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A Different Beat

Lisa Kirchenbauer finds a niche coaching clients through complex transitions.

By Charles Keenan

Transition is nothing new to Lisa Kirchenbauer. She has played percussion since she was 9, and today belongs to a community concert band, where she navigates marches, show tunes, and classical arrangements. For any given composition, she might be shuttling among six instruments, such as the snare drum, cymbal, and tambourine, often playing two simultaneously—in both bass and treble clef—while thinking about what instruments come next. It’s a skill that has served her well as a financial planner focusing on clients in transition in their lives. “There are times you have to juggle multiple demands,” she says. “Percussion has helped me do that better.”

Kirchenbauer, 56, specializes in helping clients who have hit sudden wealth or early affluence. Her Arlington, Va.-based firm, Omega Wealth Management, has assets of roughly $120 million among 100 clients. Her team includes two other financial planners, an operations analyst, an office manager, and a planning associate.

Kirchenbauer’s ability to differentiate her practice has no doubt helped its growth. She’s a certified financial planner but is also designated a certified financial transitionist by the Sudden Money Institute, which trains advisors to work with people experiencing major life changes. These might be business owners who sell their companies, widows who suddenly inherit a business, or the next generation inheriting wealth. Financial planners can fail to account for shifts in behavior during such transitions that can have harmful effects on estate planning. “If we don’t understand the personal side and know how to coach clients through that, we can be pretty unsuccessful in getting them through the financial part of it,” Kirchenbauer says.

A Turn Toward Entrepreneurial After getting a bachelor's degree in international relations in 1985 at Stanford University, Kirchenbauer landed a job in Washington, D.C., that involved intelligence work interpreting satellite photos of military equipment. Yet she resigned before she started, realizing she wanted more control over her own destiny. "Entrepreneurship and government service don't really go together," she says.

She started temping, landing a position as a sales assistant at EF Hutton. She was exposed to financial planning, which she liked, but saw a dead end at Hutton in a male-dominated world, with only three women brokers among 85. “Women were treated a lot differently then,” she says.

In early 1987, Kirchenbauer landed at the trading desk of Calvert Securities, the broker/dealer for Calvert Group, a pioneer in socially responsible investing. Then came the crash. “I was lucky enough to trade on that fateful Monday in October,” she says. “I got exposure very early on to what it’s like for the market to really go down. It got a little rough at other times in my career, but I have always got that as a point to go back to.”

She later moved into selling the concept of financial planning and investment management to insurance agents of Acacia Group, Calvert’s parent company. She left Acacia (now Ameritas) in 1999 to start her own firm under the Acacia umbrella, and went fully independent in 2004.

Forming her own business allowed Kirchenbauer to use a different fee structure, which has also proved to be a differentiator. Instead of a flat 1% fee on investable assets, Kirchenbauer charges 0.35%, plus financial planning fees ranging from $7,500 to $35,000, depending on the services needed. That appeals to high-net-worth clients.

Pools of Money The lion's share of her clients' investable assets is in mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and separately managed accounts handled by SEI Investments. Kirchenbauer uses Morningstar Advisor Workstation and to manage invested assets outside the allocation to SEI, most of which sit with Schwab Institutional. That includes environmental, social, and governance funds, where her interest dates back to her days at Calvert. Morningstar helps her pick funds by evaluating analyst reviews, track records, holdings, performance, and fees. It also comes in handy for research of stocks inherited by heirs. "We can utilize Morningstar's expertise and capabilities to ferret out what needs to be removed from the portfolio and track on an ongoing basis the things we are monitoring," she says.

A Holistic Approach Kirchenbauer's transition training enables her to incorporate ideas from sociology, psychology, and neuroscience. "Cognitive abilities can really drop when people are undergoing a really significant transition," Kirchenbauer says. "When clients are in transition, they need a thinking partner. They need someone who is going to help them navigate through it."

For example, a typical financial planner would sit down with a client in transition and work on estate-planning documents, considering tangible things such as cash flow and insurance. Kirchenbauer takes it a step further to isolate feelings that could sabotage the financial planning. She sets up a “decision-free zone,” where big planning decisions—such as selling a house or business—are put on hold. She also allows for a “brain dump,” where the client writes down a list of everything that needs to be done, now, soon, and later. Scripts are devised to handle family pressure.

The focus is on the now. The client agrees to a written “one-pager” plan. “Getting it on a piece of paper gets them to remember, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we agreed to, and I understand why we’re doing that,’” she says.

Kirchenbauer's sense of discipline underpins her success. She starts weekdays at 5:45 a.m., with meditation and exercise on the elliptical, where she can read The Wall Street Journal or the Harvard Business Review. She ends her days with a gratitude exercise, focusing on things that went well that day and expectations for the next. It helps her maintain a positive mind in a volatile market. "Keeping your head in that space helps you navigate through sometimes negative environments, and maybe the one we're heading into," she says.

All the while, the percussion serves as a nice diversion and a reinforcement of sorts. “You have to be always looking ahead because you have to change instruments,” she says. “It teaches you to be anticipatory and forward-thinking.”

Lisa Kirchenbauer, CFP, president and founder, Omega Wealth Management.

How she caught our eye: Life planner who guides clients through major life-changing events.

Career path: Worked first as a registered sales assistant at EF Hutton, then a trader at Calvert Securities. Her work teaching financial planning to insurance agents at Acacia in the 1990s led her to open her own shop in 1999. She went independent in 2004 and holds designations of certified financial planner from the CFP Board, registered life planner from the Kinder Institute, and certified financial transitionist from the Sudden Money Institute.

Personal: Lives and works in Arlington, Va. Married with three sons, one aged 17 and twins, 22. Plays percussion in the Arlington Concert Band, a wind ensemble of amateur musicians, directed by James Kirchenbauer, her husband. Also enjoys skiing, hiking, gourmet cooking, and snorkeling.

Favorite funds: Socially responsible funds offered by providers with track records, such as Ariel, Calvert, Domini, and Neuberger Berman.

Charles Keenan is a freelance financial journalist.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Morningstar magazine. To learn more about Morningstar magazine, please visit our corporate website.

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