By the time Laura Schilling graduated from high school in 1986, she had made a list of things she would accomplish: She would have two children, at least one adopted; get her CPA, CFP and law degree; and find a career where she could help people. She’s accomplished all of those things and meanwhile set up a wealth management and estate planning business that is staffed only with stay-at-home moms.
I met Schilling when I gave a speech to the financial planning graduates of the University of Georgia in mid-April. A tall, slim brunette, Schilling boils over with enthusiasm and energy. Her firm, Financial Innovations LLC, works with 150 client households around the globe.
Supporting that business are her moms, who sometimes work from their own houses and sometimes work from the office she runs out of her house in Atlanta. Sometimes she and her staff Skype with clients overseas.
Each “mom” has a special area of expertise so they don’t have to compete with each other, though all of them also do whatever needs to be done—even if it’s removing a car seat from Schilling’s automobile.
Financial planning comes naturally to Schilling. Though her own goal is to save as much money as she can, “Most people need to have more of a focus,” she says. “They need a goal, and if you give them one, they hit it.”
She grew up on Long Island, where her parents operated their own business. “At dinner, they made business decisions,” Schilling says. “They talked about new customers and how they would make payroll.”
She was the middle child. She was the first to get a CPA, followed by her older sister, Stacey, who works for an investment firm, and then her younger brother, Michael, who owns his own trading business on Wall Street. “There is no laziness in this family,” she says.
When she was in her senior year of high school, one of her favorite teachers, Edna Eagle, asked her what she wanted to do with her life. “I want to be a doctor so I can help people,” Schilling said. “But I hate the sight of blood.” So that avenue was closed. But Eagle said, “If you get a CPA and a law degree, you can help people and you’ll never have to be worried about losing your job.”
So that’s what she did, graduating from Emory University in 1990 with a Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting. She got her law degree in 1996 from the Georgia State University law school and her CFP in 2004.
True, she laid out ambitious goals for her life, yet she was anything but rigid about carrying them out. Many of her accomplishments were simply creative solutions to life changes, such as becoming a parent to her two adopted children. In 1997, she set up her law practice (she is licensed to practice law in Georgia and Florida) and at the same time worked for a financial planning firm in Atlanta. That firm not only allowed her to set up a part-time law practice, but referred clients to her for estate planning.
Not long after, she was meeting two longtime friends, Byron and Rachel, for dinner. When Rachel, who was pregnant with her first child, came home from work, she said: “I hate my job. I don’t know how I can have a baby and work at this job.”
Schilling said, “Let’s design your dream job.” The three of them made a list of things that were important to Rachel: flexibility, low stress, satisfying work, helping people, a good work environment, etc. Although they didn’t mean to, they ended up creating a job description that Schilling could accommodate at her own growing law practice.
Rachel went to work for Schilling in 1999, the first of the five stay-at-home moms she would hire. After that, “things just started snowballing,” Schilling says.
The “moms” in her office help her take care of both her business and personal needs (though not child care, which is handled by a full-time babysitter). All of the women have a mailbox with tasks (an “emergency box” for urgent ones). When Schilling got sick and lost her voice for a week at the end of April, her assistants took care of everything, she says. Ditto when she and her son spent five weeks in another state to wait for the birth of the daughter she would adopt.
The moms also take care of pictures for her business and personal life and send out birthday and holiday cards to all her clients. The women, who are independent contractors, turn in time sheets and are paid by the hour. They work at their homes, or at Schilling’s home, and make their own hours.
I asked Schilling if having an all-woman staff ever becomes a problem. I know many women (me included) who have worked in such offices and been forced to leave because of the contentiousness and—let’s be frank—the meanness. Her staff members get along well, she says, though in the past she made some hiring misjudgments because, as she says, she always goes for the underdog.
“It’s not always right to choose the underdog,” she says. So now when she hires a woman, she interviews all the candidates and then sends two or three of them to hang out with her staff. “I let them pick,” she says. She attributes the smooth work environment to that hiring process.
The other advisor in her firm, Charles Goldberg, came over from a large investment firm and has his own clientele. Schilling is in charge of compliance and assists Goldberg in whatever he needs to grow his business.
It took a little longer to achieve some of her other childhood dreams.
“I always said as a little girl that I would have kids,” Schilling says. “If I didn’t get married by 40, I would have them on my own.” But she discovered just about the time she turned 40 that she couldn’t have children of her own. So she put the wheels in motion to adopt. When she was celebrating her 40th birthday with a party in New York City, her baby matchmaker called to say she had found a baby and Schilling needed to send over the paperwork immediately. Sometime later, she got a call saying the birth mother was in labor. So she hopped a plane and went to meet her first baby.
She turned down about 80 babies before she chose the birth mothers of her two children. She wanted a healthy mother with no addiction to drugs or alcohol. She set up anonymous e-mails to communicate with the birth mothers. She did not meet her son’s birth mother before he was born because there was no time, but she was able to spend a lot of time with her daughter’s birth mother beforehand.
To say Schilling’s children are her top priority is an understatement. She drops Eli off at school at 9:15 a.m., goes to work and picks him up at 2:30 p.m. After she picks him up, they spend the rest of the day and evening together. She takes him to karate, to swim team and on lots of road trips. Both children go to sleep at 8 p.m., which is when Schilling picks up her work again, going until midnight, or later.
Schilling’s Web site, www.financialinnovations.biz, is chock-full of objective advice, resources and calculators to help with mortgages, insurance, debt reduction, you name it. She works with clients in various ways. One client may only need a will. Another might want a complete financial plan. After she meets with new clients, she decides what type of fee setup would be best for them. She offers an hourly fee of $375 for consulting and a retainer fee. She also charges an asset management fee that starts out at 1.2% for the first half million under management and shrinks to 90 basis points for amounts over $1 million.
Schilling sets up a custom portfolio for each client, investing in mutual funds, stocks, bonds and ETFs. For some clients, she sets up a commission-only portfolio.
With the exception of her designated “child time,” she’s available to clients at all hours. (Recently, a client called her at 10 p.m. and she invited him to come over first thing in the morning.)
The future? She has goals, of course, such as teaching college courses and writing books. She is now working on a Web site that will be a one-stop shop for women. But, as before, she’s not setting anything in stone. She’ll do these things, of course, but, at the same time, be open to serendipity. “I always tackle the hardest things first when I have the most energy,” she says. “Then the other stuff is really easy.” Easy for her, I’m sure. But I wouldn’t want an assignment to partner with her on a project. While I was still thinking about the assignment to write a workbook, for instance, she’d have the outline, the preface and the first three chapters done!
Mary Rowland can be reached at [email protected]. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written two books for financial advisors: Best Practices and In Search of the Perfect Model.