One of industry's last holdouts, NAIFA elects its first female president

With women representing only 11.5% of advisers, trade group plans to highlight women in industry

Sep 4, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

By Mark Schoeff Jr.

Juli McNeely
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Juli McNeely

For the first time since it was founded in the early 1890s, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors will be led by a woman, starting next week.

Juli McNeely will be installed as NAIFA president Monday during its annual conference in San Diego. She acknowledged that NAIFA is one of the last industry groups to have a woman take the reins.

“For 124 years, we've had a Caucasian male individual leading NAIFA,” Ms. McNeely said in an interview. “It's probably high time that we have a woman lead the organization. Women have a different style. That's neither good nor bad, it's just different.”

She will hold office for the next year, a period in which NAIFA will be celebrating its 125th birthday. The 40,000-member trade association for insurance agents and registered representatives will devote part of its anniversary website to highlighting women in the financial services industry.

“We're going to put a bright light on female advisers,” said Ms. McNeely, owner and president of McNeely Financial Services in Spencer, Wis.

The number of female financial advisers is rising but remains small. Women represent 11.5% of adviser ranks, up from 7.9% in 2012, according to a recent study by Cerulli Associates Inc.

As women increasingly make household financial decisions, the financial advice sector must adjust, Ms. McNeely said.

“Now that that shift has happened, I think that women are going to look to female advisers,” she said. “It's a great opportunity for women to seriously take a look at this career, because consumers want to work with someone that understands them, perhaps looks like them but at the very least can relate to them.”

Empathy helps women connect to clients, said Ms. McNeely, 45. She noticed that when she took over the practice from her father.

“When I have a client who shares something really deep and perhaps troubling to them, I internalize it more than my dad ever did,” she said. “Women tend to listen a little better ... and take on what they're hearing.”

Leading NAIFA over the next year also will require Ms. McNeely to be tough, as the association girds for broad tax reform on Capitol Hill. She is worried that lawmakers will target tax preferences for life insurance and retirement savings to pay for lowering tax rates.

“Unfortunately, our products are sometimes viewed as [tax] expenditures,” she said. “We want to make sure that we protect everything we've got.”

NAIFA throws its weight around Washington: It spent $1.39 million on lobbying in 2013 and has contributed $1.74 million to congressional campaigns in the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The group will continue to oppose the pending re-proposal of the Department of Labor's conflicts-of-interest rule for financial advice to retirement plans. It argues that the agency's original approach would have raised regulatory and liability costs for brokers and forced them to abandon investors with modest assets.

“We need to be able to serve clients that have smaller accounts,” Ms. McNeely said. “NAIFA is not going to stop [its opposition]. Hopefully, we can get this headed in a good direction.”

It also is watching a potential rule at the Securities and Exchange Commission that would raise investment adviser standards for brokers. The SEC has not decided whether to propose a uniform fiduciary standard for retail investment advice.

Depending on what the commission offers, it could cause some of the same problems as the DOL rule.

“They've been somewhat open to hearing our concerns,” Ms. McNeely said of the SEC. “That's a huge win for NAIFA.”

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