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Jun 27, 2022

A Risk That Paid Off

Unlike many high school graduates, I didn’t go away to college. Rather, I lived at home with my parents, and attended college as a commuter student. I never lived on campus. I never shared a dorm room with classmates. In fact, I didn’t participate in any college activities because I worked 30 hours per week to pay for my education.
It wasn’t until my honeymoon that I got to fly on an airplane. That was also the first time I stayed in a hotel.

I didn’t come from a poor family. To the contrary, we were comfortably middle class. I grew up in a three-bedroom house just outside Trenton, New Jersey. I attended public schools. My father drove an American-made four-door sedan, and my mom, drove a station wagon, of course! Dad was fundamentally a good man, purposefully conservative. He colored inside the lines. He was painstakingly conscientious, and took as few risks as possible. He was an attorney who played it safe. He spent 35 years working for an insurance company as a W-2 employee. He always wondered what life would have been like had he chosen private practice as an alternative. With a 1099 Ownership of his practice, would he have found his work to be more interesting? Would he have made more money? He knew the answers to both questions and, sadly, he had his regrets.

Have you noticed that as we get older, our regrets have less to do about our mistakes, and more to do about missed opportunities?

Otto Von Bismarck said, “A smart man learns from his own mistakes, and the wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” God knows, I’ve spent years trying to embrace this insight and be wiser in my decisions.

After the first 6 to 8 years as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, I was starting to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Life was good, and the trend line was strong. Yet, I wasn’t satisfied. I found the job to be too predictable, and a part of me wanted to live more opportunistically. So, I gave up my book of business, and entered the firm’s management training program. My first transfer was to Indianapolis. That was the first time in my life I moved away from home. I spent two years learning how to lead people under Rob Knapp, one of the firm’s most distinguished executives.

Then I was off to LaJolla, California where the stock market closes at 1:00 PM, and the financial advisors leave to go surfing. This was a very different world for a kid from New Jersey! Wealth on the East Coast walked tall in pinstripe suits and wing tip shoes. Wealth on the West Coast was more comfortable in jeans, Birkenstocks and long hair!
The tech industry was buzzing then, and entrepreneurialism was the rage!

I learned quickly that no one is actually “from” San Diego. Everyone moved there from somewhere else. In other words, that town was anything but homogeneous. Black, White, Mexican, Asian, Christian, Jew, and Mormon, everyone was welcome. We had it all, from the Homeless to Movie Stars to Wall Street Criminals (Ivan Boesky was a neighbor!).

On Sundays, I attended a Catholic Church that had a full rock band with a lead guitarist who could peel-off riffs that sounded like Jimmy Page. This was not something you’d see or hear in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Today my family has a great appreciation for the outdoors, especially the ocean, and much of it came from our time on the West Coast. I still take an annual surf trip with 16 California buddies every October to Mexico. There’s nothing better than long-boarding 75-yard waves in 80-degree water with a bunch of old guys!

To have lived and worked in Southern California proved to be a privilege. And for me, it was another risk that paid off.

My last managerial assignment was running Merrill Lynch’s flagship office in lower Manhattan. Some of the industry’s best financial advisors work in that office. In many ways, I learned more from them than they did from me! Early on, I was commuting in from Madison, New Jersey. It was about an hour in the morning, and an hour and a half in the evening. Shortly after my wife, Katie, and I became empty-nesters, she suggested moving into the city to eliminate my daily commute. I thought she was crazy. Our home was 100 years old - absolutely charming. Full grown, mature trees, in-ground pool, wonderful neighbors and a “downtown” that was something you’d see in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Ninety days later, the For-Sale sign was on the front yard. Katie hired an Estate Sale Company, and they sold 100% of our possessions - furniture, paintings, TVs, rugs, pots, pans, silverware, snowblower, ladders, tools and, yes, my Harley Davidson. “Not the motorcycle, Katie!” Essentially, we just kept family photos and Christmas ornaments. Shortly after the sale, we were living in a Manhattan apartment that was one-quarter the size of our suburban home. How did we feel? Liberated! Free! Unencumbered! We have lived in New York City for 10 years, and our life has been full of culture, sports, theater, music, restaurants and vibrant friendships. Another risk that paid off.

Managing one’s career can be weighty. Should you be cautious or opportunistic? There’s only one person who can answer that question: The Person in the Mirror!

Two summary thoughts:

1. I will always remain grateful for taking the risk of entering management at Merrill Lynch, particularly during the era in which I served. It gave me, and my family, a life beyond our dreams.
2. Respectfully, I regret not pursuing the independent channel sooner, having now experienced the freedom, flexibility and autonomy that has renewed my energy and enthusiasm for the job I love so dearly.

I encourage my Big 4 Wirehouse brothers and sisters to consider INDEPENDENCE. It’s a Risk That Will Pay Off For You!

Paul Sullivan
Founder and Managing Partner
Wealth Management Independence