client appreciation cruise.  And the event went awesome.  I was at a high, thinking, wow.  We’ve made it.  And I’m getting off the boat, I look at my phone, and I realize I’ve missed 18 text messages, 11 missed calls, and I learned about my daughter was in a very serious accident.  She was traveling in a car hit by a drunk driver.  Ended up being life-flighted to Portland where we spent the next week in ICU.  And the next morning, I discovered I was there physically, but I was not there mentally.  I was trying to get my assistant to bring me my laptop.  I was trying to return clients’ e-mails.  I was trying to do the trades and return the calls, keeping all of the balls juggling in my business.  Because I had made myself so important, so relevant in my business, that I couldn’t be there at the most important time for my daughter.  And so at that point, looking back, I learned at that point that I had to make some changes and make myself less relevant in my business and become a better businesswoman, and start building a team and systems, and just really learned how to back myself out of my company.  

Ben Jones – Wow, that’s a very powerful story.  Tell me, how has that journey evolved since then?

Julia Carlson – Well, it’s a huge success story!  I really got out of my own way.  We are now in the top 1% at LPL.  We have got an amazing team.  When I am out traveling the country or on vacation or with my kids, I don’t have stacks of messages to return when I get to the office.  Everything is being handled by the team.  

Ben Jones – So it’s interesting because you went through this watershed moment, and a lot of people wouldn’t take the wake-up call.  You did.  Could you just talk a little bit about what kind of reflective or introspection you went through to go through that process?  Did you do it on your own?  Did you ask for help?  Did you reach out to someone like Andy?  Tell me a little bit about how you went about discovery.  

Julia Carlson – I don’t think I knew you then.  So I was, at the time, part of Strategic Coach.  So at that point I was learning — they do a really good job of understanding what your unique ability is and really honing that.  But I was really good at going there and getting inspired.  But it was really hard to actually bring all of those concepts back and actually implement into my practice.  And so we brought on another coach that has helped me actually create structure — actually not only me but the whole team, helping us create that structure and a system to follow, I guess.  

Andy Hart – What separates an average practice from an elite practice?  One of them is bringing in a coach.  And I think — I don’t know how many people out here are using a coach, but to me, I think that’s very, very valuable when figuring out exactly — okay, what do we want to become, right?  

Ben Jones – So maybe talk to me a little bit — as long as I’ve been in the business, I have observed that the advisors that I have worked with or talked with that really thrive, really have really vivid goals and descriptions of the success and the thing that they’re trying to build.  And so it seems appropriate that we maybe start there with our discussion.  And Andy, I’ve heard you talk about this concept.  You’re the king of curation.  And so I’ve heard you talk about this concept.  I don’t know if you created it, but VPR.  So what is the VPR framework?

Andy Hart – Sure.  A lot of things we’re going to talk about today, it’s probably 80% or 90% of everything you’re going to hear coming — that we’re up here, you’ve heard before, right?  And then it’s hearing it, but then taking it a step further when you leave here, how you’re going to implement that into your practice.  So one thing to me is VPR.  That stands for: Vision, Perception, Reality.  So your vision will create your perception.  Your perception will create your reality.  And so within framework and context of what we do and how I work with my advisors, I’m making sure that they have what that vision is, and then kind of bringing them down that path, right?  A lot of times, they don’t have that vision, that perception of reality of where they want to be.  And it’s very important as you have your business and as you progress, to make sure those points are very clear, and you’re taking a step back and re-looking at them, and then making sure someone is there as a coach to help you.  It’s kind of like, what do I want to be when I grow up, and am I doing all the right things now?  If I went out and asked your top five or ten clients, what do you do and your team do for them, what would they say?  Would they articulate what you would want them to say?  And to me, that’s a big chance to go wow, okay, you’re right.  What is that?

Ben Jones – So Julia, I’m curious from your perspective, as you went through this transitional time and you thought about your practice, you worked with a coach, how did you start thinking about the vision of what you wanted to create, and how did that come together?  How did you develop it?  How did you then revise it over time and make it a reality?

Julia Carlson – I would say it’s always work in progress.  We’re always evolving and changing.  I would say early on, I never just wanted to be a solo advisor.  I always had this vision of building a business and having lots of offices and taking over.  And I understand that not all advisors want to do that.  But for me, that was my vision.  And again, I had to understand what I was really good at and then start to find people that could fill those roles.  And it starts with — for me, it was taking an inventory of the things that I was doing on a daily basis — all of those e-mails, the research, the trading — and starting to just delegate those things to different staff.  But also in that, that’s hard to let go, right?  Especially the client — how do you trust your clients with someone else?  There’s a process around that as well.  

Emily Larsen – You may remember Bernie Clark of Schwab Advisor Services emphasizing the importance of recruiting and developing talent in episode 92.  Finding good associates, developing that talent and retaining it is becoming a bigger and more important challenge for advisory practices.  We had to ask Julia more about how she approached and executed the hiring process.  

Ben Jones – What are the things you decided you were good at, and what was the first thing you decided to delegate?

Julia Carlson – The things that I started to delegate were the things that were not crucial.  So the trading was one of the first things.  We went to where we were doing portfolios and doing block trading, so that was a huge shift.  One of the biggest things was having someone — we call this position like a service advisor, client service associate.  They are in the appointments with me, so now all of a sudden we’re starting to introduce this team environment as opposed to, they’re just used to me.  And the crazy thing there is that when they would call, they wouldn’t keep asking for me.  Because they would say oh, well Teresa is available.  She was in the last review with you.  Is it okay if you talked with her?  So they started introducing the team, which really helped.  

Ben Jones – Wonderful.  So Andy, when you think about someone out there who’s listening who might be a solo practitioner, and they’re going to add their very first staff or very first associate, how would you do it?

Andy Hart  – The number one thing, which we can touch on later, is the segmentation process.  How do you segment your book?  How does that look?  And then from there is creating an ops manual.  So operations manual for every job, in essence, in your business.  Then you’re going be able to say, okay, I want to fill this, this and this spot.  I mean, my team too, within LPL and so forth, we can help you do all of that.  But I think that’s them taking a step back and going, okay, when I start doing this, what does that look like?  But again, it’s that behavioral side, right?  You need to know your strengths and your weaknesses, because you don’t want to sometimes hire someone just like you.  And so I don’t know — you talk to me a little bit about that.  How did that — did you struggle with that at all?

Julia Carlson – Well, in the beginning stages, because I was hiring, there was a lot of turnover.  So what I discovered, hiring, managing is not my strength.  So at a point, I had to hire someone that was actually a really good manager and had amazing corporate experience as a corporate executive.  So here I have very entrepreneurial spirit, and he had a corporate executive management background.  But because he was opposite, was a really good balance for us.  So when I got out of the hiring —  

Ben Jones – It got better?

Julia Carlson – All the magic started to happen.  I like to inspire people.  I like to get them excited.  So if you’re excited, and I’m excited, I think you’re going to be great!  But they would be just like me, and that does not make a good team.  

Ben Jones – You need the difference of thought.  

Julia Carlson – Exactly.  

Ben Jones – Now, I am curious, so when things didn’t go smooth, back when you were hiring, it’s easy to sometimes blame your associates.  How did you think through the process of objectively dissecting, is it me?  Is it them, or is it the process?   

Julia Carlson – Boy, that’s a good question.  Now, I would say we have very clearly defined core values and team principals.  So if there is an issue within the team, we always point to a principal that was violated or a core value that was not believed in.  And so when we went through this process of creating core values, there was one person on our team that opted off the bus, I like to say.  So it was like, they were not aligned with who we were becoming as a company.  So when you’re really strong in your core values and your team principals, it allows that coaching to happen, and see if you have the right people on your bus.  

Andy Hart – Take it a step further, right, because the bus you have has to do quite a lot of stops for all the offices that you have.  Yeah, you’re out of Oregon and so forth, but I guess just give us that higher level view of how many employees, how many offices and so forth, and your expectations of those.  

Julia Carlson – Yeah, so we have five different office locations, although three is where you’ll find staff full-time.  And so that was hard in the beginning because we were trying to figure out, how do you manage between offices, and how do you make sure it all looks the same?  And so we have seven staff in my office and then six staff in what we call the Valley, and then we have a virtual admin at LPL that we’re using that is turning out good as well.  So every Monday we have a meeting that we virtually connect, and there’s an agenda, and we go through different things that we need to go through to keep the team all-inclusive of each other.  

Ben Jones – So you have a team meeting every single Monday.  Tell me about the structure of that team meeting.  How do you structure the meeting?

Julia Carlson – Yeah, so we usually talk about what we call wins or celebrations.  So we’ll talk about how we impacted a client or a family.  When we talk about our goals, we always talk about it in how many — like, we have a goal this year to help 150 families.  And so we track on a weekly basis, where are we at?  How many families have we helped?  And then we’ll talk about if a problem happened, you can always point it back to a team principal.  Like one is listening generously.  So if we have a client complaint, most likely it’s because we were not listening generously from the very beginning.  So we’ll use that as an example of, this is where we went wrong.  So it’s like we’re saying, let’s talk about it as a team, where we went wrong, and then how do we do it better in the future?

Ben Jones – I really like the idea of using the principals as a teaching moment rather than a repercussion.  While we’re on the topic of hiring, the days of having an executive assistant and then you just being the client facing person are changing, right?  You’re bringing people in, client service associates into the conversation, planners, etc.  

Julia Carlson – Yeah, and we have a very clear career path.  So when we bring someone in, they can see exactly the salary range, where they can go within the company.  So we’re grooming them to say, hey, you can go wherever you want to go here.  So we created what we call an accountability chart, but it actually puts all the structure in place.  So we have someone in charge of sales, someone in charge of operations, someone in charge of marketing.  So we have a leadership team that holds those key ones, and then the staff is built down from that.  And we use a digital platform, and so we’ll have someone in charge of that digital platform for all the onboarding, for all — that whole experience.  And that is a good person that wants to become an advisor.  So we’ll put them in a career track for what they’re wanting to do.  

Ben Jones – Developing talent is crucial to growing your firm, and if you would like to see the accountability chart that Julia and her team built, you can download a copy at our show notes page – bmogam.com/betterconversations.  I’d really encourage you to check it out.  Now, I’m sure you caught this point from Julia earlier.  She mentioned that her company has a goal to help 150 families.  Now, this is pretty amazing, given that many people don’t even service that many families in total.  This is an ambitious growth goal.  But what was more impressive to me was that she told me 50% of these new families come through referrals, and many of the others are recruited from a biannual seminar that Financial Freedom holds.  We discussed attaining and retaining clients.  And as you’ll hear, the common thread in the answer was a philosophy of familiarity and empathy.  For everyone who’s sitting here in the audience with us, if you were going to give them one idea to help them create organic growth in their practice, what have you found to be the most effective thing?

Julia Carlson – Love.  

Ben Jones – Love?

Julia Carlson – No — and I say that.  It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s like, we do the right thing for our clients.  I would want to be my client because we love on them, and we take care of them, and it’s not just about their finances.  It’s about their whole being.  My president of my company actually went car shopping with a woman that was having all this anxiety about going and getting a car, right?  And Chandran went to the car lot and helped her buy a car, right, on a Saturday.  So it’s just like, those above and beyond things that your clients know that you’re there for them.  

Ben Jones – Now, let’s talk a little bit about retention.  Now, it’s good to get lots of growth, but then you have to service them well and retain it.  Julia, tell me a little bit about the client experience.  How much does that matter, and as you’re growing as fast as you are, how do you balance service versus new business?

Julia Carlson – I started out in the bank.  That’s where I got licensed.  And what I saw there was that it was commission world, next, next, next, and the current clients were not getting serviced.  So that was one thing I was passionate about when I started my company is I wanted our people to be serviced.  So we have a whole system to make sure that they are being touched, most likely monthly, whether it’s an e-mail to an event, it’s a newsletter, it’s a tax newsletter, it’s some sort of greeting, but at least annually that review.  So I don’t have to worry about telling the team who needs to be seen when.  It just happens automatically because they’re on a rhythm.  It’s all systematized.  Our CRM, I mean, that is our lifeline in the business.  Whenever a phone rings, that’s the first thing that comes up because all of the key notes are right there.  Not only their segment of the type of client they are, but their personal interests, their spouse’s name, the kid’s name, what they like to be referred to.  So we use the Salesforce Financial Cloud, but then we hired a consultant to really customize it for us.  One of our niches is small business and exit planning for small businesses, and so we wanted to really create a system in that that we could really track the process and the flow, all of our e-mail marketing, like if we have a referral that comes in from Dave Ramsey, they get an automated e-mail campaign, and that is all set up.  I can bring someone up, and I can see everything that has been mailed out to them or has been e-mailed to them.  

Ben Jones – So tell me how you’ve segmented your clients, because Andy mentioned pods.  I’ve never heard that description before.  But how did you go about it?

Julia Carlson – So, we’ve done it pretty traditionally.  We call them platinum, gold, silver, bronze.  Platinum is 1M+.  Gold is I want to say 650 to 1M, and then silver is I want to say 250, and then bronze, if you’re an advisory client, then you’re automatically a silver, because that is that annual review tempo.  And platinum right now, because the markets have been pretty good, they’re two reviews.  Gold is one to two reviews.  We kind of let our clients — we ask them what they want.  And we’re having a lot of success with Zoom video reviews, like fabulous results with that because you can share your screen, you can connect with them wherever they’re at.  And we’ve really enjoyed that.  

Ben Jones – Now, you mentioned digital platform.  Did you mean Zoom, or is there another digital platform that you’re leveraging?

Julia Carlson – No, this would be the robo-platform where clients onboard themselves, but they’re still part of our company.  They get our material, but the whole process is automated.   

Ben Jones – So with that robo-platform, is that across your segmentation, or is that mostly bronze or silver?

Julia Carlson – The way that we look at is, clients have two phases, right?  You’re in the accumulation phase, where you just need to save money.  You need to have some basic principles down, but it’s like, you’re in this accumulation mode up until retirement.  That is where the robo-platform is perfect for us.  And then once they transition to needing a distribution strategy, needing more advanced planning, then we move them over to more of the traditional distribution planning, traditional wealth management.  

Ben Jones – And as far as the client experience, you’ve got multiple offices which makes it even more important to have down what that client experience is like.  How have you made sure that each office represents your brand and the client experience you want?

Julia Carlson – Yes, we work with a branding company, actually.  We work with a marketing firm.  They do all of our branding.  They have created all the materials that are identical in all the offices.  We worked with a designer that put together our offices.  We wanted it to be a homey feel, so when they come in, there’s coffee, like cappuccino.  In the Northwest, coffee is a big deal.  It used to be coined the Carlson Cappuccino, but now that it’s beyond me, we have nice mugs for them, and they get that coffee experience, and there’s nice, comfy chairs for them before the advisors meet with them.  And so it looks the same, feels a little different, obviously different locations, but it’s very, very similar.  

Emily Larsen – The personal touches that Julia employs are fantastic.  But you’ll also note that Financial Freedom has used extensive systems thinking to orchestrate client interactions, experience and information.  It’s the best of both worlds.  Clients feel like they’re a part of the family, and your practice maintains growth and efficiency.  A great example of how these two approaches are balanced is in the concept they call the Love Binder.  

Julia Carlson – We present this to platinum and gold clients, and we call it the Love Binder, but it’s meant for their loved ones.  But it’s also a guide for them.  So it’s a three-ring binder that’s nice, has our logo on the front, and they have a key contacts area where they actually fill out their doctor, their attorney, if they go to church, all of their advisors or important information.  And then we capture, okay, do you have any accounts anywhere else?  So if we’ve missed this, this is a good point to say, all right, we need to make sure that if something happens to you, your loved ones can go to this one book and see everything.  So we incorporate their banks and if they have a safety deposit box, where are their real estate deeds if they have life insurance, long-term care.  So it’s a way to capture more information, but it’s also really powerful for them because it’s all in one place.  And then we have tabs for each account that they have with us with their copies of the disclosures, ADV, all of that goes in there.  And then in the back is will, healthcare directive, trustee certification, power of attorney.  So that way it’s all in one place.  And I want copies of everything that goes into here.  We put that in the eMoney vault.  Because it’s also a lot of personal information in there, so you have to be careful where they store it.  So it’s either in the eMoney vault or in this binder.  

Ben Jones – And how much of your work on those love binders do you work with an attorney to help them get set up?  Because I have to imagine there’s a lot of people who don’t have some of those things.   

Julia Carlson – Oh, absolutely.  So again, that’s why it’s not happening in the beginning of the relationship.  It’s happening after the money is here, they’re on boarded.  So that is when, okay, now usually the look is, oh, I need to get this updated, or we need to talk about this.  And then at that point, we most likely refer to an attorney that we work with because they don’t have one.  

Ben Jones – It’s interesting because I just went through this with my wife, and I was surprised the level of detail the attorney wanted to put all these things together.  And interestingly enough, we got a binder back with a lot of similar things.  One of the things that surprised me was, they said the number one thing that people are missing from their binder is passcodes to your digital assets.  So making sure that your clients list those digital assets and get those into that binder for their loved ones, because all of those accounts — iTunes, everything like that, you need passcodes to access.   Before we wrap up, I want to give a big thank you to both Andy and Julia for joining me for this fireside chat, sharing their stories and some actionable ideas with you on this episode.  One key take-away from our discussion is that at a certain point, advisors really need to step off the dance floor and get up on the balcony and reflect about how they would like to evolve and develop their business over time.  I asked my guests for a final thought on this.  

Andy Hart – Think about every single thing you do during the day, how many different hats you wear when you’re in the office, right?  Psychologist, portfolio planner, investment specialist, is there enough toner in the copier hat?  2080, okay, that’s the number of workable hours in the year 2019.  And I take that number and divide it by what your GDC was last year, and you’re going to see what you’re worth an hour.  If one of your clients, your A clients or your B want to do a meeting with you and they want to meet three times a year, let’s say it’s an hour to prep, hour to follow up, an hour to do the meeting, that’s nine hours.  Are you breaking even or not?  And that’s going to be a little a-ha moment for sure.  

Julia Carlson – So I just want to close with, my daughter is now fine.  I forgot to say that.  She’s 16 and driving and completely healthy, so that was a major blessing.  I love the part about the vision.  And I feel that if you’re casting this vision and holding that as a compelling future, then that should be bringing you into that future.  And sometimes we think about all the Hows, and the Hows get in the way.  Because really what I’ve discovered is, it becomes about the Whos and who you’re surrounding yourself with to make that vision a reality.   


Ben Jones – Thank you for listening to Better conversations. Better outcomes.  This podcast is presented by BMO Global Asset Management.  To access the resources discussed in today’s show, please visit us at www.bmogam.com/betterconversations.

Emily Larsen – We love feedback, and would love to hear what you thought about today’s episode.  You can send an e-mail to [email protected].com.

Ben Jones – And we really respond.

Emily Larsen – We do.

Ben Jones – If you thought of someone during today’s episode, we would be flattered if you’d take a moment and share this podcast with them.  You can listen and subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, or whatever your favorite podcast provider is.  And, of course, we would very greatly appreciate if you’d take a moment to rate or review us on that app.  This show and resources are supported by a very talented team of dedicated professionals at BMO, including Pat Bordak, Gayle Gipson, Matt Perry, Derek Devereaux.  The show is edited and produced by Jonah Geil-Neufeld and Annie Fassler of Puddle Creative.  And these are the real people that make this show happen, so thank you. Until next time, I’m Ben Jones.  

Emily Larsen – And I’m Emily Larsen.  From all of us at BMO Global Asset Management hoping you have a productive and wonderful week.   

Disclosure – The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of BMO Global Asset Management, its affiliates, or subsidiaries.  This is not intended to serve as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any company, industry, strategy, or security.  This presentation may contain forward looking statements.  Investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on such statements as actual results could vary.  This presentation is for general information purposes only and does not constitute investment, legal, or tax advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any specific investment product or service.  Individual investors are to consult with an investment, legal, and/or tax professional about their personal situation.  Past performance is not indicative of future results.  BMO Asset Management Corp. is the investment advisor to the BMO Funds.  BMO Investment Distributors, LLC is the distributor.  Member FINRA/SIPC.  BMO Asset Management Corp. and BMO Investment Distributors are affiliated companies.  Further information can be found at www.bmo.com.

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