Originally published in the Financial Standard, click here for the article.
Donna Lee Powell’s story has become her super power. Through hardship and heartbreak, she found a way to help others and built a business in the process. Elizabeth McArthur writes.
Life with a young family and a small business in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t easy for anyone. But Donna Lee Powell has found the silver linings.
While she works from her home she takes a moment to count the blessings she’s already found in these strange times. Her family is spending more time together, things are slowing down, there’s a welcome feeling of going back to basics.
Powell started her first business one year before the Global Financial Crisis. She made it through that, learning a few lessons along the way and began her current business, DLP Life Design, just three years ago.
“What I have learned throughout my life is that things can change so quickly,” Powell says.
“You should protect and plan for whatever life may throw at you because no one is exempt from these challenges. COVID-19 is confirming this.”
Powell has built DLP Life Design to fill a gap she identified in the financial advice industry.
She estimates that advisers are losing up to 80% of their female clients once their male partners pass away. Powell has developed this hypothesis because she knows these women; once they leave their adviser they come to her.
Sometimes these women had been with their previous financial adviser for decades while their husbands were alive. But Powell can offer them something most other advisers can’t.
“I’ve worked with clients experiencing grief for the last three years. That has become one of my niche markets,” Powell says.
“Working with these clients, I often find myself having hard conversations.”
She identified the specific advice gap that exists for those who have lost their spouses, especially suddenly or at a young age, through her own experience.
Powell’s husband died while swimming an Ironman event in 2015, as she and their children watched on from the beach.
“He was a fit and healthy 39-year-old. There were no findings in the coroner’s report that could explain his death,” she says.
“I was very fortunate to be in a good financial position with my husband, he was a paramedic working full-time and I was consulting part-time. We had an amazing life, a beautiful and supportive family and friendship group. We were very much in love, life was perfect.”
Amid her grief, and while learning to parent alone, Powell discovered a unique administrative hell.
“Before I lost Brett, I had no idea how traumatic that kind of experience is,” she says.
“You expect the emotional side of things, but not the administrative burden. I had even worked with clients before who had experienced this.”
Despite that, Powell found that the administrative hurdles that are thrown at people who are grieving are hard to fathom until you experience it yourself.
Now, she completely understands why other financial advisers are losing widowed clients and she says it’s not their fault.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” she says.
Part of Powell’s ambition in sharing her story is that she might do her bit to change the industry for the better.
She points out that with women living, on average, longer than men they do tend to be the ones who end up with a family’s wealth.
No smart financial adviser should continue with the old status quo of talking to the man of the house about money matter. It’s guaranteeing that the money ends up walking right out the door.
One of the most surprising things about Powell’s story is that even she, as a financial adviser and someone who has taken care of her personal finances her whole life, found the administrative process after her husband’s death confronting.
Financial advisers deal with death every day. They speak to their clients about wills and life insurance and what might happen to a client’s superannuation in the event of their passing.
But Powell’s story illustrates just how far the industry has to go.
“Enduring the process of the insurance claims, having the death benefit super paid out and sorting probate made me realise that some advisers do those things well but most don’t,” she says.
“Most professionals, including financial advisers, who deal with these processes often struggle with the tough conversations and shy away from talking about death and dying.”
Living the experience of losing a spouse opened Powell’s eyes to the urgent need for financial advice to do better for those grieving.
Not only do they often find themselves with a mountain of administrative tasks to undertake when they have lost someone, but many also lack the necessary level of financial literacy deal with it.
Still today, there are many Australians whose financial situation is such that if their partner passed away they would struggle to maintain the lifestyle they currently live.
Because women are still more likely to be the primary carers for children and elderly parents, and are more likely to have more time off work as a result, men remain the primary breadwinner of many families.
Powell says that in the time after her husband’s death she started seeing this situation in a new light.
“I remember looking around at my girlfriends and my family and realising how vulnerable many people are if they were to lose their partner,” she says.
“It’s one thing taking on the role as primary breadwinner in your family, but it’s another to do that while you’re grieving and trying to be a sole parent to children who have just lost their dad.”
She wanted to help these women, and she discovered a way to do it – by telling her story.
Powell says she loves financial advice because she enjoys helping people and seeing them succeed, and her background set her up well to understand the joy of money.
As a young girl Powell had the benefit of experiencing the importance of good money management first hand.
She grew up in a mining family and as big jobs came and went, her family’s financial fluctuations were keenly felt.
“As a child, my family experienced sudden financial change through the ups and downs of the mining economy,” she says.
“We went from being quite wealthy, living in nice houses, eating nice food, driving nice cars, travelling the world to losing almost everything.”
The experience made Powell learn the fundamentals of financial planning at a young age.
“It taught me that money is not the most important thing in life, and it does not bring happiness,” she says.
“However, it does give us security, choice, and freedom. I guess when you have less money, you learn to be grateful and mindful of the simple experiences in life.”
Those formative experiences created an interest in wealth creation and security for a young Powell.
“It forced me to be interested in making money very early in life. I wanted to provide my family with security, choice and freedom,” she says.
“I bought Coles Myer shares at 17, my first house at 21 and owned my dream home at 34. By this time, I was married with two kids and had sold my first financial planning practice.”
Her experiences growing up had instilled in Powell not just the importance of saving but of having cash reserves and not over extending yourself with debt.
“It was a natural progression for me to end up in financial advice. I love helping people and have experienced the importance of good money management firsthand, so I wanted to help people create just that,” Powell says.
But, despite her deep understanding of the value of financial security, when Powell’s husband died she still found herself in a financial tangle for the first time in her adult life.
Even she was left unprepared for some of the tasks she would have to undertake.
Now, it’s Powell’s mission to not see other women in the same situation.
“Most professionals, including financial advisers, who deal with these processes often struggle with the tough conversations and shy away from talking about death and dying and most importantly often lack empathy to what the client might be experiencing,” she says.
“The feedback I get from my clients who have been in this situation and gone to other advisers is that they often feel confused, overwhelmed and powerless. My goal is to empower and educate them and not to overwhelm them.”
Having insight into what it’s like to deal with paperwork, jargon and bureaucracy while grieving means Powell can avoid creating the situation other advisers sometimes fall into that leaves clients feeling overwhelmed.
But, she also has insight into broken systems and the desire to change them for the better.
“People have to provide documentation of a death over and over again to so many institutions,” Powell says.
“That alone triggers so much emotion. Imagine if the Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages could notify institutions on behalf of relatives when someone dies.”
These tasks aren’t often what people think about when someone dies, but financial advice has the ability to do what it can to relieve this burden – and that could have a profound impact.
“That would result in a lot less anxiousness and stress on people who have just lost someone,” Powell says.
“People don’t realise the importance of getting it right until it’s too late most of the time.”
The irony, Powell finds, is that although so much of what financial advisers do skirts the perimeters of death as it implicates the estate, talking about death still doesn’t come easily for most.
“In the first meeting clients are usually sharing their grief and a lot of information about what needs to be done,” Powell explains.
“My role is listening and deciding what’s important and a priority. A lot of clients come to me to talk about getting an insurance claim paid out, so I’ll just focus on that. I won’t get into what to do with the money or anything like that. I’ll just do the thing they’ve asked for and quote my fees based on that alone.”
That might sound like a simple plan, but it actually comes from Powell’s empathy for their situation.
“I keep it simple because I know what it’s like and how overwhelming it can be,” she says.
“I prepare clients so they know what trustees are going to be asking because I’ve dealt with a lot of trustees, a lot of super funds.
“I want to educate clients about the process, how long it takes and what questions they are going to be asked because some of the process is out of my hands as an adviser.”
Many of the women, if not most, who come to see Powell are not the main income provider for the family.
But, they are educated. They have careers of their own and don’t necessarily fit into old stereotypes about a woman’s role in a family.
However, Powell finds they are often still not that interested in money. Instead pursuing careers they love without making job choices based on salaries.
This isn’t necessarily a negative trait, but it can leave these women less engaged with the family’s finances.
“I very much feel that over time it will change,” she says.
“More women will be interested in money and will value financial freedom and independence more. Women live longer, so over time women will be the ones who end up with the majority of wealth.”
In her initial meetings with new clients, Powell does often find herself sharing her own story.
“I am a big sharer of my life experiences. Clients relate to that and they like it. I let clients lead the conversations, and it’s interesting,” she says.
Though the conversations can sometimes be challenging and emotional, she says it’s ultimately worth it.
“I’m a spiritual person and I guess when people die it’s natural to think about the greater purpose of life and the lessons in this,” Powell explains.
“I often find myself having spiritual conversations about the greater things in life with my clients. Some of the things that we talk about still surprise me. I guess I’m open and non-judgemental, so clients feel safe and comfortable to share.”
It’s natural, in times of upheaval, for people to want to have these conversations, she says.
“When someone is dying or someone has died, you reflect on what’s really important,” Powell says
Reflecting on what is really important is something many of us might find ourselves doing amid the current economic downturn, triggered by COVID-19.
Powell, like everyone in the financial advice industry, is wading her way through the waters of the pandemic and its economic consequences
Her clients need her more than ever, and she hopes she can offer support and perspective that can make their journey through this turbulent time a little easier.
Powell finds herself not just speaking to clients about how their investments are performing and what to expect amid market volatility but how to, practically, make the best of a challenging situation.
“Financial advice is more important now than ever,” she says.
“Our clients are realising this because those with strong cash reserves, good cash flow management, diversified income and manageable debts levels are the ones that will be able to get through this and potentially come out the other side with good learnings to be better positioned for future years.”
However, financial advisers aren’t exactly well equipped across the board to jump the hurdles that have landed in front of them.
“As advisers, we’ve been through the wringer in the last few years with what’s required of us, the way we’re remunerated, additional educational and administrative requirements and then to add to that, the markets act as a result of COVID-19!” Powell says.
“There’s going to be a lot of advisers experiencing pain. It’s really tough out there.”
It is a shame that consumers might be less likely to have an ongoing relationship with a financial adviser as a result of the upheaval the industry has been going through because, as Powell points out, experience through market downturns is incredibly valuable in times like these.
“It’s not easy, as an adviser. When COVID-19 first started hitting the markets I reflected back to my experiences during the Global Financial Crisis,” Powell says.
While Powell says she had hoped to experience such a global downturn only once in her career, she feels personally better positioned to handle this one.
“The difference is we understand the key principles behind what is happening and have the knowledge and experience to know that the markets will recover. However, our clients are often not in this position. This is where our role becomes invaluable.”
Despite the rough road ahead, Powell is conscious of the silver linings. And, she knows we will all emerge on the other side.
“I know what it’s like to go through awful things that you wouldn’t wish on anybody but I also know there’s always light at the end of that tunnel,” she says.
“When we get to the other side we’ll appreciate things. Some of the noise in our life might reduce.”
And, as for the future Powell doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“I genuinely love doing what I do and helping clients, even as tricky as that’s becoming during a time like this,” she says.
Her advice for other financial advisers wanting to start their own business, discover their niche and follow their own path is, “go after what you are passionate about and back yourself.”
Powell’s own dream is for her business, currently based in Perth, to one day have a national presence – and she has plans to open an office on the east coast.
She’s also working on a book about her experiences. Something which surely could help many in the same situation.
“My husband Brett was a paramedic, he was very selfless. I do want to create a legacy of him and for my kids. And, my business is a legacy to Brett,” Powell says.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if he hadn’t died. And I’ve created a life, through adversity, that I love and am completely fulfilled in.”