Value Added: From Milking Cows To Mutual Funds

Here's Tom Heath's latest column on Washington's entrepreneurial set:

I attended a lecture in downtown D.C. about a year ago to hear Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard and now a member of Republican presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John McCain's inner circle.

Fiorina talked about how she started as a secretary and worked her way to become a top executive at Lucent Technologies and then head of HP. What struck me was an anecdote she told about how early in her career some male colleagues had scheduled a business meeting at a strip club, thinking that she would demur and that they could do their deals without her.

Fiorina showed up for the discussion, and that was the end of meetings at strip joints.

I thought of Fiorina and the challenges that women face in the workplace while I interviewed Brenda Blisk, a McLean-based financial advisor. She is chief executive of Blisk Financial Group, which manages $240 million in assets from clients in 20 states.

Brenda Blisk

Her career is not the uninterrupted arc of a woman born to success. Blisk grew up as a farm girl in Tennessee. Her father had 100 dairy cows, many of which she milked, and the family sold small peach trees and other plants to orchards in the South.

She entered beauty pageants, twirled batons and won enough money to attend Tennessee Technology University. She studied English and business and after eventually found work selling dresses at department stores. She was married and divorced. Then she met her second husband, David, a graduate of Duke University Law School, in Raleigh, N.C.

A friend suggested in 1985 that Brenda try the financial services business, saying it would be a good fit with her sales experience. She interviewed at four major brokerage houses and started at a training class at Prudential Bache in the spring of 1986.

Wall Street was a little different than selling Diane Von Furstenburg or Halston dresses.

"There were less than a dozen women out of around 60 trainees," Blisk recalls. "There was an expectation that the men would go further. It manifested itself in the training that was offered and made more easily to the men, who were given more resources and had more service from assistants at the company."

Blisk said the business world is overwhelmingly dominated by men. I checked some statistics.

Although they make up more than half of the population, women held 15.4 percent of corporate officer positions in 2007, according to Catalyst, Inc., a non-profit research group that seeks to promote women in the workplace. It gets worse. Women hold only 6.7 percent of the top-paying positions in the workplace, according to Catalyst.

Blisk left Prudential Bache in 1987 and started a financial advisory firm with her husband. She turned her gender and her sales skills to her advantage, reaching out to widows, women executives and "women of influence."

"Women relate to you and they understand how you sacrificed to get where you are in your career," Blisk said. "Some of us had to work, have children and then go back into the workforce. But not all careers allow for that. If you were a doctor, your credibility is built over time. You can't leave the workforce. I worked full time and my two children went to nursery school and after-care."

I thought "dress for success" was some goofy axiom that helps sell books. Not true, according to Brenda.

"You always have to to look as professional, if not more professional, than the men," she said. "People do not take you seriously. The same as an attorney or a CPA, you have got to look the part and you have to have wisdom and knowledge to back it up. I have had people come to me and say, 'I expected you to be older.' "

And she networks. She joined women's groups, and still belongs to organizations like Women In Technology and the Capital Speakers Club.

"I get a fair amount of business from the clubs, people know me and my personality and like me or are comfortable with me," Blisk said. "They send friends who are looking to retire and bring themselves and their husbands. Women want to know they are working toward financial security. Married women want security and they have children who want to get out in the world and care for themselves. The average widow in this country is 56 years old. That's a staggering statistic. You have a lot of women who need to be prepared. They have been home raising children for 10 years...and their breadwinner has passed way. That is a scary situation."

The Blisk Financial Group, which prefers clients that have $500,000 in assets available to invest and a net worth north of $2 million, has been recognized by Barron's as one of the top 100 women financial advisors.

So I asked Brenda, "If I had $100,000, where would you recommend I invest it?"

"You should put 25 to 30 percent in international mutual funds, including some of that in emerging markets. Put another 10 to 15 percent in real estate investment trusts or mutual funds with exposure to real estate stocks. You should have a fair weighting, depending on your age, in bonds. Put the rest in large, small and mid-cap stocks. Take a look at Liberty Street Horizon, CGM Focus, Thornburg International and Kinetics Paradigm."

She advises against buying stocks directly.

"We let mutual funds and money managers to that," Blisk said. "I direct my clients toward hiring the wisest people out there to do that. If I am going to a breast surgeon, I want somebody who has seen it all, who won't buckle under pressure. Same with stocks. People think they can manage their stocks, but they get emotionally tied to it. You want an experienced pilot when going through a thunderstorm, someone who will have the same amount of wisdom when you are going through a sunny day. Someone who makes unemotional decisions."

One other thing. In the midst of her career, Blisk fought off breast cancer. She would go for treatment at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Georgetown during lunch and then return to the office in the afternoon to see clients.

This August, she celebrates her 21st year as a breast cancer survivor.

Adversity, whether its male chauvinism or cancer, comes in many forms.

By Dan Beyers  |  June 10, 2008; 5:35 PM ET  | Category:  Value Added
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Interesting that Brenda Blisk likened choosing a financial adviser to selecting a cancer surgeon. Women have a real talent for finding something positive in life's negative lessons. Way to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse!

Posted by: Gail | June 11, 2008 12:21 AM

As the father of a little girl, I always appreciate hearing stories of women who have fought the odds and won, as Brenda Blisk seems to have done both in her professional and her personal life. She is certainly to be congratulated for that. I would be interested to know what she is doing to level the playing field for the generation(s) of women in the workforce behind her. How many women does she employ? What does the gender make-up of her corporate leadership look like?

Another fine job of shining the light on an interesting and compelling subject, Tom. Thanks.

Posted by: Chris | June 11, 2008 9:19 AM

what an inspiration to women still banging their head against the glass ceiling!

Posted by: ALD | June 11, 2008 10:20 AM

It says something that we still have to highlight successful women as something special, instead of something so completely commonplace that they need not be singled out because they are women. Soon....

Posted by: Anne | June 11, 2008 12:10 PM

Atta girl!

Posted by: A friend | June 11, 2008 1:10 PM

It's thanks to women like Brenda, that women like me (Gen X), have greater opportunities and fewer obstacles in today's work force.

Posted by: Tess | June 11, 2008 1:42 PM

way to go Brenda...

Posted by: rena | June 11, 2008 3:17 PM

Perhaps the Democrats should have run for President... she would have been a much better female candidate to break the glass ceiling... what an impressive resume

Posted by: Impressive | June 11, 2008 4:26 PM

Hard to believe that in 2008, the glass ceiling persists. Kudos to Brenda for blazing the trail -- succeeding in the workplace, raising her kids, and overcoming breast cancer. Superwomen do exist!

Posted by: Julian | June 11, 2008 5:01 PM

A thoughtful and thought-provoking study of what it takes to be truly successful...I especially liked the interweaving of her personal and professional victories. I'll look forward to reading more articles like this one.

Posted by: Phyllis | June 11, 2008 10:18 PM

An outstanding profile - Brenda is a remarkable woman and you captured her so well. I've spoken with Brenda several times at WIT events and after reading your profile I feel like I really know her. Her story is both impressive and inspirational - what a great role model!

Posted by: MC | June 12, 2008 8:37 AM

Congratulations to Brenda...working her way up from a rural environment to succeed in the cut-throat world of the big city environment is impressive. I would bet that the values and principals learned on the farm have served her well...especially in the establishment and development of her long-term client relationships.

Posted by: Bill | June 12, 2008 9:48 AM

Wall Street is definitely "a little different than selling Diane von Furstenburg or Halston dresses." So was Madison Avenue when I worked there as a copywriter in the '80s. I applaud Brenda Blisk for sharing her courage, patience and vision in her interview with Tom.

Posted by: Bev | June 12, 2008 9:59 AM

We are clients of Brenda and she has done an excellent job for us over the last 9 or 10 years. I second everyone's comments and applaud her.

Posted by: Bob | June 12, 2008 11:45 AM

As always, an interesting article. Its always nice to read about people succeeding by doing things in a first class way.

Posted by: David | June 12, 2008 1:23 PM

I have appreciated Brenda's advise and encouragement so much. As a woman I admire her for what she has gone through to achieve her success. In a world full of people who are willing to do anything to get ahead no matter what the cost she is a breath of fresh air. Brenda is incredibly honest and always caring. Thanks Brenda for how you have helped me!!

Posted by: Janet | June 12, 2008 2:49 PM

Let's fact it. Sooner or later there will be parity between the sexes. Look how far Hillary got! Women like Hillary Clinton and Brenda Blisk stand to make their mark in a big way. Just as 18 million people voted for Hillary, so should we throw our support behind Brenda. That glass ceiling may be hard, but it has "cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before."

Posted by: Chris | June 12, 2008 4:50 PM

Brenda has been our financial advisor since
1986. She is the primary reason we were able to retire at early ages. She is a very bright, informed and above all ethical
financial professional. Thanks Brenda for all your help and advise.

Posted by: John & Nancy | June 12, 2008 5:53 PM

Thanks Tom, for another great profile of a truly inspirational leader in the greater washington area. Thank you Ms. Blisk for sharing your story, for standing up to the boys clubs (which alas, still exists today), and for the lovely free investment tips! Also, thanks to all the amazing women who blazed the trail before you, and those who fought for laws to protect our rights, such as sexual harrassment laws, family leave act, etc., and to my peers who continue to fight for equality in business today. And finally, thank you, in advance, to the young women business leaders of all our tomorrows who will eventually fully share, if not own, the C-suite.

Posted by: mezz | June 17, 2008 5:39 PM

Reading a story like this inspires me. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, I look through my mental file drawer and pull out stories like this. They make me thing "If she can do it, so can I".

Posted by: JoanL | June 30, 2008 9:21 AM

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