A hang gliding advisor lives life the way he tells clients to: follow your dream.
Some people are meant to be close to the earth, and
others are meant to be in the air, even if it is only for an hour or so
at a time. Robert V. Bolen, who dolds both the CFP and CFA
designations, a co-founder of Bolen Dodson & Associates in
Nashville, Tenn., with more than 15 years in the investment field, is
one who wants to view the world from the air.
In between advising clients about their finances and planning their life goals, Bolen swoops around the skies near his home in Franklin, Tenn., piloting a hang glider. One of his best friends, Edmund Ryan, who accompanied him on his first serious hang gliding adventure six years ago, likes to remain closer to the ground.
"Ed was coming out to visit me from his home in the Bay area of California and I was looking for something fun for us to do. There is a hang gliding school at Lookout Mountain east of us near Chattanooga where you can take fun rides, and I thought it would be something interesting to do," Bolen remembers. "They tow you up behind an ultralight plane to about 3,000 feet and let you go with an instructor. The instructor lets you fly the hang glider for a little bit and you are up for about 15 minutes."
The pair ran into the instructor a little while later while they were having lunch, and Bolen was easily convinced to start taking lessons seriously. "I have always been fascinated by flying. When I was 22 I took flying lessons and got ten hours towards my solo pilot's license, but it turned out that was not what I fantasized about in flying," he explains. He also had done a little hang gliding, jumping off a "bunny hill" several times when he was young, and at first did not get much out of it. Then, one time, he flew for about 30 feet and got an inkling of what it might be like.
"I thought then, if I ever get a chance to try again, I will do it," he says. And that opportunity knocked when he and Ryan were searching for something to do.
The launch pad at Lookout Mountain is 1,300 feet above the landing site. A good hang gliding pilot jumping from the cliff can catch air currents and go much higher, or the hang glider can be towed by an ultralight to a higher altitude. The hang glider catches air thermals and wind currents coming up the side of the mountain to glide and soar and attain even higher altitudes, sometimes as high as 8,000 feet. The length of time a pilot can remain aloft depends on the pilot's skill and the air currents.
"If you see someone hang gliding and being pulled behind a boat at the beach, they are just being towed, they are not flying the hang glider," Bolen says. A free-flying hang glider, on the other hand, is steering and controlling the device and needs to know the topography of the jump site and mountains and how the air currents and wind patterns behave in that area. Bolen adds he would like to try hang gliding in Colorado or some other "big air" place, but will need to take lessons to learn how to maneuver the hang glider in different areas. Depending on the area, a hang glider can return to the launch site or end up at a lower altitude, like at Lookout Mountain, and be brought back to the launch site.
Ryan, on the other hand, would like to stay closer to the ground. Even his occupation, commercial real estate financing in Sacramento, Calif., reflects that choice. "You notice it is on the ground. I snow ski, water ski and run; all things close to the earth," Ryan says. Although he enjoyed some of his hang gliding experience with Bolen, after getting over his initial terror, Ryan says it is something that is definitely outside his comfort zone.
But the pair has had other adventures together. Ryan took Bolen on his first ski trip two years ago, when Bolen was 49, well beyond the age when most people learn to ski, and by the second day the financial planner was negotiating moderately steep hills. The two have known each other since college and their days of working as bartenders at a little rock and roll club outside San Francisco. Ryan also has been a client of Bolen Asset Management since his friend started the firm.
"We go on a 'guy's trip' every year. We have been to Costa Rica, and hiking the Grand Canyon. Maybe we'll try river rafting next," Ryan speculates. "Bob's willingness to try these adventures is part of who he is. It is probably the same thing that prompted him to start his own business. It is a determination to do what he wants and to succeed at whatever he tries. He looks for what is fun in life and tells other people to do the same. For his clients, he is able to take a global view and bring it down to the individual."
Bolen says he often invites clients and friends to join him hang gliding, but so far no one has taken him up on it.
"I use that experience as a story to relate to clients. I tell them they need to go for whatever they want in life. I have a picture of myself when I am old, sitting in a nursing home, and all I have left are memories. I like to think my life list will be complete. Hang gliding is something I always wanted to do. You feel so free up there, and at one with nature," he says.
Even his Web site notes, "You have only one life to live. Make the most of it."
"One client does not attribute what he did to my hang gliding but he says he did it because of our talks. He is middle aged and played guitar. He had always wanted to be in a garage band, so he started a band and now they play at weddings and other events. He is pursuing his dream. My wife was an oncology nurse and she said, at the end, people seldom regretted something they did, but they often regretted things they had not done."
Bolen started his career in corporate finance at Prudential Insurance Company in New York City in 1986, after graduating from Indiana University with an M.B.A. in finance and management. He then worked with Equitable Securities in Nashville, near where he grew up, before becoming a securities analyst at J.C. Bradford & Co. in Nashville.
A stint at a privately held company as chief financial officer and some time at Merrill Lynch & Co. preceded his opening his own firm, Bolen Asset Management, in Franklin. His firm and Lori Dodson & Associates merged in August 2006, and the new firm now has three financial planners and $50 million in assets under management.
In addition to pursuing his hobbies, Bolen is on the executive committee of Franklin Tomorrow, a community outreach organization; is on the finance committee of the Harpeth River Watershed Association; is a board member of 21 Drug Court, an alternative solution for chronic drug offenders; and is a member of the Christian Executive Officer Fellowship. He also is a board member and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Financial Planning Association and a member of the Nashville Analyst Society and the CFA Institute.
Bolen says he has no desire to try another aerial sport, sky diving.
"The hang gliding instructors say: Would you rather jump out of a plane and be hurtling toward the ground at 120 miles per hour, or whatever the speed is, and have to construct your landing gear on the way down, or would you like to have it already assembled? I'd like to have it already assembled," Bolen says.
That does not mean he hasn't had a few close calls. One time a "rotor" wind, which pushes back down after curving up the side of a cliff or mountain, caught his hang glider and corkscrewed him into a field, scratching him up and bruising his ego a bit. A couple of years ago, he bought an ultralight that uses the hang glider as its wings. The pilot can turn off the engine in the air and let it glide, then restart the engine.
"I had landed successfully several times without the engine, but one day it would not restart and the wind was blowing me back and there were some power lines in the way. I turned and there were more power lines and a barn in front of me. I hit a tree and tore up the ultralight and the hang glider. My wife and friends did not hear me coming until all of a sudden they heard a swoosh and I was coming in for a crash landing."
Now his wife will not even watch him hang glide, and Bolen has put the activity on hold for a bit because he cannot get life insurance to cover a hang gliding incident.
"My goal now is to become financially secure enough that I can hang glide and, if I die, I can leave my wife and children secure," Bolen says. He and his wife, Pam, have a 12-year-old son, Zachary, and a 14-year-old daughter, Marissa. Bolen also has a 32-year-old son, Jason, who has gone hang gliding with his father, but is not hooked on the sport.
"I've done it and I can put it away, at least temporarily now," says Bolen, "but I tell my clients they have to pursue their dreams. Those dreams may not be the same as mine. It may be family or a trip or an activity, but we talk about what they really want to do. My mission is to help people live inspired lives, free from money worries."