Michael Walther was on the fast track in Arthur Andersen's personal financial planning practice, close to making partner even, in 2002. He didn't make it, though, because Andersen blew up that summer under the weight of its problems with an auditing client, Enron Corp.
I met Walther online when he sent me an e-mail about a column I wrote for Financial Advisor magazine in October 2010 about financial advisors who ignore conventional advice and set up the practices they want. Walther liked the column because it mirrored what he'd done in his own practice. And I was interested in his story for a couple of reasons: the way he used the lessons he'd learned growing up with a special needs brother to put together a practice to help others, and the resources he gathered to make Oak Wealth Advisors, a one-man shop in Deerfield, Ill., appear to be a big business.
Walther, who earned an MBA from Vanderbilt University, interned at Arthur Andersen where he helped set up the personal financial planning division. These divisions were cropping up at the biggest accounting firms in the late 1980s. Walther then worked in the PFS operation at Andersen from 1994 to 2002. "We had a pretty strong little niche business," Walther recalls. "But inside a large organization, we didn't make a blip."
Still, personal financial advice was starting to become big business. But in June 2002, Arthur Andersen announced it would no
longer include a registered investment advisor and would lift out the personal financial planning practice with $2.7 billion of assets under management. Over 95% of the Andersen clients moved to the new firm. Business was good, but Walther, who is a CFP, CPA and CFA, as well as a member of the Personal Financial Services division of the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants, longed to return to his passion for working with families with special needs.
Then in 2007, his wife Beverly, a tenured professor at the Kellogg Business School of Northwestern University, developed "severe breast cancer" and Walther found himself with too many personal and professional balls to juggle.
The family survived that crisis and Beverly Walther told her husband that she could see he wasn't happy with his work. The two met when both were working on their MBAs at Vanderbilt. Beverly went on to get her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. She loved teaching managerial and cost and accounting at Northwestern. And she said to Walther: "You're not really happy. Why don't you quit?"
Walther agreed that he felt stuck. "I wasn't changing someone's life by helping them to grow their $25 million to $30 million," he says.
In December 2008, Walther opened his own advisory business in an office a couple of minutes away from his home. When I called him one day in December 2010, a professional-sounding woman answered the phone. I asked for Michael Walther. She said she would check to see if he was in. While I waited, I listened to a blast of great jazz music and then Walther picked up the phone. He told me later that this was part of a service he set up when he started his own firm to make his one-person firm seem more professional and credible.
That's one of the reasons he liked my column in FA: "I have found it odd that we as advisors are constantly being told to go deeper with clients and help them with the issues in their life that mean the most to them," Walther writes. "At the same time, the experts are telling financial advisors that they should be constantly doing more business development and only focusing on the most profitable niches. Your piece does a great job focusing on advisor satisfaction."
When I talked with him, he said: "Most people think that the person at the large firm looks much more credible." What gives him the most satisfaction in his new business is his ability to focus on special needs families. Walther, who is 43, has a very close relationship with his brother, Sean, 41. When the boys were growing up, it was clear to the family that Sean had developmental problems, although it was not until he was in his thirties that Sean was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.