Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, April 10 2012
Snapshot: Suzanne Durbin, owner and wealth advisor, GV Financial Advisors
We’ve all heard it before: Money doesn’t buy happiness. But as we work hard on our careers and ultimately toward making more money, do we really believe it? Suzanne Durbin, 41, certainly does. As an owner and wealth advisor with the Atlanta-based firm GV Financial Advisors, a top independently owned wealth management firm, she’s learned about a different approach to the money-happiness connection and one that has turned the traditional wealth management model on its head. Instead of focusing solely on a client’s money, the advisors at GV Financial use a set of tools to also focus on their quality of life, helping clients prioritize and achieve goals that go way beyond their bank accounts.
Womenetics: How did you get into the financial industry?
Suzanne Durbin: It was actually a bit of an accident. I went to Emory University in Atlanta and studied political science and French. As I was getting close to graduation, I decided I was interested in international business with a human resources slant. It dawned on me that I really needed to know more about money and finances because I was getting ready to lose the parental subsidy! It’s not in the average curriculum at most colleges, but Emory has continuing education classes, and I signed up for one called Money 101.
I ended up really hitting it off with the woman who taught the class. She invited me to meet the partners at her firm. That was Susan Davis, one of my firm’s founders. They offered me a two-year training program. That was 19 years ago; now I’m one of the owners.
Womenetics: How did you know you it was a good fit for you?
Durbin: At first I thought financial planning was only about math, numbers, rates of return and technical jargon. I was really surprised when I started working here, that while all those things are important, the point of it all was to help people use their money to live the way they want. That’s when I knew it was a fit.
Womenetics: Can you explain how your company evolved into one that puts an emphasis on both wealth and happiness?
Durbin: In 2006, there was a study that Princeton and other universities were part of that revealed that beyond a certain middle class level of income, people didn’t get any happier. One of the owners, David Geller has always been a really introspective person. He came in and read us the study and omitted the income level, having us guess. I imagined it was around the $250,000 level, but we were all surprised to find out that it was somewhere in the $50,000 to $75,000 range. This is an income bracket where most people don’t have to worry about having a roof over their head, where their next meal is coming from or their car getting repossessed, and they have breathing room with entertainment and emergencies. Once you get past those basics, the existence in of additional income in your life does not necessarily translate to additional happiness.
As a wealth advisory firm, that bummed us out initially! We had become a leading investment and wealth advisory firm and believed we had been doing such a great job for our clients. Really, this was an opportunity to take a big step back and say, “If money doesn’t necessarily make people happy, then what are we doing? If it’s not money that makes them happy, what does?” As wealth advisors, maybe we could think about how to help our clients get happier. So we did, and we call what we’ve developed Guided Wealth Transformation® — thinking about your wealth differently.
Womenetics: How did the firm approach this?
Durbin: We all went out and started reading a lot of books on happiness, trying to think about ways we could work what we were learning into the conversations with clients [SEE BOOK LIST]. We essentially created this big study group and shared on a weekly basis. We incorporated it slowly, looked at what seemed to be helping and kept practicing and fine-tuning. We now have 40 different exercises or tools that we use with our clients.
Womenetics: How does this process continually evolve?
Durbin: We train every Wednesday morning for an hour and 15 minutes. David and my other partners are creative people, and we come up with many more ideas than we can process, so we focus on those we believe can make the biggest impact. The woman who leads the training, Sherwin Lewis-Nelson, keeps us focused on honing, fine-tuning and translating these ideas into techniques that our clients can benefit from. It’s a true, ongoing collaboration.
Womenetics: Can you tell me about the tools you use to help clients develop a new understanding of money?
Durbin: One is a series of flash cards looking at the most common themes in life. We have clients sort the cards twice to help develop a working list of their top life priorities. Once they do that – both individually and then together if we are working with a couple – we then go back through their top 10 cards, and they can make thoughtful decisions about how they want to align their resources with their priorities.
Another tool is a chart that we created. At the top it says to think about an issue, hope or problem — something you’re thinking about now that you might want to work on. On the left side is a list of six elements of wealth: money, time, talents, relationships, body and mind, and wisdom. We have clients go through the list and look at how they can use each element of wealth to help with this particular issue. This framework is a really helpful way to approach a problem and pull out some wise answers. We are all smart or successful, but often we just use our go-to answers for things and miss opportunities to consider other possible solutions. This chart helps you dig deeper.
Womenetics: It almost sounds like therapy. Do you ever hear that?
Durbin: We are definitely not therapists; we’re not putting someone on the couch and counseling them. But we can help sort out their thought process and help them understand how their decisions tie back financially. For example, if you’re worried about the housing market being down, you can go to therapy and talk about that, but they don’t have the advantage of understanding the financials of that situation. They’re missing that mathematics connection. Just like I can’t get into someone’s deep issues, but I can recognize this is a priority or a stress for you, and we can go through steps to see what’s getting in your way.
Womenetics: How has this whole process changed you relationship with your clients?
Durbin: This process has built a trust, to the point where clients, even those who have never enjoyed going to their financial advisor in the past, look forward to our meetings. This is not an office we where just shake hands; more often than not, clients greet us with hugs. We’ve already got this level of intimacy because I know more about a family and their financial situation than anyone else in their lives. And this approach makes financial planning more than just about money. We touch on issues that are important to clients personally.
Womenetics: What tips can you offer to other women to find happiness while working on their careers and toward building their own wealth?
Durbin: From all the reading we have done, what we boiled it down to were three things that really make people happy:
- Relationships: quality, caring, judgment-free, trusting relationships.
- Making a Difference: making a difference in the lives of others, whether at work, in our families or in the greater community
- Being Engaged: being completely absorbed and engaged in what you’re doing, whether it’s work or play.
These are the things that drive happiness. Career women can look at what ways their careers enhance, feed or starve these three things. For relationships, look for people in the workplace - clients or colleagues - to build closer ties with. Ask yourself whether your time at work leaves enough time for relationships away from work and, if even that time is limited, think about what you can do to make it higher quality time.
If you don’t feel like you’re making a difference, seek opportunities to create that at work - like becoming a mentor or serving on the company’s charitable foundation - or find it away from the office. To get more engaged, look for ways to delegate tasks you don’t enjoy and raise your hand to accept more of those you do. Even incremental progress in any of these areas can make a huge improvement in our happiness.
Womenetics: How do you personally find happiness at work and at home?
Durbin: I’m fortunate to have job where I believe I can and do make a positive difference for my clients. My work is incredibly engaging, and the relationships with my clients and colleagues make it fun. I’ve been married for 12 years and have a husband who’s a really good fit for me and vice versa. We love spending quiet time with close friends, especially in our new home in a great neighborhood in Atlanta. Along with that, I really enjoy family hikes with our two Westies, traveling here and abroad and my monthly book club. And while I’m not sure how it falls into one of those three keys, I do love chocolate!
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Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.