Finance

Just 15% of financial advisors are women. A 40-year veteran of Merrill Lynch who just came out of retirement explains how to change that.

  • Cynthia Hewitt recently joined New York City-based Snowden Lane Partners, an independent wealth advisor that manages $6 billion in assets and has been ranked among Barron’s top 100 RIA firms.
  • Hewitt was a managing director of investments at Merrill Lynch, a firm that she spent over four decades at before departing in 2018.
  • Just 15% of financial advisors are women, according to a McKinsey report, but Hewitt shared a message in an interview with Insider: “Women can shine in this business.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After an illustrious career in wealth management, including a four-decade run with Merrill Lynch, a top industry veteran has decided to get back in the game.

Cynthia Hewitt recently joined New York City-based Snowden Lane Partners, an independent wealth advisor ranked among Barron’s top 100 RIA firms. Her first official day as a senior partner and managing director at the firm was January 11.

Previously, Hewitt had been a managing director of investments at Merrill Lynch, having first joined the firm in 1976. She went on to be part of a small team that managed $1.4 billion in assets and generated nearly $8 million in revenue, Snowden Lane said in a press release.

She has received a number of career distinctions, including being named to Barron’s list of top 100 female advisors for 10 years running.

Hewitt retired in 2018, and, at the time, didn’t harbor plans of returning to the industry.

“I wasn’t necessarily thinking about getting back into the business,” she told Insider in a phone interview from her home in Delaware. Part of the incentive to do so was nostalgia.

“I felt cut off from what had been a big part of my life,” she said, adding later: “I left the business, but the business didn’t leave me.”

Even in retirement, Hewitt didn’t totally slow down

When Hewitt retired in 2018, she refused to totally hit the brakes.

As a retiree, she enrolled in a special master’s degree program offered for free to students ages 60 and up by the University of Delaware. While a student, one of her professors asked her to teach a class on investing, and she was bitten once again by a familiar bug.

“It lit me up,” Hewitt said, looking back on her teaching experience. “Afterwards, people came up and said, ‘Thanks, you really helped me.’ And I realized, at that time, at that moment, I thought, ‘You know, I still love this business.'”

See more:Meet the former Goldman Sachs MD who has an ambitious plan to boost the number of women overseeing funds at big money managers

That experience incentivized her to look into a possible return to wealth management, which was originally sparked by a longtime relationship with an old friend.

Gregory Franks, the president, managing partner, and chief operating officer at Snowden Lane, shares a friendship with Hewitt that dates back to the late 80’s. At the time, Franks was a manager at Merrill Lynch based in Washington, D.C., and Hewitt was working for the firm in Wilmington, Delaware.

Fast forward 40 years, and Franks had expressed overtures to Hewitt to consider joining Snowden Lane around the time she planned to retire, Hewitt said. But she originally declined.

Then, about a year ago, she received a call from a Snowden Lane representative, indicating that the firm was growing its staff.

“The more we talked, the more I thought, ‘Gosh, this sounds like a great place for me,'” she said. “It was not too long after I had taught the class, and things just sort of fell into place.”

Snowden Lane Partners, an independent RIA which was originally founded by a group of former Merrill Lynch managing directors, manages roughly $6 billion in assets with teams across 12 offices nationwide.

Hewitt, working from her home in the Wilmington area, is now at the helm of the firm’s first Delaware branch.

Wealth management has struggled in gender parity for decades

Hewitt got her start on Wall Street at a time when Merrill Lynch was doing its best to nurse a black eye that the wirehouse had sustained over charges of workplace discrimination.

Indeed, the firm, which today is owned by Bank of America, agreed to pay $1.9 million to several people who alleged that the wealth manager failed to hire or promote minorities and women.

As part of the settlement, it also pledged to undertake an affirmative action hiring program that would require it to increase its recruiting of women and Black and Latinx candidates, according to a 1976 report from the archives of The New York Times.

Read more: The biggest US wealth firms won’t disclose adviser racial diversity data despite renewing commitments to make their mostly white adviser forces more inclusive

Hewitt was one of the women who took note of the settlement and applied to Merrill Lynch. She landed the job.

“In some ways, it was the right place at the right time,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t answer all the questions properly on the application test, but they hired me just the same.

“I was looking for a job,” she said, “and Merrill Lynch was looking for a few good women.”

But when she retired 42 years later, she recalled feeling “disappointed” by the industry’s lack of progress in achieving gender parity.

Just 15% of financial advisers are women, according to a 2020 report from the consulting firm McKinsey. Plus, men continue to drive the financial decision-making in two-thirds of affluent US households, the report noted.

“In a perfect world, 50% of the advisors should be women,” she said. Cultural factors could be partly driving the disconnect, she said.

“I’m just not sure that there’s enough reaching out to young women, to explain it to them and tell them about it,” she said. “Women can shine in this business.”

Diving back in

As Hewitt reenters the industry, there’s no denying that it’s undergone extensive change.

On one end of the spectrum, wealth advisory is still permeated by exclusive high-net worth advisors and secretive family offices. But there are other players that have found their footing in the industry more recently.

One theme to emerge post-financial crisis has been the emergence of digital tools.

“It’s like a tale of two cities” in the marketplace right now, Franks said. “On one side, there’s the mass market, do-it-yourself approach … such as Robinhood, E-Trade, and all these others firms where you just do it yourself with no particular goal in mind.

“Then, on the high net-worth side, which is the space we are in, it has definitely changed from speculating to really goal-based investing and financial planning and estate planning, and so that’s what we offer,” he added. “It’s not just managing assets anymore. It’s really managing the financial life and affairs of our clients.”

Read more: Meet 6 top recruiters scouting talent for family offices as the secretive wealth managers to the world’s richest look to supercharge their investing prowess

All of this, coupled with megalithic firms’ increasingly big-box approach, creates an opportunity for smaller advisory shops like Snowden Lane Partners to stand out, Franks said.

“If you look back 15 years ago, the independent world, for most part, almost did not exist,” he said. “Now, fast forward to 2021, and it’s a trillion-dollar industry and it’s growing three times as fast as the wirehouses.”

Hewitt’s challenge is to make that argument to a clientele she’ll have to build from the ground up. She plans to leverage her Rolodex of industry and client contacts to stitch together a brand-new book of business from scratch.

She’s undeterred by the speed of transformation.

“They do say experience is the best teacher, and there’s a lot of truth to that,” Hewitt said. “It’s a fast-moving world. Things have changed a lot — but, on the other hand, maybe human nature hasn’t changed so much.”

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