If you ask him, William Bissett will credit Alan Greenspan for getting him into the world of financial planning. The former Chairman of the Federal Reserve didn’t do it intentionally, and it’s unlikely he’d recognize William if he ran into him on the street, but the influence was there.
“I was a waiter for a Washington, D.C. caterer from 1999 to the winter of 2000, and we worked a lot of upscale parties. The hosts would always invite the big names in town, and at that time, Alan Greenspan was one of the biggest. I must have seen him about a dozen times in six weeks.”
Intrigued by this celebrity of the financial world, William picked up a copy of Bob Woodward’s Maestro: Greenspan’s Fed and the American Boom, and was hooked. When he left the catering job to return to classes at North Carolina State University, William switched his major to economics.
After graduation, he went to work for an insurance company in Charleston, South Carolina. They told him during his interview process that they did financial planning, but William soon discovered that wasn’t true. “They were really just trying to sell insurance and annuities,” he remembers. Around that time, he learned of an opening for a financial planning associate at Pinnacle Advisory Group, and by the first week of 2005, was the company’s newest employee.
He took to the work quickly, and found that his analytical mind and natural ability to connect with people gave him an edge. “At its most basic level, financial planning is simply risk management. When clients tell you they want to retire next year, you need to try to poke holes in their plans. That’s the only way you’ll find the risks that they may not see. You’re looking for every possible way they might get derailed from what they want to do. You can’t prevent every problem, but you need to figure out where the real dangers are.”
When most people think of financial planning, they imagine a painful process full of complicated terminology, stacks of paperwork, and unreadable charts and tables. This scares off the very people who would benefit most from the service. William takes a different approach. “One of the things I try to do when I’m sitting with a client is to make the process theirs — to give them ownership over it. When we’re running through different planning models, my goal is to get them to understand enough to craft the overarching plan, and to make it user-friendly so that they can act on it.”
Unfortunately, that isn’t the approach of most in the business. “The industry as a whole still generates 200-250 page financial plans for clients. I don’t want to hand someone a plan that literally lands with a thud on the desk,” he laughs. “That doesn’t do anyone any good, because there’s no way clients will read all of that. Nor will they ever act on it –it’ll just get stuffed into a file cabinet and forgotten.”
One of the ways William makes the planning process engaging is to incorporate his knowledge of history into his explanations. “I don’t know who said it, but it’s true: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ When I’m meeting with clients and talking about a tough economy or an uncertain market, I try to show that things like this have happened before. People are comforted by that. They can see that there are solutions to complex problems, and examples can be found in history.”
When he’s not on the job, William tries to spend as much time as he can with his wife, Katie, and young children, Liam and Hadley. “Our clients have a lot of wisdom and life experience, and it has made them successful at what they do. When we talk or meet, we usually start by getting caught up on each other’s lives. They tell me stories about what they’ve done in the past and the choices they’ve made — both good and bad. One thing I hear again and again is the importance of spending time with your family. I’ve tried to take that to heart in my own life.”
After living for years in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood, William and Katie realized it was important to get back home to North Carolina to be closer to their families. “We knew we needed more space for Liam — Hadley hadn’t been born yet — and the move gave him more time with his grandparents.” Hadley came along after they settled in from the transition and also enjoys spending regular time with family. While most companies would not have responded well to such a change, Pinnacle supported him throughout. “This is a great place to work,” he says. “Pinnacle was founded by three financial planners, so they really understand the process and the value it brings clients. They’ve created an environment that encourages the staff to give back to others, and to the planning industry as a whole.”
William follows that encouragement as an active member of the Financial Planning Association of Maryland, and served as president of the organization in 2011. He’s also a respected authority in the use of technology in the planning process, and has addressed several national conferences on the subject. “I try to use technology to make things easier for my clients. That’s my goal. So I might walk them through Money Guide Pro, or have a video call with them on Skype, or exchange files on DropBox. Keeping up with the latest technology in planning takes work, but it’s worth it for me if it improves the experience for my clients.”
And for William, that’s what this process is all about — improving the lives of his clients. “I love what I do. I love my job. I’m passionate about planning because I’ve seen what it can do for people. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”