As published in Citiwire USA
Courtney McQuade 16 December 2019, 13:38
Katharine Earhart and Maya Lis Tussing of Fairlight Advisors explain how avoiding the cookie-cutter approach and offering a more holistic client experience makes them click.
How did you first get into financial services?
Katharine Earhart (KE) (pictured, left): While I’d set out to become a literature professor, my professors at the University of California encouraged me join the workforce before returning to graduate school. That’s when I landed at Charles Schwab and found a new passion for educating people about investments and financial planning. I followed that career trajectory for 25+ years, working for robo advisory firm Power Advisors, Barclays Global Investors, iShares / BlackRock and Alesco Advisors. My passion now continues through founding Fairlight.
Maya Lis Tussing (MT) (pictured, right): I had every intention of attending medical school after Pomona College, but when I took a job working on a trading desk for Transamerica, I knew I’d never become a doctor. Instead I went on to business school at the University of Washington to embark on a career in financial services. In 25 years, I honed my experience in enterprise risk and investment management at corporations such as BlackRock, Barclays Global Investors, Visa, and GE. I take great satisfaction in creating solutions for nonprofits and individuals.
What inspired you to join an RIA?
MT: We met in a leadership class at Barclays Global Investors in 2007 and immediately hit it off. We resolved to launch our own company. We had so many ideas, mainly revolving around financial education, nonprofits and empowering people to take control of their financial lives.
Since our roles at BGI and subsequently BlackRock kept evolving in exciting ways, we both stayed to develop skills and build connections. The team I led at BlackRock managed hundreds of billions of dollars for the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, corporate pension funds, endowments and foundations. I was honored to have the opportunity to work with such esteemed institutions, but I yearned to service more down-to-earth clients – clients I could look in the eye, get to know more deeply and help directly.
We first launched the west coast presence for Alesco Advisors in 2016 and then this September, launched Fairlight Advisors to serve our existing clients through a continued partnership with Alesco.
KE: Since I started my career at Charles Schwab in the early nineties, I’ve always been around RIAs and felt that was the only advisory model I would pursue based on both the fiduciary nature and the independence.
What are some benefits of being an RIA?
KE: An RIA can provide its clients more customized and holistic support than a wirehouse might. We are able to provide both customized risk management consulting and investment management. RIAs like Fairlight tend to be service-focused, so our success is based both on how well we deliver investment performance and how well we connect with the client and address their unique challenges. Most big investment shops are profitable through scaling operations and stratifying clients to provide cookie-cutter services.
What is your firm’s biggest differentiator?
MT: At Fairlight, we designed a financial planning process to serve nonprofits that need help determining their cash reserves and how to assess risks to their organization. Our risk assessment workshop helps nonprofits prepare for and recover from unexpected events that impact their financial security. Our relationships with nonprofits allows us to offer pension consulting services to help their employees with retirement planning and financial education. Our knowledge of the nonprofit eco-system also allows us to assist donors and philanthropically minded, high-net-worth individuals.
It’s a natural synergy because we see both sides of the equation: a donor’s mindset and the impact to the nonprofit. We’re able to help individuals consider both the impact of their philanthropy and the family legacy and tax benefits to their strategy.
How are you approaching digital integration?
MT: Digital access and online financial advice have brought amazing opportunities to the consumer, including lower costs. Being able to access accounts from smartphones, engage with advisors via text and hold web-based calls (not to mention sharing explainer videos with clients) has generally enhanced the client experience. But the need for human connection is always there. We still want to know the person managing our nest egg. While we love the digital tools and use them more and more for ourselves and our clients, it doesn’t necessarily fulfill the requirements for a remarkable client experience. The personal bond is still a major factor for good client service.
What do you see for the future of the industry?
KE: As with accounting firms, we saw massive consolidation of larger RIAs, but we also saw smaller firms spin off to satisfy the needs of niche clients. As Gen X and Gen Y come into money and begin to think of their retirement, we’ll see even greater changes in how clients engage with their advisors. We’ll be ready and waiting!
What do you do for fun?
KE: I love to walk in nature, I’m very social and I love travel. I find hiking, eating or being with friends and family energizing. I volunteer on nonprofit boards and serve my local community through fundraising and special projects.
MT: Competitive sports have been a major part of my life and I still try to hone my skills on the court, in the water, on the roads and on the slopes. Like Katharine, I also spend a significant part of my time serving my local community as an appointed county commissioner, volunteer and nonprofit board member. I also enjoy attending Commission on Women events throughout the year (pictured above).
Note: This piece has been updated from the original version that ran in the November 2019 issue of Citywire RIA magazine.