Why I left Corporate America

Becoming a Financial Representative during the Great Recession on 100% commission was the perfect start to my career.

After graduating with a degree in Finance in 2008 amidst the Great Recession, many of my fellow classmates were faced with the decision of taking time off to travel, go to graduate school or start a career they were not necessarily in love with.  For me, it all started when I went to a job fair at the University of South Carolina.  With the recommendation from several friends, I visited the Northwestern Mutual table.  When introduced to the opportunity of helping people and building a business from scratch, while being rewarded for my efforts, I immediately fell in love with the career of a financial planner.  It was invigorating to be rewarded for my efforts, but most importantly, it was rewarding to be in a position of helping clients achieve their financial goals.   

After learning from the local Managing Director of Northwestern Mutual that only 1 in 50 make it after 5 years in the industry, I was more excited than ever to take on the challenge.  My background in competitive sports growing up paired with the exclusivity of the business, made it an easy decision to move home to the Northern Virginia area to launch my business.  Thus, began a 6-year career at Northwestern Mutual.  As an aside, I met my wife Jessica while there, which proved to be the best career decision I had made yet.  Jessica was a Recruiter there, and later promoted to Chief Recruiting Officer in their Philadelphia office. 

There was an exclusive goal of “Pacesetter” given to all reps in their first 6 months, meaning you sold 40 lives in the first 6 months. After a lot of blood, sweat, I hit my first major goal, and at 22 this helped build my confidence that I could do this.  I subsequently hired an assistant, and we began to run the business like a well-oiled machine.

I have been extremely blessed having the opportunity to work with some amazing business partners.  My associate I hired in Northern Virginia was an absolute rock star. I learned how important your team is as I saw how other teams were lost in minutia because of inefficiencies in how they worked together. She was like my sidekick and absolutely made my life easier. I cannot thank her enough for everything she did. When I left for my last firm, I was paired with another business associate. The bar was set extremely high with my former associate, and I never thought I could have the chemistry and synergy that we had together.  I was proven wrong, and the last 6 years have been an absolute blessing and I could not be more grateful to have worked with another unforgettable talent. There are a host of individuals I have worked with throughout my career who have been pivotal in helping my business grow, but I want to say a special thanks to my former associates, who without them, I would not have been able to run my business as efficiently as I did.   

As I approached my 3rd year in the business, I was approached by two of my mentors, who were adamant about me obtaining my CFP® designation.  The CFP®, or Certified Planner Designation, is considered by many to be the gold standard in our business. They likened it to “getting my driver’s license.” Since I lived in the Washington DC area,  I decided to pursue my CFP® designation at Georgetown University. The head of the program, Michael Dalton, was the most impactful Professor I had while there. One of the things that stuck with me most was the idea of being a “Fiduciary.” This means always putting your client’s interests ahead of your own. By selling commissioned based products, it was nearly impossible to act as a Fiduciary in this industry. I realized, all I was selling was commission-based products and solutions. On one hand, I was doing well, making good money as a young single professional and building a legitimate business. On the other hand, I wanted to sit on the same side of the table as my clients to make the greatest impact possible. This really got in my head. After my fourth year in the business, I had achieved another major milestone, “Million Dollar Round Table,” which is a high mark of production shared by less than 1% of the Financial Services Industry. I was very proud of the work our team had accomplished, but obtaining my CFP® designation was my proudest accomplishment in 2012. I knew after completing that program, the only way to do this business the RIGHT way was becoming an Independent Registered Investment Advisor and working as a Fiduciary for my clientele.

Prior to launching my own firm, I spent the next eight years continuing to sharpen my saw on all of the ins and outs of things like:

  • Retirement Income Planning
  • Tax Planning
  • Managing Investment Portfolios
  • Estate Planning and Multi-Generational Wealth Planning
  • Incapacity and Insurance Planning

I was also able to build up a nice cushion to prepare for my ultimate venture. All the while, my wife, Jessica, and I got married, bought our first home, had our first baby (Tristan), then our twin boys (Julian and Jackson) and have settled in our new home in St. Augustine, FL.

So, here are the main reasons I left the “big firm” to go Independent:

  1. Fiduciary Standards
  2. Ability to give “White Glove” service
  3. Choose WHO I want to work with


“A fiduciary is a person or organization that acts on behalf of another person or persons, putting their clients’ interest ahead of their own, with a duty to preserve good faith and trust. Being a fiduciary thus requires being bound both legally and ethically to act in the other’s best interests.” (definition on Investopedia.com)

One of the areas which attracted me most about this career is to truly help people. I remember when being asked at a very young age what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I responded with “Sports Agent.” Maybe it was the movie, Jerry McGuire, which inspired me. Nonetheless, I loved sports and I loved to help people. I look at being someone’s Financial Advisor no differently. I want to represent them and their family and help them achieve whatever objectives possible. How clients compensate me is very important in representation. By not receiving any compensation from third parties that I utilize, I can eliminate those conflicts of interests and truly be my client’s advocate. This is very important to me, and also reassuring to my clients given the transparency of our fee structure. For that reason, I am extremely proud and excited to take on that role of Fiduciary for my clients at all times.

02. White Glove service

Launching my business as an Independent RIA seemed like a daunting task at first. Let’s be honest, all of my technology, research, and staffing were being provided by my previous firm. However, as I mentioned, giving the best service possible to the clients I work for was a huge priority for me. Working for larger firms felt clunky and antiquated.

In a world where it seems like companies are moving away from customer service towards automation and offshoring in order to maximize their bottom line, I wanted to have a firm where the focus was on white-glove service and treating every client like family instead of a number.

I did a TON of research on this over the past several years, and began to see a clear path. Most of the heavy lifting has been done in the recent months, but I feel it’s been 12 years in the making to get to the point where I am now.

I’ve broken down three areas in which going Independent is going to help us deliver White-Glove service to our clients.

1. Technology
2. Custodian
3. Financial Planning tools


This is probably the MOST exciting of the three. As we all know, technology has come a LONG way since I started in this business in 2008. However, these larger firms face the challenge of years or decades of doing things a certain way, and as a result it becomes almost impossible to make technological changes for the greater good. Implementing new and BETTER technology across dozens of departments and sometimes tens of thousands of employees is cost prohibitive.  Investor’s Business Daily featured my firm in an article about how the pandemic has changed the financial services business model.  As an Independent RIA, I can cherry pick the best of the best technology at an affordable price and put it into play for my clients. The result allows me as a start up business to limit my expenses for staffing and focus on great Financial Planning for my clients.


A Custodian is required as a Registered Investment Advisor so the assets you are managing for clients are not commingled with the firm’s assets. I have chosen Charles Schwab to be my custodian as they serve the highest number of Independent RIA’s and are continuing to invest in their own technology, research and service capabilities for firms like mine. Their recent acquisition of TD Ameritrade shows they are committed to the long haul and I am excited to integrate all of the resources they offer to better service my clientele.

Financial Planning Tools:

Financial Planning software to a Practitioner is like a perfect Chef’s knife to Gordon Ramsey. It has to be on point. For my clients, goal based planning is very important. These individuals want to ensure they can sustain their income in retirement, minimize taxes, and stress test “what if” scenarios in order to be as bullet proof as possible during retirement. For these reasons, I chose the Elite version of Money Guide Pro. This is, in my humble opinion, the leading Financial Planning software in the market for Goals Based Planning. It will allow me to “nerd out” behind the scenes for my clients on all of those “what if’s” such as:

What if we had another “Great Recession?”
What if Social Security gets into trouble?
What if my clients live longer than anticipated?
What if there is a Long Term Care need?
What if there are lower returns than anticipated in the future?
What happens to the plan if we have hyperinflation like the 80s?
What if tax laws change in the future?

Additionally, I can accurately quantify what kind of “safety margin” or buffer we have in the financial plan. This allows for some wiggle room as we navigate a potential 20-30+ year retirement plan with so much uncertainty ahead of us. It also gives us an idea on what kind of financial legacy will be left for their beneficiaries in order to help navigate their Estate Plans.

03. Choosing Who I Want to Serve

Life is short. For this reason, I don’t want to work with people that bring me down or drain my energy. I have a wife, three young boys and three extremely high maintenance dogs. I need as much energy as I can give them daily, so working with toxic people is the last thing I want to do.

If I were doing this solely for the money, I would probably tolerate some of the “difficult clients.” Maybe they have a $10million dollar account or have significant influence in my market. Given money is not my primary motivator, I have the ability to say “NO” to the wrong people. So, who do I really serve? There are two primary clients I serve:

My first and primary market are those who are transitioning into retirement or those who have recently transitioned into retirement. The reason I have such a passion for working with this market is because that is the profile my parents fit into when I started in the business. In 2008, my Dad was looking to transition into retirement. Unfortunately, like many others, the recession came and it pushed his retirement back. I learned that decisions made leading up to retirement are extremely critical. For my Dad, it pushed his retirement dream back 10 years. Now, one thing I have learned being in the business 12+ years now is that retirement has a different meaning for everyone. Whatever objectives they have, my goal is to organize their balance sheet and income sources to ensure they can achieve whatever goals they have in retirement and beyond with their financial legacies. The folks who have recently transitioned may have done so without the best advice and are looking to hire a team that can truly help them. Nonetheless, many of my clients reside here on the First Coast in Florida where I reside, but also all around the country. One of the positives to take away from COVID is that being comfortable with technology has become the new normal. As a result, we are attracting clients from all over the US that are comfortable with dealing with us remotely knowing we are the best fit for them.

The second category is young families and professionals. There are three reasons for this. First and foremost, I have a young family. Therefore, my peers also have young families. If they want to bounce questions or issues off of me, I want to be available for them. Second, many of my clients ask me to work with their children (or grandchildren). Of course, I will do that job because that is part of my helping that individual client. Last but not least, I’ve always felt this was an undeserved market. Unfortunately, most advisors only target those with a certain net worth or investment asset level. I always found this disingenuous. Our firm has created a service offering to help these young families navigate challenges such as; saving for college, paying off student loans, buying homes, insurance planning and ultimately their retirement planning. Also, as their parents get older, many of these folks will become the executors or Powers of Attorney for their parents estate. It’s important they have the financial acumen and are backed by a competent team to help them navigate these challenging issues.

I hope you enjoyed reading my first post and I look forward to providing more valuable financial planning content going forward.

If you have any questions about your financial goals or have topics you would like for me to cover, please email me directly at [email protected] or visit my website at www.imaginefinancialsecurity.com to book a free 30 minute introductory phone call.

Kevin Lao

I am the founder of Imagine Financial Security. We are a Flat Fee, Fiduciary Financial Advisor based in Jacksonville, FL. We specialize in retirement planning for blended families, tax optimization and investment management. We can work with you locally in Jacksonville or St Augustine, as well as virtually anywhere in the United States.