The Abacus Wealth Partners Story
“We want to make a difference in the world. It just so happens that we work in this space — financial services.”
– Barbara Wolf
You are probably familiar with the quote, or at least the sentiment.
“Life is a journey, not a destination.”
I am sure that when Ralph Waldo Emerson penned this piece of wisdom that it packed more of a punch than it does today where you will most likely encounter it foregrounding a sunset in an Instagram meme.
Still, this does not change the fact that this is useful advice and that it speaks to the importance of realizing that every decision is leading up to some unknown outcome.
To apply a frame that borrows language from the mythologist Joseph Campbell, consider the following: is it really rewarding to experience the hero’s return home, elixir in hand, if we did not first witness a call to adventure, refusal of the call, crossing the threshold, and myriad tests before she returns home?
Would we still be talking about The Odyssey if it was only an epic poem of Penelope and Odysseus blissfully ruling Ithaca, drinking wine, and avoiding the trials of the “hero’s journey?”
Story is undeniably a vital factor in how we shape our reality and consider what is possible for ourselves and for our impact in the world. The most inspiring narratives are marked by unexpected experiences, detours, and the courage to answer that unique call to find a way to serve others. These are stories of how one honors her inner voice, that pestering whisper growing louder over the years asking if we are using our gifts, skills, and talents to their full potential to make a difference in the world.
The Abacus Wealth Partners’s story includes an inspiring journey of their CEO and Founder, but here, we will focus on the origin stories of two financial advisers in Philadelphia, Barbara Wolf, CFP / Financial Advisor & Gregory Aloia, JD, CFP / Financial Advisor.
My interest in their journeys began with an admiration for what makes Abacus Wealth Partners, a financial planning and wealth management firm, so different and refreshing in our modern financial mileau.
It’s clear that their corporate values — “serve others, bring genius, listen deeply and speak with care, and enjoy” — speak volumes about their mission to “expand what’s possible with money” (“Core Values”).
Abacus employs a fee-only model as opposed to commission-based financial services. They charge a fee for the service they provide, which allows Abacus advisers the opportunity to be objective when helping clients devise a financial plan. It’s not difficult to imagine how removing the hope of a commission from the equation can make it easier for an adviser to provide objective advice. (I should note — it would be naive to say that this model is the only model that encourages objectivity. There are plenty of advisers outside of the fee-only model who can be objective, but for Abacus advisers, the fee-only model fits their vision for how they can best serve their clients.)
Abacus also sets itself apart because of its sustainable investment models, its company culture that encourages volunteering, and their charitable work, including pro-bono financial services. Also, in 2008, their “clients provided the seed funding for the first environmentally screened, industry neutral, and globally diversified passive (index) equity funds in the marketplace” (“Sustainability”).
To learn more about Abacus, I inquired about Barbara and Greg’s stories.
The corporate finance world presents its fair share of thrills — workdays that stretch far beyond the conventional nine to five, international travel for high-level meetings, large amounts of capital being transferred between corporations, the pressure to impact shareholder value, and more. At the beginning of her career, this was an exciting space to work in for Barbara.
“It was very interesting work,” said Barbara. “But at the end of the day, if you’re focused on mergers and acquisitions, as I was, if you want to make the numbers work, somebody loses their job.” When the companies were giant companies, this loss did not sting as much or appear so readily on the surface of the deal, but when the deals got to be a little smaller, and the companies were more service-oriented the deals became more complex and worrisome.
“When you were dealing with the principals and the staff, you could identify who was going to lose that job by name,” said Barbara. “And you interacted with that employee personally to get the information you needed in order to work on the cash-flows.”
She faced a dilemma. On on hand, she explained, “the work became less satisfying and I would see that it was not going to work for me long-term.” But on the other, she was building a successful career in a male-dominated space. “If you think women are a minority now [in the financial world], we made up a much smaller group then,” she said.
Deal after deal the work eventually started to weigh on her. “It just wasn’t reflective of who I was — it didn’t feel right,” she explained. Like most journeys, this realization was the product of multiple experiences and not just one situation.
Considering her next step, Barbara realized that her time in corporate finance prepared her with skills and a worth ethic that she wanted to apply in a different sector. “I agreed to run a medical practice for one year,” she said. “And a year turned into ten.” (During this season, she also raised three sons.)
After ten years, she was faced with the questions: Am I at a place where my skills and experience are making the most impact?
Eventually, she responded to an ad for a position at Abacus and said, “Here are my skills, here’s what I am interesting in doing.” She has been part of the team for eleven years.
“How I got here really speaks to the power of asking the right question,” said Greg.
Greg’s journey begins with pain in his shoulders and back. Eventually, his acupuncturist grew tired of hearing the same response from Greg when she asked him what he thought was causing this recurring pain. “Oh, nothing really,” he would reply. Time after time, he’d deliver this stock response, until she pressed him: “Greg, tell me what’s really going on with you.”
He finally was honest: “I’m at this firm where I am selling [financial products], and I don’t like selling for a commission. I want to be some place where I can provide more objective financial advice.”
In many ways, Greg’s acupuncturist was modeling how Abacus financial planners approach their relationships with clients. She was persistent. She kept asking Greg what was really going on with him, and because she had earned Greg’s trust, he was comfortable enough to answer honestly. But there are two sides to this equation — not only did she ask the right question, but Greg had to be receptive to the original question.
“We start by asking the right questions with clients and hopefully they are comfortable enough with us to be honest so that we can help them,” said Greg, a trained lawyer with a diverse professional background, including nonprofit development experience.
Not only did Greg experience this moment of catharsis with his acupuncturist, but that conversation also opened another door in his life. “I have someone that you have to meet,” she said. That person ended up being. Spencer Sherman, Abacus’s Founder.
“I didn’t know what would come out of the introduction,” shared Greg. Eighteen years later, he is still with Abacus.
There is a similar thread running through both Barbara and Greg’s stories — neither waited for the perfect opportunity to refine their talents. They both said yes to many opportunities where they honed their skills before finding the career path that best fit their vision for how they could use their occupation to serve others. Helping clients develop a prescient plan for their finances takes more than a desire to help people — it requires the application of skills and experiences they received along the way.
Now, they are both able to bring their experience to the table to help people develop a financial plan. People seek out financial planning services for a variety of reasons. For some, they want to develop a relationship with someone who can offer wise advice. For others, they want to feel comfortable with where there money is being invested. “People want to feel closer to their money,” Greg said. Abacus’s portfolio of sustainable investments is one reason why people choose to work with one of their financial advisers.
“We do have people that come to us that just need financial planning, and they may not, at that point in time, be open to some of these other conversations about a more socially-conscious approach to investing,” said Barbara. “Sometimes, after we develop a relationship, they evolve into being more open.”
In a way, each relationship is a journey in itself. It begins with a call to action — I want to make a plan for my finances. And then as the relationship grows, advisers like Barbara and Greg are able to embark on a journey of responsible and prosperous financial planning. Together, they make a plan to reach a destination, but they commit to guiding them along the way, counseling clients on the impact of their money as they take each step on the journey of developing a financial plan that serves not only the client but the world they inhabit.
Abacus Wealth Partners is a founding B-Corp and SBN Member. To learn more about how they “expand what’s possible with money,” including sustainable investing and fee-only financial services, visit https://abacuswealth.com/
Do you want to feel closer to your money? Do you want to make a plan for your future? If Abacus Wealth Partners sounds like the right fit for you, contact Barbara Wolf at [email protected] and Gregory Aloia at [email protected]