Chairman and founder, Armstrong, Fleming & Moore Inc.
Alexandra Armstrong has spent 40 years encouraging women to embrace financial planning as a career or as the pathway to financial security.
The iconic founder and chairman of Armstrong Fleming & Moore Inc. has helped foster the growth of financial planning into a bona fide profession. Colleagues, mentees, clients and others in the business say she has done it all with her trademark humility, generosity and resolve.
"When people call me an icon I'm embarrassed, and I sort of look behind me to see who they're talking about," Ms. Armstrong said in a recent interview in her Washington, D.C., offices.
Ms. Armstrong, 76, launched a career in financial planning before the profession itself had gotten off the ground. In 1977, she was the first person in Washington, and one of the first women in the nation, to become a certified financial planner.
She sought what was then a new designation because she saw it as the first step on a path to offering clients comprehensive financial planning, not just portfolio advice. She's long recognized how important such guidance can be, especially for women, having watched her own mother struggle with finances after her father died when she was eight.
Ms. Armstrong, a Washington native, personally has mentored dozens of young women over four decades in the industry and inspired countless more through speeches and other activities that position her as a role model in a business dominated by men.
She has long been a vocal proponent for what an "ideal career" financial planning is for women. Early on, though, she said she had to get used to being the only woman in the room at industry gatherings.
She said chauvinism from male colleagues, which some see as a reason many women steer clear of the financial services industry, wasn't an issue for her.
Instead, Ms. Armstrong said, she encountered at least a few men along her career path "who had strong women in their own backgrounds and respected someone who was trying to do something different."
Financial adviser LeCount Davis, the nation's first black CFP and founder of the Association of African American Financial Advisors, said Ms. Armstrong played a vital role in helping him keep his advisory business on track and pursue his goal of encouraging more diversity in the business.
She guided him from the start and helped keep up his spirits for the past several decades, he said. He recalled standing alone at his first CFP meeting in 1978 as other members came in and greeted colleagues.
"Alex was the only person who came up to me and welcomed me that day, and she's been helping me ever since," Mr. Davis said. "She's my Good Samaritan."
Armstrong Fleming & Moore principal Mary Moore said Ms. Armstrong has been a role model for her and many other female advisers. She also described Ms. Armstrong's altruistic character.
"She is prolific in her generosity and wanting to do good for everyone," Ms. Moore said.
Ms. Armstrong was inspired to start her own firm in 1983 after working for a decade with Julia Walsh and Gail Winslow at securities firm Ferris & Co. — where they were breaking ground as women in the mostly male brokerage business — and six more years as the only non-family partner at Julia M. Walsh & Sons brokerage.
"Both these women were doing quite well in the 1960s, so it didn't occur to me that I couldn't succeed as a financial planner or adviser," Ms. Armstrong said.
The importance of participating in industry and community development was something these two mentors, both of whom are now deceased, imparted to Ms. Armstrong.
One of her "life-changing" volunteer roles came as a board member for the organization that preceded today's Financial Planning Association. After seven years, she retired from the group in 1987 as its first, and only, female chairman.
"It was a lot of pressure because I knew the spotlight was on me," she said of being chairman. "It was a wonderful opportunity and it really changed my life because it gave the national scope, rather than looking at it just from Washington, D.C."
She also served as the only female chair of the Boy Scouts National Capital Area Council, as president of the National Association of Women Business Owners and as chairman of the Foundation for Financial Planning, and still plays a role in some of these and other organizations.
A graduate of Newton College of the Sacred Heart, which is now part of Boston College, she received the Award of Excellence in Commerce from Boston College Alumni Association. Her high school, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, awarded her the Alumni of the Year award in 1994. More than a decade later, that recognition caught the attention of Lauren Mariano, then a sophomore at the school, who is now one of her latest mentees.
"I was inspired by her story of entering the industry when it was just emerging," Ms. Mariano said. "I felt like I had a connection to her, like we were coming from the same place."
She wrote a letter to Ms. Armstrong and found herself with a mentor, and eventually an internship at the firm. Ms. Armstrong spent hours over their first lunch together discussing the profession and its opportunities for women, Ms. Mariano said.
Ms. Armstrong, whose firm today manages about $860 million in assets for 475 clients, has always focused on helping other women, especially widows.
"My mom was a widow at 48 and we had to make our way without a lot of money," she said. "From an early age I knew the problems that a widow would encounter."
In 1993, Ms. Armstrong co-wrote a book with psychologist Mary Donahue called, "On Your Own: A Widow's Passage to Emotional and Financial Well-Being" (Dearborn Trade Publishing). She wrote the book because she felt the advice she offered widows often wasn't being followed because women in this state of grief weren't really absorbing her words.
A book, she reasoned, would give them a resource that they could read a chapter at a time. It's been a hit. The fifth edition of her book came out in 2011.
Linda Rabbit became one of Ms. Armstrong's first clients in the early 1980s. A friend recommended Ms. Armstrong when she was divorcing and had a "modest pot of money" that she needed to ensure would pay for the education of her two children.
"I knew nothing about money," said Ms. Rabbit, who today is chief executive of a $300 million construction company and is still a client.
She immediately liked Ms. Armstrong's "measured and strategic" approach to investing and appreciated the financial education Ms. Armstrong delivered along with her advice. The two are close friends today, often traveling together with their husbands.
Ms. Armstrong is married to Washington estate planning attorney Jerry McCoy, whom she met when a client needed extra help with charitable planning, his specialty. Mr. McCoy said it wasn't until after they were married that he realized the significance of his wife's contribution to the financial planning profession.
"People regularly stop her in the hallway at conferences to tell her how a speech she gave long ago inspired them to get into the business," Mr. McCoy said proudly.
Ms. Armstrong said meeting Mr. McCoy two decades ago changed her.
"My firm was my family for 20 years," Ms. Armstrong said. "Meeting Jerry has made all the difference in the world. People have said it made me less intense than I was before."
She was reminded of the importance of the relationship two years ago when Mr. McCoy fell in a New York City hotel and sustained a brain injury that nearly took his life.
He endured brain surgery, three months in the hospital and many more months of recovery at home. Ms. Armstrong rarely left her husband's side during this period, spending much less time than usual at her office.
The experience, according to Ms. Armstrong, put things in perspective and caused her to begin thinking more seriously about succession planning. Since then, she's trimmed her hours in the office, spends more time with her husband at their Florida home and is slowly introducing her clients to the firm's other planners.
"It's hard to let go of this career; it's very rewarding," she said. "People keep saying, 'Thank you for what you've done for me,' so it's hard to let go."
— Liz Skinner