With a multi-million dollar gift to Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business to open a financial wellness center on campus, Todd Sanford wants to raise financial literacy and also bring more people into the field of financial planning. Like many business sectors right now, financial planning faces a growing talent shortage. Sanford, the founder and CEO of Sanford Financial Services Inc. in Portage, spoke with MiBiz about how the Sanford Center for Financial Planning and Wellness hopes to address the talent shortage when it opens this fall.
Why did you provide the contribution to create the center at WMU?
The overriding reason to do so was to bring awareness to financial planning as a viable career option for students. In colleges, they’re unaware of all of the career possibilities in financial planning in finance. We have this significant, long-term shortage of financial advisers. Less than 5 percent of financial planners are under the age of 30, and the predominant age is 50-plus. We’re running into a cycle where we don’t have people behind us.
How do you start addressing that problem?
We hope to bring more students into the program. Right now, Western has just short of 30 students. Utah Valley State, which nobody’s ever heard of, has 250 students in its program, and it has 100-percent placement. If the career opportunity is known to these students — and the center will be the showcase piece for that — then they can come in and get information about financial planning and what it entails. We should drive the percentage of students going into this major and they will be able to go out into the field and make an impact. The goal is to raise those numbers and raise the awareness of financial planning as a legitimate field.
What’s something the center can do to fill that gap?
Provide internship experiences, which are very difficult to come by in this highly regulated world. Shredding and filing is not an internship, so to get them in front of clients sharing confidential information, (and) to have them look at a database that has confidential information is challenging. This will allow students to counsel other students, once properly trained, (and) to give them basic advice on budgeting, and will allow them to sit in front of their peers so they get that experience they can put on a resume.
What kind of public outreach will you do?
As time goes on, and we get the center fully engaged, we’ll have a community component where people of modest means, the underserved, can come to the center in the evening. There will be several nights a month to get free advice and they would be working alongside professional planners who would be donating their time to assist people with budgeting or basic planning tips.
What are the biggest misconceptions about financial planning among college students that create a barrier to them entering the field?
The lack of understanding as to what options actually exist, and they’re numerous. You can be an analyst. You can be a specialist in retirement planning. There are all sorts of avenues that major universities are unaware of. The faculty members also have the same issue. They have no awareness or understanding of what financial advisers do, and I’m not referencing Western or anywhere in particular. They lack understanding of what’s available to students and accordingly have not oftentimes conveyed to students that there are opportunities that are beyond their current understanding.
If you can get the right adviser who can come in and talk to faculty to explain to them that there are career paths that are exciting and numerous, you will get students and the students will gravitate (to the field), and they will get placed and the word will spread, and the shortage becomes less of an issue in five, 10 and 20 years.
Are you hoping some of these students will go out and start their own firms some day?
Exactly. That would be fantastic.
How will you define success for the center?
The number of students in the major — if that ever rises, that would be a great thing. If we find our ability to get out in the community and provide pro-bono services, and that’s well received, I would consider that a success. If we are able to place — as I anticipate we will — the students that go through the program, have some internship experiences and have some one-on-one ability to counsel, be it with peers or the community with professional oversight, that gives them a leg up.
If we could record people that are coming through the center and see (the) interest or desire of people exploring the field and garnering information, that will tell us there’s interest there. It will take time, but I believe we can see, over a period of years, exponential growth.
What makes a person the right fit for this field?
They need to have empathy. They need to have communication skills. They have to be of integrity. They have to have a desire to help others and a heart to serve. It is somewhat like social work in many aspects. We’re counselors, but we’re also people who are trying to get people on a path and keep them on a path. It’s less about the analytical skills than people would realize. It’s more about your counseling ability and your ability to communicate effectively with people to garner their trust and their desire to follow you, and then from there you walk life with them, as I like to say to my clients. It’s a people business. It’s not a numbers business.