“If you asked someone on the street to describe a financial advisor to you, most people would probably describe a 50-year-old white man. That’s not a bad thing, or people trying to be disrespectful. It just reflects that many people still expect a certain person when they think of this industry and this role.”
Margo Sweany, V.P. and wealth advisor working out of RMB’s Denver office, told me this during our call in May. We were interested in talking to Margo because she does not fit the stereotypical image that many people associate with financial advisors. As a woman working in a male-dominated industry, and a millennial often interacting with generation X or baby boomer colleagues and clients, we thought she would offer a unique take on what it’s like to be a financial advisor today.
Marcus Emanuel: Let’s start with the million-dollar question—what drove you to become an advisor in the first place?
Margo Sweany: Actually, for most of my young life, I thought I was going to go into music. I grew up playing instruments—flute and piccolo, but also piano and guitar—and went to a performing arts-focused high school. I was pretty heavy on the artsy side, and I was convinced I was going to go to college for music. But ultimately, after some sound parental advice, I decided to go into business.
ME: Must have been some convincing words of wisdom! Which parent and what was the advice?
MS: It was from my dad, who is actually also a financial advisor and has been for decades. So I was lucky to have exposure to the industry and the wealth management track early on through him. I knew I had a knack for math and I liked working with people, so he suggested I look at wealth management, but it wasn’t until I did a few internships with firms that I knew being an advisor would be the right fit.
ME: That sounds like a big change from a music career. How did you manage it?
MS: It definitely was—the arts school is very different than the business school—but there were a lot of transferrable skills. For one thing, I think people that are good at math are often good at music—after all, music is just math. But also, the skills I’d developed were hugely helpful. The discipline I’d learned—getting up every day and practicing something until it’s right—that’s important no matter what you do. Or how to work on a team—if you’re in a jazz band and someone isn’t playing their part right, it messes up the whole song. There were definitely a lot of life lessons that I took from my time in music that I still use every day.
ME: So then coming out of college, how did you find your way to RMB?
MS: Well, I graduated in December of 2008, so perfect timing to watch the bottom fall out of the market. I was supposed to start at another company, but the company was bought out in the mess of the financial crisis. One of my closest friends, though, was from Hinsdale and introduced me to Dick [Burridge]. Dick and I were able to grab lunch and I was so nervous that I spilled half of my salmon salad on my lap. The way I remember it is me being tongue-tied and embarrassed the whole time, but it must not have deterred Dick too badly because, after a round of follow-up interviews, I ultimately got a job!
ME: Must not have been too bad! As you were getting started in your career, what preconceptions did you have about the industry, and how did they compare to your actual experience at RMB?
MS: A lot of my preconceptions were based off experiences with my dad. He used to bring me to the Take Your Daughter to Work Day every year so I could see the brokerage and hang out. Even as a young kid, it was impossible not to notice that there was only one woman in an office and the rest were answering phones in the bullpen. So I didn’t have any illusions about women’s representation in the industry.
ME: Was that intimidating?
MS: I would like to say that as a 21-year-old I was really confident and ready to jump in, but that wouldn’t be honest. It was a little intimidating. But it didn’t take long after starting at RMB for that intimidation to be replaced with confidence. I think that change comes from a couple of places. For one, coming out of college and starting your first professional job is typically a bit scary, but that fades once you get into the work and start doing it. Once you begin to realize that you’re just as competent as your peers, that worry starts to go away. The other thing is, I was lucky to land at RMB. I’ve always felt supported in pursuing my career path. Plus, we have a fantastic representation of women, both from the statistics point of view and from the women that work at the firm. A lot of the women that I started working with back then—Sue Christoph, Michele Francisco, Erica Tarantur, Katherine Lester, Kerry Straub—are leaders in the firm now. That says a lot about how RMB develops all of its employees and also demonstrates openness to providing leadership opportunities for women here.
ME: Tell me more about this idea of RMB supporting you in your career. What has that looked like?
MS: On a very practical level, my managers and team members have been very encouraging of me getting more education, such as helping me get my Series 65 or sponsoring me to get my CFP. There’s always been a focus on where do you want to go and how can we help you get there. When there was an opportunity for me to move back home and work at the Denver office, the firm was all about finding a way to make it happen.
But the other piece of that is the personal side. You can tell from the top down that management really cares about the employees and wants them to be happy. People were always open about wanting to find a way to help me grow my career and find a position where I was happy. Knowing that people from the top had my back and were really interested in my growth—whether or not that benefited them—was a huge part of feeling empowered and important.
ME: I hear you. That’s wonderful. And now you’re an advisor, among our youngest generation of advisors, the millennials. What kind of challenges or opportunities come with that?
MS: I do think there are a few advantages. For one thing, we really grew up in the age of comprehensive financial planning. From the beginning, we were trained to look at a client’s life—their family, their goals—and then back in to the right plan from there. Whereas someone like my dad, an older advisor in the industry—they really started out as stock brokers slinging stock picks and working on commission. One of the huge value-adds of the new generation is we’ve had training in this new environment of holistic and comprehensive planning.
Also, I think one of the overlooked benefits of being a millennial advisor is the continuity we can provide for our clients. When I work with my clients to create a multigenerational, decades-long plan, I can actually deliver on that and see through its execution. If I were a client and building a plan for my kids or grandkids, I would want to know that the person I’m building the plan with is going to be around to execute it and serve my kids or grandkids. Millennial advisors have long careers ahead of them. And I can say, personally, I hope to be serving my clients and their families for decades to come.
ME: Makes sense to me. Though the responsibilities of your role sound like a recipe for stress and pressure. What do you like to do outside of work to counterbalance that?
MS: I spend an inordinate amount of time with my family. My parents live a couple blocks away, and I joke that I need to break up with them since they’re the only people I hang out with. Also, I feel like any person in Colorado would give you this answer, but I love spending time in the outdoors. I’m really into gardening and I actually teach composting classes for the city of Denver. I am a master composter, believe it or not.
ME: What’s the secret? I hear it’s all about the layers.
MS: It’s all about the layers and all about the mix. You have to have a good balance of nitrogen and carbon, greens and browns.
ME: And do you still keep in touch with your creative background at all?
MS: Definitely. I see lots of live music and I sit on the board for the Advanced Beginner Group, which is an experimental theater and dance company out of New York. They just do the most amazing, interesting work. It’s been great to be involved with them.
ME: What’s your favorite concert you’ve been to?
MS: Well, I met my boyfriend at a Run the Jewels concert, so I’d probably have to say that one. And...just last week he became my fiancé!
ME: Congratulations!! How did he ask you?
MS: My whole family went to Mexico for vacation. We went snorkeling and for a hike, and he popped the question on a cliff by the ocean. When we got back to the house, everyone in my family was wearing shirts that said, “She said yes!” in Spanish. And then we just celebrated for the rest of the trip!