Inside Track: From rocket scientist to number cruncher
Financial advisor specializes in helping clients with dementia obtain financial security.
For many, financial planning can be as confounding as rocket science.
Steve Starnes, a senior financial advisor at Grand Wealth Management, has qualifications in both.
When Starnes began his academic career at the University of Michigan, he started out studying political science before switching to a path in engineering. However, during the course of his studies, Starnes found he enjoyed studying economics — a family business of sorts, as his great-grandfather founded a bank in Indiana and his father also was a banker. So he did both, graduating from Michigan with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering and a Bachelor of Arts in economics.
“I still came out of college planning on going the engineering route, and I did some consulting in that for a few years,” Starnes said. “But people have always sought me out for financial advice — if I’m ever a part of an organization, I always end up being appointed treasurer.”
So, after a couple of years working in the engineering field, including a gig managing a small construction firm in the Detroit area, he reached out to a financial planning firm in Ann Arbor, where he had interned during college.
After being told there were no openings, Starnes was persistent and found himself with a desk, a phone and a directive: “Go find us some clients and figure it out.”
One thing Starnes learned during his undergrad years at Michigan was how to be confident — after completing two degrees at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, how could he not be? And so, Starnes was confident he could do just that — figure it out. But he quickly found chasing new clients wasn’t his forte. After about a year and a half, the firm decided he wasn’t bringing in enough new business to justify a position, and he was let go.
“Thank God it happened,” Stanes said. “And at the time, that was a bad day. I wasn’t expecting it, and I’ve always succeeded at things. But it forced me to figure out what is the right fit for me. I had to ask myself, ‘What do you want to do?’ And that pushed me forward.”
It didn’t take long for Starnes to land on his feet, taking a position with Savant Capital Management in the Washington, D.C., area. There, Starnes worked alongside experienced advisors and received a full education in the industry, without having to feel the pressures of being tossed into the deep end with no other options except sink or swim.
As he learned the ropes at Savant, Starnes found the professional success that had previously eluded him. In fact, his financial confidence proved to come in handy when the nation fell into a recession.
“I always had that confidence of, we’ll get through this, we’ll figure this out,” Starnes said. “And I think that’s helpful when working with clients who are coming to you and the question in their mind is, ‘How do I know that this is good and valuable advice?’”
Right around the time he began working as a financial advisor, Starnes also had taken on another informal role. His grandmother began to show signs of suffering from dementia, and Starnes took it upon himself to help her get her finances in order. And though he didn’t realize it at the time, he was performing a very necessary and important service for his grandmother.
It wasn’t until several years later, when he began to notice early signs of dementia in some of his clients, Starnes recognized how important it is for dementia patients to have that financial security.
Following conversations with his colleagues, Starnes began to study up on how financial advisors could provide better services and assistance for clients suffering from dementia.
“There’s quite a lot of medical research that confirms difficulty with finances is one of the first things people have trouble with when they begin to develop dementia,” he said. “So, that means someone like myself may notice a problem before anyone else does, including family members.”
After countless hours of research and discussions with experts, Starnes began to build out some recommendations for advisors thrust into a difficult position. In 2010, Starnes had his paper, “Is Your Firm Prepared for Alzheimer’s?” published in the Journal of Financial Planning.
With the publication of that paper, the doors of opportunity opened. Starnes was invited to speak at conferences and further spread the word about how advisers can best protect the interests of their aging clients. One critical message Starnes tries to convey is encouraging families to address and discuss the possibility they may soon have to place a relative in long-term care.
“As we live longer, more people will need long-term care and develop dementia, so we need to get better at preparing ourselves for this,” Starnes said. “I don’t think families talk about long-term care as part of the plan, but the reality is that most of us are going to need it, there’s a 60- to 70-percent likelihood that a client will need long-term care at some point. And I can have a valuable role in helping people think about that.”
While his professional career continued to blossom, Starnes kept one eye out for opportunities, hoping to find a firm that was a cultural fit for what he was hoping to accomplish. And in 2015, he found the perfect fit after being connected with Grand Wealth Management by a mutual contact.
“In talking with Grand Wealth, I was really impressed with their professionalism and focus on doing the right thing for their clients,” Stanes said. “They invest money well, they help clients with all aspects of the financial picture and that focus on doing the right thing for people and taking care of all the details for their clients, I thought, set them apart from all the other firms around the country that I had been considering.”
At Grand Wealth, Starnes continues his work in assisting clients suffering from dementia and is involved with several local organizations hoping to better understand and treat dementia. He sits on the steering committee of Rethinking Dementia, a Grand Rapids-based organization promoting awareness and treatment options for the disease.
“I think it’s a way for me to keep my grandmother’s memory close, and that’s one of the really nice parts about it,” Starnes said. “When I’m sitting with anyone who tells me (their) grandparent or parent is struggling with this, it’s entirely another level of being able to relate to them having had that experience.”
Starnes also serves on the development committee of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Since the age of 6, he’s played the violin, and although he doesn’t have much time to practice with two young children, he still enjoys his time with the instrument.
“I knew I would never be one of the best at it, and I’m quite happy to have it as a hobby,” he said.
He’s also quite happy to be working at a job that allows him to provide a necessary service and help the clients of Grand Wealth, often referring to them as “the millionaire next door.”
He recalls a recent evening when he and his wife, Cathy, were invited to a client’s house for dinner. And through the home-cooked meal, good wine and conversation, he had somewhat of an epiphany, realizing had this couple made just one or two poor decisions at critical junctures of their life, they could have been in a completely different stage of financial security than they currently were enjoying.
“I realized that what we do is to help people avoid the bad decisions and make the good ones,” Starnes said. “And I probably talked to dozens of firms around the country for two years before deciding Grand Wealth was the place to land, because I was looking for a cultural fit. I knew I needed a firm where there was a focus on doing the right thing because I’ve always tried to do good things for people. And I’m glad to be here.”