I may be the only financial planner who aced organic chemistry

I, Ben Utley, 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.

How I Met the First Doctor

 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?” she asked.

Being a fairly direct kind of 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 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.

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 for a while I thought I was a goner.

Rather than let fear rule the day, I took action. In our next meeting, I asked this surgeon one question, “What is important about money to you?”

When I asked, I had no idea what he would say. His answer helped me to see how a physician’s perspective—their view of the world—is the key to what makes their personal finances “personal.

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 car dealer who saw my potential more than twenty 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 all over the United States. 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.

Teaming Up to Grow Forward

In 2015, when I found myself working 70-80 hours a week to keep up with the demands of a growing practice. I hired some great people to help me stay on top of things while spending time with the doctors we serve. With his help, I have more freedom to serve clients and I get to see my family at dinner once again.

We are dedicated to serving physician families, which means we are only accepting clients where at least one member of the household is a Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Otherwise, we have no minimum which means we can take care of young physicians who are burdened with student loans or buying their first home, mid-career practitioners who are saving for college and investing for retirement, or doctors who are nearing the end of their careers, focusing on post-retirement income and estate planning.