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Creating an Environment Where Clients Feel Safe

Advisor Zaneilia Harris offers her own experiences to gain clients’ trust.

"Zaneilia Harris"

Gaining clients’ trust can be challenging for advisors. Zaneilia Harris, a Certified Financial Planner based in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, shares stories about her own financial journey.

“I tell my clients, ‘As much as I’m going to learn a lot about you, you are also going to learn a lot about me,’” says Harris, president of her firm, Harris & Harris Wealth Management Group.

What puts them at ease is not only Harris’ stories of success but also her willingness to talk about her miscues. One example: When she was a recent college graduate, Harris was pressured by family to cosign on a loan for a cousin, who ended up defaulting on the debt. She felt obligated to pay the loan back, and she did, learning a hard lesson.

“I believe financial advisors tend not to talk about their own personal relationships with money,” Harris says. “I try to be open with my clients about different things that I go through.”

That kind of transparency has helped fuel Harris’ success as an advisor. Her practice now has about 100 clients and $20 million of assets under management, with no employees but herself. (She does use a virtual assistant for administrative tasks.) Most of her clients are Black women in a range of roles, including company executives, government employees, and entrepreneurs.

Harris says that it’s often harder to build trust with Black women because of their own experience with systemic racism. Many have stories to tell about bad experiences with financial institutions, so Harris works to gain their confidence. In her initial conversations, Harris will dig and probe, reminding them that they are in a “judgment-free zone.” Questions include: How did your parents handle money? What did you learn about money growing up? If money were no object, what would you do with your life?

“You can ask a simple question and that can stir an emotional response in someone,” Harris says. “But let’s be real, money is very emotional.”

Harris’ aim is to create an environment where clients feel safe to talk about finances. “I tell them that I want to know about their life goals to see how we can use money as a tool to help them reach their life’s aspirations,” she says.

A Grandmother Makes a Strong Impression

Harris grew up mainly in Kenbridge, Virginia, situated in the south of the state, living with her grandparents. Her grandmother, the income earner for the family, worked at a nearby Levi Strauss LEVI factory, sewing jeans by machine.

Her grandmother was a role model for Harris, yet one day, she saw her in tears—finances had gotten tight, and Harris for the first time witnessed her grandmother become emotional.

“It does something to you,” Harris says. “I had in my mind that I need to learn what I could about money. Those moments with her still leave an imprint. The financial struggles I saw are not something I wanted to be a part of or pass on to the next generation.”

Harris earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in accounting in 1993 at St. Paul’s College, a historically Black college in Virginia. She also read Money magazine to learn about personal finance.

After school, she worked as an auditor for the Environmental Protection Agency, an analyst for the Nasdaq, and consultant to federal agencies for firms such as PwC, BearingPoint, and Grant Thornton. For the consulting jobs, she would move around from office to office, taking to the independence of the assignments and the ever-changing nature of the work.

She thought she could use her experience to help others with their finances and joined Merrill Lynch as financial advisor in 2006. In her efforts to gain new clients, a boss told her that people tend to attract people like themselves. She found that to be the case. After a stint at PNC Investments, she opened her own practice in 2009, focusing on women, Black women in particular. As an independent advisor, she could charge clients directly for financial planning and assets held, removing any conflict of interest for selling what a brokerage house wanted sold.

To build business, she first bought a list of 1,000 names of women across the District of Columbia and Maryland, sending handwritten invitations to each recipient. She took prospects out to lunch or dinner, and hosted events at her house, slowly building her book of business over the years. Along the way, Harris obtained her CFP designation in 2014.

Educating Clients on What They Own

Harris recommends a retainer level that best suits a client’s needs for service and financial planning, ranging from $155 to $596 a month. She charges separately for investment advice, an annual fee of 0.75% to 1.25% of the assets she manages.

Harris uses Morningstar Advisor Workstation to research investments and create client portfolios. She invests mainly in equity funds and short-term bond funds, with cash on hand for opportunities. For 20% of the portfolio, Harris works with clients to pick five individual stocks from the S&P 500. These large-cap stocks have plenty of analyst coverage, making it easy for clients to follow them. She encourages people to invest in companies they know, like, and buy from. “They’re more invested, and they learn more,” she says. “We should be educating our clients.”

Harris must sometimes steer clients away from making real estate a major focus. She says that many consumers believe real estate is a significant path to wealth and says that it’s an even stronger sentiment among Black Americans because their ancestors were denied land and came from slavery.

“Real estate is a tangible asset and might be easier to grasp than stocks and bonds,” she says. “But people don’t recognize that there is a lot to know, and that expertise is needed.”

Now with a steady client base, Harris, 51, stresses that her success isn’t all about numbers. She has held back from expanding the business with employees, capitalizing on the flexibility of having a home office and a life balance. “My business has allowed me to be present for my family, to be available for my daughter,” she says.

That includes supporting her teen daughter’s passion for competitive swimming—even when it means getting up at 4 a.m. to shuttle her to local swim team practices and meets. To Harris, it’s certainly all worth it. “To be there for my family and enjoy my clients, to me, is my measure of success.”

Charles Keenan is a freelance financial journalist.

This article was first published in the Q4 2022 issue of Morningstar magazine.

Correction: (Nov. 14, 2022): Harris & Harris Wealth Management is based in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. A previous version of this article misidentified the location.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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