If not for the incompetence of one high school teacher, the financial planning world might never have heard of Michael Kitces, CFP®, MSFS, MTAX, CLU®, ChFC®, RHU®, REBC®, CASL®. His parents worked in computer science and he grew up with their enthusiasm for the field. He was playing with the family’s Commodore 64 by age five, and by the time he was seven, had learned to hack his favorite video games. His interest in computers continued until his junior year of high school. “I had a particularly bad computer science teacher for two classes in one semester, and that sucked the joy of programming out of me. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully recovered,” he laughs.
He attended Bates College in Maine, where he found himself drawn to the liberal arts. “I’m one of those people who, if given the chance, would have spent twenty years as a liberal arts undergraduate, majoring in everything. Unfortunately, that’s not really an option in the real world.” After bouncing between several fields — including theater and medicine — he eventually graduated with a degree in psychology.
His introduction to finance came entirely by chance: He needed a job, and the first position he found was in insurance sales at a firm in the Washington, D.C. area. “A lot of the people in the office were one trick ponies — they had a favorite insurance product they wanted to sell, and promoted it to clients as the solution to every problem. But there was one individual at the agency who was a certified financial planner, and he took a more holistic approach. He would first figure out what the clients’ problems were, and would then use an array of solutions to meet their needs. It seemed intuitively obvious to me that this was the right approach, so I shifted in the direction of financial planning.”
Michael received his CFP®, along with an alphabet soup of other designations and two graduate degrees. In the course of his studies and in his later client work, he came to see that there are significant gaps in what we know about the financial planning process. “The field is very young, so there are a lot of questions that no-one has really asked yet, or researched to any great degree. We struggle with trying to integrate together our technical knowledge and how to communicate it, with developing effective ways to get people to change their behavior. So I became fascinated with the intersection of those things, and shifted over to the research side of financial planning.”
In 2002, he accepted a position with Pinnacle Advisory Group as the firm’s Director of Planning — at the time, an unusual position for the industry. “I was at Pinnacle for five years before I ever ran into someone at a conference who had my same job title, or did anything close to what I do. It was a position ahead of its time, and a firm that was ahead of its time. It’s very exciting for me to be part of a firm that has that much interest in the financial planning process, and in improving what it delivers to clients.”
His groundbreaking work over the past decade has not gone unnoticed by the industry. In addition to his popularity as a speaker, he is the co-author of The Annuity Advisor and Tools & Techniques of Retirement Income Planning, and appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Investment News, the Journal of Financial Planning, Financial Planning magazine, Financial Advisor magazine, Kiplinger, Money, SmartMoney.com and the Financial Post. In 2010, Financial Planning magazine labeled him the industry’s “Deep Thinker,” and when Kiplinger offered its readers an online Alternative Minimum Tax calculator in 2011, they based it on his data.
But of all the distinctions Michael has received, one stands out from the rest: In 2010, the Financial Planning Association honored him with the Heart of Financial Planning Award — the industry’s greatest recognition. “It was humbling to receive that, particularly because it’s almost a life-time achievement award. To be onstage with the pillars of our profession, most of whom have been doing this for as long as I’ve been alive, was truly an honor and a privilege.”
On March 20, 2012, Michael was made a partner at Pinnacle. Still in his mid 30s, he looks forward to a long career. “What can we do to elevate the profession of financial planning — certainly for the benefit of our clients here at Pinnacle, but also for the industry as a whole? What can we do to provide better solutions for people? That’s what interests me.”