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.
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.
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