This planning firm gets strength from being a family enterprise.

    Joset Wright was recently divorced while she was taking a buyout for senior executives offered by her employer after it was acquired. For almost anyone, those events would be stressful enough. Then she was diagnosed with cancer.
    She credits advisors Cicily Carson Maton and Michelle Maton of Chicago-based Aequus Wealth Management Resources with "turning a really bad situation into something manageable."
Today the firm, owned 50-50 by the mother and daughter, has about $75 million under management and more than 100 clients. Aequus became fee-only in 1990 and employs six people, three full time.
    Cicily Maton, who initially focused on helping divorcees with financial planning when she founded the firm in 1985, was recommended to Wright, who sought the planner's help in 1998 shortly after her divorce. Wright's priority was setting up a funding vehicle for her children to go to college. The money she had to work with increased after the buyout, which provided her with a lot of stock options and the equivalent of two years' severance. When she learned she had cancer, a major priority also became having a plan that considered how she would take care of herself financially while she was recovering and if her health deteriorated.
    "They really helped me keep myself together emotionally. When you have some sort of a serious illness, you don't have the time or energy to worry about a lot of stuff," says the Chicago-area resident. "They were very helpful, and that allowed me to take take time off. I didn't work for four years, so I had a lot of time to get well. I would have been too afraid to do that if I hadn't had that type of advice. It was one of the few times when you could make lemonade out of lemons."
    The good news is that Wright is now fully recovered from cancer-and she achieved her goal of saving enough money for her two children to go to college. The former attorney, who later ran a  business line of a large financial services firm, now works as an executive recruiter, a job she loves.
    In addition to the emotional support and financial guidance they provided during her illness, Wright praises the Matons for helping her invest with a minority-owned money management firm, Ariel Capital Management in Chicago. As an African-American, Wright felt it was important to support such a firm if she had the opportunity. She also knew the owner, John Rogers, and strongly wanted to participate. Surprisingly, other advisors she consulted didn't offer her a way to do it, even though Ariel's funds have enjoyed solid performance.
    Aequus was much more flexible. "They gave me the options to use the money the way I wanted," she says.
    Taking a holistic approach to clients' needs has long been a priority at Aequus. Life planning was something the firm did early on, Cicily Maton says, but it wasn't until they attended a 1994 FPA conference and heard a presentation by advisors George Kinder and Richard Wagner that they realized others were taking that approach to planning, too.
    One way the firm made an ongoing commitment to finding the best ways to deal with client needs and enhancing internal communication was by hiring consultant Ed Jacobson, who helps conduct monthly employee meetings. Jacobson, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and a master's in business administration from The Wharton School, is a consultant for Money Quotient, a nonprofit organization based in Poulsbo, Wash., that helps financial advisors and others deliver advice aligned with clients' specific values, priorities and circumstances.
    Michelle Maton says during those meetings Jacobson helps them talk out client issues and offers helpful suggestions.  She describes him not so much as a coach but as someone who is collaborating with them on various matters. "There's always a lot of change in this industry. It can be hard on employees and on us, too, when things change. I think it makes the changes easier to live through and people aren't so stressed," she says.
    Client Tom Jones, a tax attorney based in Chicago, agrees that the firm works hard to be in tune with client needs. "It's their standard office practice to have quarterly meetings with clients, which affords us the opportunity to talk every three months. They and I prefer that. A lot of people hear from their advisor once a year. There's also more dialogue about investments," says Jones, who previously worked with other advisors.
    Aequus focuses on asset allocation, the benefits of diversification and where a client can pick up yield without additional risk, he adds. "Everything gets put in one master account, so I get more comprehensive reports on a monthly basis. They also have a pretty sophisticated Web site that's password protected, and I can get ready access to it electronically," he notes.
    The firm provides excellent technical expertise that's balanced by an ability to deal with clients' personal concerns, Jones says. "They are good at dealing with family situations, whether it's divorce, death or whatever; they are very empathetic."
    He believes the fact that the firm is a family enterprise reinforces its strengths. "Everyone works well and works well together. It's a very upbeat type of organization, and Cicily sort of sets the tone," Jones says.
    In fact, the Matons, both CFP licensees, might be one of the longest-running mother-daughter teams in the financial planning business. They joined forces in 1990 and have been working together in Aequus ever since.
    And it's not just the Matons who make the business a family affair. Also working in the firm are another mother and daughter, Lois Carlson and Fran Evans. Carlson works part time as a certified divorce analyst and Fran, a CFP licensee, works full time with clients on financial plans. Also working  part time are Cicily Maton's husband, Sheldon Lee, who does internal accounting, and office manager Nancy Caldie.
    Cicily Maton chose divorce as her marketing niche when she started the firm for a specific reason. "Divorce was a tremendously underserved market which I had emotional empathy for, since I was divorced myself. Convincing someone 20 years ago that they needed financial planning was a tough sell, but people didn't need convincing that they needed help with divorce," comments the 60-something founder. Eventually, however, the firm got so many referrals that its base broadened to the point where clients with divorce issues became a smaller percentage than those with other planning concerns.
    The opportunity for Michelle Maton to work at Aequus came after her husband got a job in the Chicago area. They had been living in California, where she worked as a pension consultant doing 401(k) administration. "I was spending all my vacations coming back to Chicago to see my family," recalls Michelle Maton, who is in her forties. "I thought I should just move back and go into business with my mom."
    Cicily Maton was thrilled. "I tried to be a parent that didn't put expectations on my children," she says. "I wanted them to find their own way-and in their own way. I never talked about her coming and joining me. Obviously I wanted her back in Chicago after college, but she chose to stay in California. When her husband was offered a job here, I was ecstatic."
    Her daughter was confident in dealing in other areas of financial planning, pensions for one, and that benefited the firm's client base, says Cicily Maton. Since joining the firm Michelle Maton also has become a certified life planner, another plus, her mother says.
    Also making for a good team was the fact that both women had some important similarities. "First, our ethics. If someone comes from the outside you don't really know how they'll be, but with your child, you know," Cicily Maton says. "The other thing is our sense of organization. Both of us are very organized, and we tend to think about things in the same logical, stepped way." Cicily Maton adds that they also complement each other: She is more intuitive and her daughter is more analytical, so they don't step on each other's toes in planning sessions.
    Although the two have been business partners for many years, the Matons haven't forgotten others in the firm. Recently they offered a minority ownership interest to Evans, who started as a paraplanner before becoming a CFP licensee. "She's been with us six years, and we want to make sure she stays around," says Cicily Maton.
    "It feels good to be a part of the firm," Evan says. "It feels good to be thought of that way and be part of the firm as it grows and continues."
    Carlson, who joined the firm a couple of years before her daughter, says she appreciates the openness and inclusiveness that the Matons have created. Carlson, who works for Aequus three days a week, didn't have experience working with divorce issues when she came to the firm, but they encouraged her to learn.
    They also supported her decision to start a cash-flow management business where she visits people at their homes to help them pay bills and clean out files. She also educates them on tools to help them take care of their finances. That work might seem like it overlaps  with what the firm does, but Carlson says that when someone has such a need she and Aequus evaluate whether it would be better for her or the firm to handle it.
    Creating harmony and cooperation in any firm involves effort, but Carlson thinks Aequus has met that test. "What's interesting here, and one of the challenges, is that we have mothers and daughters working together," Carlson says. "It's a balancing game, with two moms and two daughters, how they react, how co-workers react. I think we do that really well."