About W. Ben Utley, CFP®
I’m probably the only financial planner who aced organic chemistry.
I was one of those geeky kids who was great at math and science. I studied hard, made good grades, and even published my research as an undergrad. I earned a full ride to the grad school of my choice, and I thought I was destined to join the field of pharmaceutical chemists searching for the next cure.
There was just one problem: I don’t like to cook. I love the theory of science, but the practice of chemistry means measuring, mixing, cooking and washing dishes for days, if not decades, before something good comes to light.
Fortunately, my graduate research professor was more than a chemistry geek. He was a financial wizard who really knew how to make money work. When he shared his love for the subject, something caught fire inside me and began burning brightly.
Discovering My True Calling
I found myself here in Eugene, Oregon, a young man with no mortgage to pay, no kids to feed and nothing to stop me from pursuing my new found passion. I had nothing to lose, and I set off on my journey to help people make money work in their lives.
At first, I started out as a rep for a financial services firm where I sold insurance and mutual funds. I liked the work and I loved the people but I hated that icky feeling I got when I realized I had a conflict of interest every time I sat down with someone.
At that time, fee-only financial planning was in its infancy, and there was no place for me to go for an apprenticeship, so I decided to build my own business. With a used desk I bought for $65 and a computer I received as a wedding gift from my best friend, I set up shop in the spare bedroom of my apartment. My golden retriever, Emmy, was my constant companion and sole associate.
“You should work with doctors.”
Two years into my practice, I was cold calling to build my book of business when I landed an appointment with a luxury car dealer. To me, he seemed like a good prospect. But he saw in me something I had not seen in myself… something special. He said he knew I would be a good financial advisor from the first time we spoke on the phone.
One day we were talking about business, and he told me I should focus my efforts on helping doctors. He said he thought they needed help, and that my style of helping people might be a good fit for them. He said he “just knew I was the one.”
At first, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t know any doctors, and had no experience serving them. And it seemed crazy to focus all my energy on only one group of professionals.
The First Doctor Finds Me
A few years later, that wise old car dealer introduced me to a young physician who was newly-divorced and trying to figure out how to make sense of the money in her life. I knew from the moment I met her that she had what it would take to get back on the right track, and (with a little help) to become financially secure.
In her interview with me, she asked a few good questions, but the best one really caught me by surprise.
“Why should I hire you?”
Being an honest guy, I admitted that I had never worked with a doctor before. In fact, I’d rarely even been to the doctor before as a patient. I knew a lot about personal finance, but I knew next to nothing about doctors.
She seemed as surprised by my response as I was by her question.
And that was a good thing. By this, she knew that I had no preconceived notions about doctors, or about their money, or about the way they live their lives.
For her, I was a clean slate and a fresh start.
I found out years later that the wise old car dealer told her two things about me before our first meeting. He said I was smart. And he said I was honest. He knew I was the right man for the job even when I was having my doubts.
In that first meeting, I promised that if she would hire me and be open with me about her life as a practicing physician her needs, wants, wishes, tears, triumphs, hopes and fears I would make it my business to learn everything I needed to know to become a great advisor to her.
I kept my promise.
Approaching her finances with curiosity and respect, I asked questions and listened carefully without allowing judgment or bias to enter the equation. From what I gathered, I helped her begin to make sense of the money in her life, and to see a vision of how her financial plan might unfold. Together, we got her back on track and moving forward toward financial security.
Enter Mr. Surgeon
A year or two later when she remarried, she introduced me to her new husband and brought him in to my office. From the get go, he was a challenge: a strong-willed surgeon who had always done-it-himself and from what I could see was not certain he wanted or needed my help.
We worked together for a couple of years but we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. I could feel some tension in the relationship, and there for a while I thought I was a goner.
The Key to Serving Physicians
Rather than let fear rule the day, I got curious. In our next meeting, I asked Mr. Surgeon one question, “What is important about money to you?”
Honestly, I had no idea what he would say but his answer helped me to see that a physician’s perspective—their view of the world—is the key to what makes their personal finances “personal.”
Opening the Door
Understanding this, I developed an approach that allowed us to work more closely together, a way for Mr. Surgeon to participate in the process and feel confident about decisions he would make with my guidance. Years later, he told me I “got into his head somehow” and he felt like I understood what he needed. It was a breakthrough for my practice, and a win for his family.
He rewarded me by referring one of his partners who was married to a doctor in a different specialty, who referred one of his partners, who referred more young doctors in other practices.
The last time I did the math, I could trace recent clients back through eight generations of referrals, going all the way back to the wise old car dealer who saw my potential more than fifteen years ago.
My practice grew mostly by word of mouth until I received recognition from Medical Economics as one of their “150 Best Financial Advisors for Doctors”. Then young physicians began finding me from states as far away as Indiana, Maryland and South Dakota. When I realized that more than half of my clients were physicians, I renamed the firm from “Utley Financial Planning” to “Physician Family Financial Advisors” so that doctors who need my help can find me more easily.
Today, nineteen years after I started in the field, more than 90% of my clients are physicians practicing in most of the major specialties in nine states from coast-to-coast.