An Industry Transformer

Mary Anne Ehlert found a unique, rewarding way to set her business apart.

Mary Anne Ehlert isn't worried. She works in the financial services industry, where many others are worried, and with good reason. Not Mary Anne, because she's what I call an "Industry Transformer." While others face headaches like declining commissions, frustrating compliance issues, and negative growth rates, Mary Anne is looking at a blank check. Now more financially successful than ever, her clients thank her for changing their lives. What Mary Anne has created is unique, but the kind of transformation she has made is something other financial advisors can learn from and do in their own way, with equally liberating results.

Creative Destruction

In the 1930s and 1940s, an economist named Joseph Schumpeter coined the term "Creative Destruction" for a pattern he saw in the marketplace. Creative Destruction is the process by which an economy chooses the innovative and valuable over the old and unproductive. This change can be painful, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on the old form. But Creative Destruction is as impartial as it is powerful.

Industries whose growth has peaked (like the financial services industry in its current form), labor under their own weight, and their focus turns from value creation to self-preservation. Bureaucracy becomes the rule, and innovation is looked upon with suspicion. Entrepreneurs have an opportunity in this climate to thrive, adapting quickly to provide new and valuable solutions to clients and customers no longer served by an industry preoccupied with its own rules, traditions, and interests. Mary Anne Ehlert is such an entrepreneur.

Not Like Everyone Else

Mary Anne grew up with five other siblings including her sister Marcia, who had cerebral palsy. Marcia's special needs meant the family couldn't go on vacations or to restaurants like other families. Even her friendships were colored by this fact of her life: She had no interest in anyone who didn't also see her sister as a person.

Mary Anne spent the first 20 years of her career in banking, but after being given the task of laying off 1,500 people in two days, decided it was time to do something that would make a positive difference in people's lives. "At first I thought it would be retirement planning," she says, "but when I started up a business and opened my doors, I found I was doing the same thing as everyone else." Ultimately, she found her answer at home.

Discovering Her Purpose

While creating a financial plan for her parents, whose main worry was her sister, Mary Anne realized that this was what she should be doing: coming up with solutions for people who have relatives with disabilities. Their concerns were unique, and largely disregarded. The prevailing wisdom said to take out life insurance on the disabled family member, but Mary Anne saw that this was completely backwards: Her parents' biggest fear was for her sister's welfare, should anything happen to them. Another common piece of advice was to leave the disabled family member with a large inheritance. But this "gift" could become a curse, jeopardizing the beneficiary's eligibility for government services.

Mary Anne devoted her career to this cause. When she gives talks, people sometimes ask if this isn't too small a market. The audience always provides the answer: When she asks how many have a relative with a disability she is greeted by an overwhelming show of hands. In the United States, one in five people have a relative with a disability. One in ten of these relatives are severely disabled. Her commitment is supported by a huge business potential and the knowledge that she's making many families' lives better in the process.

It Starts With The Truth

"Take a Candid Look," is the first step in a process Mary Anne calls The Process for Protected Tomorrows. "Once we've wrapped our arms around the parents and made sure they have a future to look forward to," says Mary Anne, "We can develop a life-plan for the disabled child." Facing the financial reality of funding the child can be intimidating. "Is it going to be like sending your child to Harvard for the rest of their life?" asks Mary Anne. Families often avoid such questions, but only when the fears and realities are openly discussed can a family make progress.

A Complete Process

Insurance and investment products are not discussed until the seventh step of Mary Anne's process. There are so many other concerns to handle, spanning an array of industries besides financial services - medical, educational, legal, and counseling. When families find Mary Anne, the relief is enormous, and price is not a question for the service she provides. "I'm selling more product than I ever used to before having this process. But that piece is such a small part that when we get to it we don't ever have to ask for it. It's handed to us. They're saying, 'Please, you manage my money, because you're the only one who understands my situation.'"

Multiplied Tomorrows

Mary Anne has streamlined The Process For Protected Tomorrows into something that other advisors can learn and use. She began teaching advisors one-on-one, and now sells corporate licenses. This has multiplied her ability to make a difference, yet freed up more time so she can pursue additional causes, like lobbying to make investments for disabled people tax-free.