When it comes to helping people manage their money and planning for the future, Katherine Dunlevie said it ultimately comes down to trust.
That's what she learned through the years as a senior relationship manager with Synovus Family Asset Management. But it's also very much about taking care of details, communication and getting things done properly and promptly.
"That's what I learned in that role, is you've got to be incredibly detailed, you've got to be able to multitask, and you've got to follow through on things," said Dunlevie, who was recently promoted to managing director of the Columbus-based banking firm's Family Asset Management division, or FAM for short.
In that position, she oversees 28 employees and roughly $4.7 billion in assets, serving 54 families primarily in the Southeastern United States. More than a year ago, Bloomberg Markets Magazine named the Synovus operation one of the Top 50 Family Offices in the world.
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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the occupation of personal financial adviser should have "much faster than average" growth over the next decade. There were 223,400 individuals earning a living in the profession in 2012, with 27 percent more needed by the year 2022. Median annual pay is listed at $67,520.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Dunlevie, 37, a transplant from Atlanta, about her job, the services it covers, and what it takes to succeed. This interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
What were your duties as a senior relationship manager?
I managed a book of about 12 families, mostly in Atlanta and St. Simons, Ga. We work with all generations of a family, so some of them would have family members all over the country.
Is that a typical load?
It is. Most of our relationship managers will handle somewhere between 10 and 15 families. Some families are much bigger than others. I had one that had 55 members in the family. It was actually 17 family units. That one takes a lot more time than one that is just mom and dad and their children. Most of the time it's three generations that we're working with.
How do you assist those clients?
We focus on asset management on the investment side, as well as comprehensive estate planning and wealth transfer. Most of our clients are worth north of $25 million, so for the most part it's transferring wealth to younger generations or to charities. That's very important to them.
So it's a lot of wealth transfer planning, tax planning, investment management. Some (clients) are more liquid than others. A fair number have either at some point owned a privately held family business, or currently do. The ones who have sold it are typically more liquid, so there's investment management for those. The ones who are still operating the family business, often it's working more on business succession planning, cash-flow planning, and family members that want to be involved in the business versus those who don't want to be involved.
We deal a lot with family dynamics and what we call the soft issues and helping families learn to communicate with each other. It's very important to us to have a great understanding of not only a family's desire to transfer wealth, but what kind of legacy they want to leave, what kind of values they want to transfer.
We've helped families set up family councils and family foundations to help younger generations learn how to be more charitably inclined and help them identify what their passions might be. It can be very different from their parents. Often, that's a tension that you feel with these types of families is that dad has been very successful, and the child struggles with being in the family business. So we get pretty involved in the communication aspect among family members.
You must get to know folks and their personalities pretty well?
Absolutely. We're the quarterback for everything. They have CPAs (accountants) and attorneys that we work with. But we're the quarterback for the entire plan. We work very, very closely with all of their outside advisers or their internal CFOs (chief financial officers) and their businesses. But FAM is the primary leader, if you will, in coordinating the overall agenda.
How much time on average do you spend with clients and does it require face-to-face meetings, phone calls and emails?
It's everything. In fact, I would say with some of my clients I'm probably talking to some member of the family, if not every day, three times a week; and sometimes multiple times a day depending on what we might have going on.
And within FAM, we have experts in-house. We have a full investment team with a chief investment officer and some portfolio managers. We have what we call a financial strategies team that has three attorneys, two of which have their masters in tax. So the relationship manager would pull those folks in as needed for whatever you're working with on your particular families.
Did the recession change how things are done?
It did. (Clients') businesses struggled more. There probably was more of a focus on cash-flow planning, especially for those where there was leverage (debt). As you know, the banks tightened up on things and we really had to get in and help them manage their balance sheets and help them communicate to their outside advisers with what they were doing. It definitely was a more tense time.
But I would say our clients would tell you they needed the family office more than ever, because we could take a lot of the load off of them so -- if they owned their business -- they could focus on keeping their customers happy and continuing to grow it or manage it.
It helps take uncertainty out of their lives?
Absolutely. Typically at this level of wealth, they've made their money. So we take a whole lot less risk with our clients. They're not trying to hit the homerun anymore. They've hit it. So now we're very conservative in how we manage portfolios. We want to hit singles and doubles and triples and maintain and preserve their wealth.
Probably more focus went to some of the younger generations who had to come to an understanding of what it meant to them that we're in a new normal in the financial world. Where it used to be pretty easy to come up with an idea and start a business, get the bank loan, their idea now has to be more grounded and better pro formas (planning documents). So working with the younger generations and even just living within their means has probably been more of a focus lately than prior.
Is the asset management business growing?
There's a lot of opportunity for growth. We feel FAM is really a jewel within Synovus and has an opportunity to be one of the premier business units in this company. My role as managing director is two-fold. It is to make sure my team has every resource they need to provide exceptional service to our existing families, and then to grow our business in numbers of families served and assets managed.
To do that, I'll work very closely with Synovus executive management. We've got the full support of the executive team. They recognize the opportunity within FAM. I'll be meeting with bankers across our footprint so that they're aware of the level of service we can provide, the comprehensive planning that we can provide to their best customers, the great retention mechanism for our bankers.
FAM doesn't lose clients. It's not a quick sales cycle, but once we have begun working with a family, as deeply involved as we get in their whole financial picture and their family dynamics, we continue to work for them for years and years ... It is critically important that they trust us and know that we're going to give them the best of advice for their situation, and that we're thinking through their lens first.
What's vital to winning that trust?
I spent 10 years as a relationship manager and learned how important it is to follow through on executing a plan. A meeting for us could last half a day or a full day with an entire family. You talk through long-term and short-term goals and objectives, and then we come back here and put together the think tank, if you will, and come up with the plan and execute it. That is what I think our clients recognize about us is that we follow through on what we said we'll do.
Our goal is to take as much off their plate as we can. Take something very simple: If they're re-doing their wills, we have conversations with them about what they want, and then we handle all the back and forth editing with the attorneys and the drafting. Of course, we'll have to go back to our clients and ask, 'Do you want this or do you want that?' But we don't want them to get bogged down in the details. So we handle every detail that we possibly can for them.
Finally, what's the number one retirement planing advice you have for someone out there, whether they've got $25 million in the bank or $25,000?
The main thing is start early; don't put it off. It's the power of the law of compounding. If you start early, that money grows over time. What I see across the board, regardless if you've got $25 million or $25,000, is learning to live within your means. It's so critically important.
And having a plan. I think to have a plan you probably should seek professional advice. We look to professionals to do other things. But often people depend on themselves to handle their finances when they're really not equipped. Then they get two years out of retirement and realize: I could have done this so differently if I had known what I was doing.
That would be some of my strongest advice is hire a professional, start early and live within your means.
Name: Katherine Dunlevie
Hometown: Atlanta originally, but moved to Columbus in 2002
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Cannon Trust School; is a certified financial planner, certified trust and financial adviser and chartered financial consultant.
Previous jobs: Senior relationship manager with Synovus Family Asset Management; worked two years in banking at Columbus Bank and Trust; and worked with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Georgia
Family: Her parents and brother in Atlanta. Her father is an attorney with Womble Carlyle, while her brother is a physician with Piedmont Physicians Group
Leisure time: Enjoys playing tennis competitively, watching North Carolina basketball, and taking part in outdoor activities, especially running and bicycling
Of note: Serves on the Celebrity Classic Tennis Committee; previously served on the local advisory boards of Teen Challenge and Young Life; was a loaned executive with the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley; a board member of the Atlanta Estate Planning Council; and a board member of the Country Club of Columbus