Helen Modly

The Perfect Field

Helen Modly, CPWA®, ChFC, CFP® Executive Vice President, Focus Wealth Management, Ltd., Middleburg, Virginia

What do a nurse and a wealth advisor have in common? Just ask Helen Modly, CPWA®, CFP®. Modly was a registered nurse working on a neurosurgical unit at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, when her father died unexpectedly and everything changed.

“I was in my early 20s, and I watched my mother, who was 52 at the time and also a nurse, go through a very agonizing process of getting her arms around all the financial issues involved with settling the estate and worrying if she would have enough money,” Modly recalls. “Seeing her struggle at the worst possible time of her life was awful. I decided that no one should ever have to go through that.”

Modly left nursing and entered the insurance business in 1981, eventually obtaining her securities licenses, ChFC designation, and CFP certification. “It was quite a shift in careers, but the skills I learned as a nurse—assessment, teaching, and building trust and rapport—transferred very easily to financial services,” she says.

Despite her success, Modly grew restless with commission sales. “I wanted to be valued and rewarded based on the advice I gave, not because I could sell something,” she explains. So when an offer came to join a fee-only firm—Focus Wealth Management in Middleburg, Virginia—Modly jumped at the opportunity. Today she wears several hats: executive vice president, wealth advisor, and chief compliance officer for the firm, which serves some 115 families, with an average net worth of $5 million to $10 million and investments ranging from $1 million to $3 million.

Where does CPWA certification fit into Modly’s career path? “It was a very deliberate decision,” Modly says. “By 2011, I had been working at Focus for 10 years, we had built up the business, but I felt like I was getting a little rusty in my technical knowledge.”

Modly considered both the CFA and CIMA® programs, but ultimately chose to pursue CPWA certification. “I like the fact that it takes a holistic, integrated, client-focused approach, rather than concentrating on intensive mathematical calculations to assess risk and return,” she says. “The CPWA program taught me how to deal with a lot of very big moving pieces for high-net-worth clients with complicated situations. That was the right fit for me.”

Modly completed the self-study portion of the program during the first six months of 2011 and found that while some of the material was review, she had to dig into other parts. “I was really surprised at how much I didn’t know that I didn’t know,” she says with a chuckle. Taxation of entities presented a valuable challenge for Modly. She also enjoyed the behavioral finance module because it applies to working directly with clients.

The five-day intensive class at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business provided another highlight. “It was the most awesome week I’ve ever spent,” she says. “The professors, advisors, and other consultants who spoke to us were of a caliber that I never experienced going to school. It was wonderful—exhausting, but wonderful.” Modly still keeps in touch with several of her classmates. “They’re another resource network I can tap into,” she says.

As for the value of CPWA certification, Modly points out that it’s not the initials behind her name that impress clients but the fact that she has a deeper skill level and is a better, more well-informed advisor. “I’m really serious about knowing what I don’t know,” she explains. “I used to be concerned that I might completely miss something when working on complex situations.   Now, I have a helicopter view of the many strategies and techniques that exist, so I can propose them to my clients where appropriate and then bring in experts, if needed, to implement the strategy.”

Modly plans to keep her skills sharp by attending one or more Institute conferences in 2013. She’s also busy as 2013 president-elect of the Financial Planning Association of the National Capital Area (FPA NCA), which named her Financial Planner of the Year in 2010.

In her spare time, Modly likes to read, travel, and enjoy fine wines. “And I love my job,” she says. “I absolutely love what I do. More than half our clients are single women who have been widowed or divorced. In addition, we have an unusual firm in that it’s seven women—four advisors and three staff. We call ourselves the Seven Sisters.”

Modly is puzzled about why more women haven’t pursued advanced financial planning. “Maybe they think there’s too much math, but it’s actually very creative, very personal. We solve problems. We make lasting connections with clients. We see a difference in people’s lives when we reduce their anxiety. It’s the perfect field for a woman. I feel like I’m helping ‘mom’ every day.”