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Growing a Virtual Financial Planning Practice

Anna Sergunina shares her vision for her advice-focused firm

Roger Wohlner

 

Anna Sergunina started college at Towson University in Maryland as a biology/chemistry major, with the goal of becoming a doctor. But a friend told her that a finance concentration was the hardest major in the business school. She took it as a challenge and switched majors.

“I am the type of person who goes for the hardest things in life,” she says.

A Desire to Help People

With her business degree in 2004, Sergunina interned at a major brokerage firm and did a stint as a third-party administrator in the Baltimore area. She soon realized that she wanted to work directly with clients to help them address their financial aspirations and challenges.

She researched financial planning firms in Baltimore and came across MainStreet Financial Planning, an hourly, advice-only firm that was part of the Garrett Planning Network. She joined MainStreet as a paraplanner in 2006. After earning her CFP designation in 2009, she began seeing clients on her own.

In 2011, Sergunina and her husband moved to San Francisco, where she opened an office for MainStreet. Two years later, she bought MainStreet from founder Jim Ludwig, who remained with the firm in Maryland. She is now president and CEO of MainStreet, fulfilling her love of financial planning and helping people.

“I passionately believe that to live a life of fulfillment and joy, we must genuinely serve each other in any way possible,” she says. “I found my mission in life to serve others via financial planning.”

Financial Planning First

From the get-go, MainStreet charged its clients an hourly or flat fee for its services. The firm focuses on financial planning, doesn’t manage money, and strives to help its clients make sound, holistic financial decisions.

“We help clients make smart financial decisions,” Sergunina says. “No sales of financial products or investment account management. Our plan is to help you achieve your plan.”

MainStreet uses Morningstar® Advisor Workstation to analyze client portfolios, perform research, and propose recommendations. It also will use Advisor Workstation to build model portfolios.

Running a Virtual Practice

Virtual office technology has helped the firm expand over the years to serve more clients. Besides Sergunina and Ludwig, the firm employs one other advisor, two paraplanners, and an administrative person. The team is spread out across the country.

“We run a virtual practice,” Sergunina says. “We only use the physical offices for client meetings.”

Sergunina has grown the firm through its online presence, word of mouth, client referrals, and referrals via Garrett, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, and other professionals.

MainStreet serves a wide range of clients in different life phases—each requiring different types of planning. Many of the firm’s clients are young professionals such as doctors and lawyers, for example. These clients might be starting a family and need help saving for college, developing a spending budget, having adequate life insurance in place, and dealing with student loans.

The firm also serves women who are recently divorced or widowed. The focus here is on rearranging clients’ finances and building a retirement nest egg as a newly single person.

In addition, Sergunina recently developed a planning service for small businesses called Money@Work. Through Money@Work, businesses can offer their employees a range of financial services, from education to access to an advisor—all for a flat fee. The cost is either covered by the employer as a benefit or by the employee.

“Our business model allows us to help people with real-life decisions and not have to focus on investments so much,” she says. “We also get to work with a lot of clients. A good analogy is a doctor’s office; a doctor sees a lot of patients. Unlike traditional AUM firms, where you have maybe 100 clients and that’s all you work with, we service about 125 to 150 new plans per year in addition to our 150 recurring clients. We love it.”

The Future

Sergunina has ambitious goals for the firm. She wants to add more advisors, promote the firm’s virtual presence, and open new offices. She also has high hopes for Money@Work, the firm’s breakthrough workplace financial wellness program.

“My goal is to make MainStreet into a national household brand as the largest advice-focused financial planning company.”

This blog post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Morningstar magazine. Read the full article.

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