Nancy Coutu studied finance and economics in college, but she never imagined that more than 30 years later she would find herself in the financial services field. “I was always very interested in it and thought I would pursue something in it, but never dreamed I would be in this career,” she admits.
Yet like so many in the financial planning business, her path to the industry was a circuitous and serendipitous one. It came through her former husband, who, after retiring as a police officer, took at a job at what is now Ameriprise.
A shy person, he was having a difficult time going out and meeting prospects. So Coutu helped coach him on how to better approach his potential clients and as she did, she learned more about the business. The more she learned, the more she became interested in it.
It was around that time there was a change in management at the company where she sold computer services. Though she was uncomfortable with the changeover, she was at first reluctant to give financial services a try even after a peer of her ex-husband’s suggested she was a natural fit for the profession.
“I said, no, no, no,” Coutu recalls. “I was used to calling on bank presidents, high-up corporate executives at big professional offices. He was meeting people at kitchen tables. I could never do that. After we talked I decided, I might as well try it, this is the perfect timing. I want to leave. Who knows? I tried it and the rest is history. I fell in love with it.”
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On and off the corporate path
So Coutu joined Ameriprise, rising from agent to supervisor to head of a district, winning “Rookie of the Year” and “Representative of the Year” honors along the way.
When she first started at the firm some 30 years ago, having a woman in the ranks wasn’t unusual. But a woman like her was new to her male counterparts.
“To have a woman that really had big goals and was really striving to hit and exceed those goals was something they had never seen before.” Coutu says. “So I was kind of a novelty. No one took me seriously, the manager didn’t take me seriously. He had me competing with another man in the office, but I surprised everyone by exceeding every target they gave me.”
Yet she is quick to add that she never wanted to compete against her colleagues. Rather, she sets goals for herself to achieve.
“I never competed with other individuals, my manager made me do that,” Coutu says. “I only competed with myself. I still do. I have goals for myself and I get satisfaction from achieving my own personal goals. It could be business goals, it could be personal health goals, or family goals. I tend to be goal oriented.
“I’m also very much a relationship person,” continues Coutu. “Can you do both simultaneously? Absolutely. If I want to bring on 50 more clients this year, I set that goal. It’s still a relationship in that I might see 150 people to get to that 50. It’s something you can do simultaneously very easily.”
Ultimately, it was that preference for building relationships that led her to step away from the corporate world and into her own practice. In 1987, she and a former Ameriprise colleague, John Gajkowski, launched Money Managers Ltd., a securities and insurance firm, in Oak Brook, Ill. A year later, they opened an advisory firm offering fee-based planning and portfolio management.
What drove her — and what still drives her — is her passion to help people save for a secure, comfortable retirement, something her own parents didn’t do very well.
“They lived day to day, had five kids, were always on tight budget and never saved for themselves,” Coutu says. “As a result they were very financially strapped. I was committed at a very young age to not be like that.”
She was also committed to succeeding in a field dominated by men. As a trailblazer 30 years ago, it was sometimes difficult convincing potential clients she was actually the Ameriprise advisor. She would call to make an appointment, only to be asked when they were going to meet with her male boss.
Yet being a woman could have its advantages. She found that prospects were more likely to open their doors to a female. (“Back in those days, we did house calls,” she says.)
So she never got into the habit of thinking, “Oh, poor me, I’m the only woman.” Instead, she maintains it has helped her in her career. “I don’t see any barriers. Never have, never will.”
Consequently, she is somewhat at a loss to explain why more women aren’t in the industry. When she was at Ameriprise, she recruited women into the firm, only to see them eventually leave.
“I don’t see an incredible amount of women in our industry today,” Coutu says. “I’ll go to a conference and they’ll be 400 people in a room and there might be 20 women, if that. It’s very disheartening to me. I would love to see more women come in and I’m not sure why more don’t.”
Her only explanation is that the women she recruited at Ameriprise early in her career had families and may have been dissuaded because of the evening hours. However, Coutu, a stepmother to two sons and step-grandmother to three, stresses it can be a great career for a mother. She can make her own hours, select her clients, and pursue one of several specialties.
“You can develop anyway you want,” Coutu says. “You can work with any type of client — you can do business owners, you can just do benefits plans, you can just do 401(k)s. I prefer individual women.”
What could aid in bringing more women into the fold is having females do the actual recruitment. Coutu finds that many times it’s men who act as recruiters. But they may not be able to address concerns specific to women with families, such as what to do if a child becomes ill at school and you are on an appointment. “I don’t think necessarily that the men, who are typically the ones who recruit, know how to answer those questions or answer them effectively.”
Helping professional women
Coutu has built her practice on just that: advising and answering the questions of a clientele that features a large percentage of single females. She estimates that of her 250 clients, about 40 percent fall into that category. However, she notes that some came to her as part of a couple, but were later widowed.
She traces that concentration to a chance consultation about 15 years ago with a CPA who worked with one of her single female clients. Together, both worked out the client’s problem. Having noticed that many of his single female clients had substantial piles of money stashed away in savings accounts, he asked Coutu if he could refer those clients to her for investment advice. From there and through more referrals from her women clients, her practice in that particular segment grew.
Along the way, Coutu has observed some common traits among her female clients. First, even though they are accomplished professionally, many are confounded by how to invest the money they’ve earned, and are somewhat embarrassed to confess that. Therefore, they feel more comfortable admitting that to another woman, Coutu says. They also fear being taken advantage of, she adds.
Further, women are by nature conservative investors. Hence, they are content to leave their money in savings accounts earning rather puny interest rates. On a scale of one to 10, one being the most conservative in terms of investing and 10 being the most aggressive, women rarely venture over five, Coutu says.
It’s her job, then, to educate her women clients and make them understand that taking no risks with their money is perhaps the riskiest strategy of all.
“Women want to be educated; they don’t want to be sold,” Coutu says. “They want to be informed. They want to see why you are saying things. That’s why I enjoy working with women, they want to see the process. Don’t just tell them where to put the money, that’s the totally wrong approach.”
In addition to tutoring her clients, her approach is to balance and ladder a portfolio within the client’s risk tolerance. In this “bucket” method, a client’s finances are mapped out in five-year increments. Accordingly, when they retire, the cash needed to support the first five years is safe and guaranteed. Money reserved for 10 and 15 years out is put in investments that gradually move up the risk scale.
“You don’t put all of your eggs in any one basket,” Coutu says. “There is no perfect investment, including your savings account.”
The “bag lady” syndrome
So why are women more conservative by nature? Coutu attributes it to several factors, including what she sees as their biggest fear: that they will end up as a “bag lady” if they lose their financial independence. “That’s one of the reasons they horde and stockpile money in savings accounts,” she says. “They don’t want to expose it to risk where they might lose it.”
Further aware of the likelihood of a longer lifespan, women are concerned about who will take care of them in their old age — a tangible anxiety for most women particularly if they are taking care of an aging parent. They don’t want to be dependent on their children. (“I don’t want my kids coming to change my diapers,” is what clients tell Coutu.)
“So it’s natural to be more conservative with your money when you’re going to be around for a long time,” Coutu says. “And they’ve all experienced 2008 and the early 2000s and they want to be prepared for ‘the next time.’ ”
Getting women not only to overcome their conservative investing outlook, but also to consider a career in financial services must start at an early age, Coutu believes. She relates the story of her young niece, who bought her first piece of real estate at the age of 23. Women have a tendency, she finds, to think once they get married, everything will “be all right.” That’s the wrong way to think, Coutu told her niece.
“I told her when she was a little girl you have to take care of yourself, pretend you are never going to get married,” Coutu says. If a woman is financially secure, “it only enhances the relationship if you already have savings, no debt, and own real estate. She ended up getting married and it’s the best for both of them. She knows she is financially secure no matter what happens in the marriage. So we need to educate young women better.”
That educational process should also include teaching women to be business owners. “I have clients bring their kids or grandkids in that are females to talk to me one-on-one on what it’s like to be a woman business owner. Most girls are never told, when you grow up, you’re going to be a business owner. That conversation never goes out to them.”
Too bad that doesn’t happen more often, because the industry can definitely use more women like Nancy Coutu.