What I’ve Learned From My Late Clients

Monday is Memorial Day, and while it’s a good time to celebrate with friends and family the coming of summer, it is also a good reminder to thank those who have gone before us, particularly those who died in the service of the nation.

It is also a good occasion to remember those who have had an impact on our lives, particularly our clients and colleagues.  Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to work with and for hundreds of great individuals, and from them I’ve learned an incalculable amount, not just about finance, but about life, purpose, and about the wider world.

Here are a few of their stories:

There was Don, a brilliant engineer, who planned his future as meticulously as he planned the factories he designed.  Pancreatic cancer took him too early, but in his last days he never uttered a word of self-pity.  He stoically embraced his lot, expending the remnants of his energy ensuring that his wife and children would be provided for when the inevitable came.  From Don I learned that to be a provider is a lifetime commitment, and it oftentimes requires the complete sacrifice of self.

Lillian was the daughter of Swiss immigrants.  She grew up in a small Kansas town, and she dedicated her life to nursing and the care of others.  Even in her late 80s she braved the freezing winter temperatures to make our meetings.  She was soft-spoken and humble, and I deeply admired her quiet resolution.  From Lillian I learned that vitality is not a function of youth, but that it comes from a strength of spirit.

Roy was a 5’3” Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.  Barely tall enough to qualify for the Marines, Roy was often given the dreaded “tunnel rat” assignment of exploring the tunnel systems of the Viet Cong.  His admiring colleagues remarked to me with amazement how over his career, Roy made a commute of over one hour, and never missed a day.  From Roy I learned that sophistication is overrated, while simplicity and reliability are immeasurable in their value.

James, another Vietnam Vet, was the recipient of the Bronze Star for his actions in combat.  While James could always be counted on to have an opinion on just about anything, when it came to talking about his award for courage during the war, he would simply remark that he was “in the wrong place at the right time.”  He was widely regarded for his skills as a lithographer, but he was more famously known as someone to whom nobody was a stranger.  From James I learned that clients are more concerned that their advisers be honest and trustworthy than that they be stupendous asset allocators or market timers.  This was critical advice early on in my career, and I’m not sure I would have learned it otherwise without a lot of pain and trouble.

Among my first clients was Jeff, who was also a Vietnam veteran.  Jeff lived alone on a farm in a small Missouri town, but he was far from a simple person.  His desire to learn about the world led him into all sorts of adventures, one of which was cruising to Norway as an extra passenger on a freighter.  Having no family of his own, Jeff took great joy in helping others, and his generosity knew no bounds.  From him I learned that money and wealth are not ends in themselves, and that charity benefits the giver as much as the beneficiary, if not more so.

Otis, whose life spanned almost a century, was a quiet, but fascinating, man.  Oftentimes during meetings, when our formal review was finished, I would sit and listen to the stories of his life, which often seemed like passages from a novel.  Growing up on the Oklahoma oil patch during the Depression, he had experiences that would be unimaginable to today’s youths.  For example, he described in vivid detail racing his jackass against his friends and their horses, and disappearing into the wilderness for days on end.  Paraphrasing him a little, I believe he remarked that, “Never again did I have so little, but never again was I so free.”  His career in energy took him to exotic places around the world, and his life seemed like a National Geographic article.  From Otis I learned that everyone has a story to share.  If you take the effort to get to know them as individuals, you will be rewarded.

Darryl was a soft-spoken man with a great sense of humor.  He was an accomplished photographer and sailor, and he amazed me by his knowledge of such a variety of different topics, even fairly esoteric ones.  I will always regret not taking him up on his offer to go sailing; of course, at the time I was preoccupied with the stock market crash, and I figured there would be time enough in the future.  Darryl, who always seemed to pursue his aspirations, reminded me that our time here is fleeting, and that we should spend less time obsessing over things beyond our control, and more time doing the things we love with those who matter most.

Then there was Paul, who grew up poor in rural Iowa, as one of thirteen children.  An Air Force veteran and an innovator in the field of dentistry, Paul was one of the most fascinating people I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  He recognized that the client-adviser relationship is a partnership, and while we didn’t always agree on investments, we both knew that this was a product of a healthy advisory process in which ideas were shared, and investment theses critically examined.  Like Otis, Paul was a product of the Depression, but unlike many of his generation who swore off investing as a fruitless endeavor, Paul knew that education, along with disciplined saving and investing, are the surest ways to rise from poverty.  From Paul I learned in a more tangible way that investing is the disciplined and systematic taking of risks, and that opportunities abound for those who pursue them.

David was a very nice man who never had anything negative to say about anyone.  He led a quiet life in the country, which I later realized was probably his way of tuning out the myriad distractions that consume our days.  He was a selfless person, serving his country in his youth, and helping even to unburden his family in his last days by helping them with his own final arrangements.  He showed me that living a simple life does not make you a simple person.

Ida was an entrepreneurial lady who pioneered ways of outsourcing technical talent to financial institutions.  Fiercely independent, she always had a keen sense of opportunity, and she was never afraid to take risks, which set her apart from so many others.  It is a cliche, but I learned from her that oftentimes the biggest risk is not taking one.

Finally, there was my former boss and colleague, Frank, who first gave me an opportunity in the industry as his research assistant and client liaison.  As someone who had risen through the ranks himself, Frank would never ask us junior employees to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do.  He led by example, and he was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave.  Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Frank was this:  do what’s right for the client and ultimately you will be rewarded.  Frank also taught me that just as successful investing is the product of a disciplined and systematic approach, so, too, is a successful advisory practice.  I learned to set goals for myself, to accept failure and rejection, but always to persevere.