Editor's Note: This is the first in a periodic series on how women are successfully building their businesses.

When Margaret Starner rolled out of bed one sunny Miami morning ten years ago, the highly successful investment advisor was struck by a rather ominous realization: For the first time since becoming an advisor 15 years earlier, she realized that her survival meant dramatically changing the way she was running her advisory practice or quitting entirely. Simply put, Starner was becoming a casualty of her own success.
It was a sobering thought for the veteran advisor, who ranks among the top ten at Raymond James Financial Services. But despite enviable growth and profits, her business was being stymied by her lack of meaningful strategic and operating plans. As a result, she was working more hours than some might consider humanly possible, her capacity for growth was at the breaking point and there was no end in sight. "I woke up and discovered I was drowning in paperwork," Starner says. "Worse, I realized despite all my efforts, it was my fault. I hired staff, took a management course and bought new technology. Then it hit me, I was still the bottleneck."
And so Starner, who today manages $300 million for 125 clients (their average account size is $2 million) opted to get outside help. "I hired a consultant and we used him intensively for the next three years," she says.
The result? Starner streamlined her operations and built a team of three that implements the plans she designs for her high-net-worth clients. "The key thing is we have fun. And we've designed a sustainable business," Starner says. "I get to focus on what I do best. And I don't have to be here to run the firm any more." In 2006, Starner traveled to England, Prague, Vienna, Russia and had a party with several longtime friends at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
Now, Raymond James hopes that exactly the kinds of programs that benefited Starner will attract new women advisors and aid the firm's approximately 600 affiliated female advisors-who now account for 14% of the 4,300-person sales force working with the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based broker-dealer. "Our goal for our women advisors is clear," says Karen Schultz, director of Raymond James's Women's Network and vice president of its Private Client Group. "We want to ensure they have all the resources they need, while we continue to raise the visibility of our women's network and Raymond James among women advisors."
To get constant feedback from women producers on what they need and want to work smarter, Raymond James formed a 12-member Women's Advisory Council that assists the firm in building out its programs and resources for women and chooses the speakers and trainers for the annual Raymond James' Women's Symposium. (The company sponsored its 12th such confab for women this October.) Schultz calls the council the company's "go-to group for determining the actions we take." Starner is a member.
To be sure, the challenges of moving a vibrant and sometimes overwhelmingly successful business to the next level are essentially no different for women than they are for men. Realistically, however, women often confront additional hurdles. Chief among them is being primary caretaker for kids, aging parents and other relatives in need. Then, of course, there is the fact that women in the advisory and brokerage industry have the added challenge of working in an industry that continues to be predominantly male, and sometimes Alpha male at that.
"This is the challenge of human nature," Schultz says. "This had been a men's industry for a long time. We have to continue to educate everyone, including the investing public, on their options."
Atlanta-based advisor Marie Vidal figured that out pretty quickly when a male broker at the regional firm where she started her career some 20 years ago asked her pointblank: "Hey, why don't you just stay home and have babies?" Today, Vidal has built The Vidal Group (a Raymond James affiliated firm) to $100 million in assets, which she manages with a staff of three. Not surprisingly, at the time, she found her male peer's sentiment odd and off-putting.
While women today might laugh, wince or even litigate over such a statement, the real impediments to greater success aren't necessarily sex discrimination or caretaking duties-though providing care for an ailing spouse or family member has led more than one woman to leave the business. The real challenge, experts and senior women advisors alike say, is building a firm where women can to do what they do best while they build a going concern and have a life.
When it comes to building a business, the good news is that "women are much more likely to seek help than men are," says David Nelson, the former director of training at Raymond James. "Once you reach a critical mass, you have to say, 'The only way I can get bigger is to add staff, systematize and leverage others.' What you want to do is spend as many hours as possible meeting clients, explaining what you do for a living, creating trust and advising them. That's the service that's unique to you," says Nelson, now president of Life Enhancement Systems, a Long Beach, Calif.-based a training and development company that works with high-end advisors (www.lifeenhancementsystems.net).
Nelson takes advisors through a program that helps them pinpoint their value proposition, how they're spending their time, the profitability of each of their clients and the viability of current staffing. Then he helps them build a strategic plan that includes a standardized process for working with clients. "People have the greatest success when they fully understand what they're doing and why," Nelson says. "I think, by and large, people don't give thought to that. In the beginning it's all good money, but you can't stay in that mode forever. Sooner or later you'll get to the point where you actually need a strategic vision that includes a business with working parts."
According to Vidal, who received coaching from Nelson a decade ago, his strategic insights, along with those of the other consultants she's hired over the years, have made all the difference in the world to her success. Today, she has $100 million under management, which she manages with her husband (veteran advisor Wally Vidal) and a staff of two. "I decided ten years ago that we had to build a team so we could leverage our time, and with Nelson's help that's what we've done. For women it's critical that they invest in themselves and find a way to make life easier and more effective," says Vidal, who has categorized her clients based on how profitable they are. (They're earmarked as platinum, gold, silver and lead, depending on the profits they generate for the firm).
Judith McGee, a veteran Portland-based advisor, is dreaming of running a $1 billion advisory firm. The difference between McGee and others is that she's worked incredibly smart and hard to put a long-term plan in place to achieve her goal. So far, she's doubled assets at the firm to $385 million in just three years. "We're a third of where we want to be and are working to stay on top of everything we'll need to do to get there. I think we're on our way," says McGee, who with her daughter, Linnette Dobbins, runs McGee Financial Advisors, a Raymond James affiliated firm in Portland, Ore.
By any standard, McGee and Dobbins have built an enviable advisory business. They generated gross revenues that exceeded $3 million for fiscal year 2006 on the $385 million they manage for 400 clients. You could say McGee Financial is a firm on a mission.
McGee says she made the decision to build a very big firm when she reached a critical juncture 15 years ago about whether to remain a boutique or create a real business. She had five employees at the time, and has since ramped up to 15.
McGee attributes their success to many things, among them investing in training and technology and cloning the right clients. Paid employee training includes M.B.A. and accounting degrees and CFP certification. New technology at the company encompasses state-of-the-art e-filing, Voice-Over Internet Protocol, new computers and a new contact management system.
McGee credits a coaching program she went through for her decision to turn over all operational work to Dobbins so she can concentrate solely on client marketing and development and public relations. "This decision allows me to produce at a very high level," says McGee, whose average client invests $1 million with her. The firm's overall minimum for new clients is $500,000 in assets.
"I think we work incredibly hard, but we also work smart," says McGee, who with Dobbins did a workshop on working with the media at the recent Raymond James' Women's Symposium. Both women get their fair share of good press, which includes McGee's inclusion in Northwest Women's Magazine recent "Ten Women to Watch" feature story. "One thing feeds the next," says McGee. "I know that for us or any women to succeed, we have to stay visible and network. Only 12% of the advisors at Raymond James are women, and just a handful of branch managers. We've got a long way to go and we have to make sure we know the leadership and each other if we want to thrive."