Chief executive, Budros Ruhlin & Roe
The notion of two professional groups jockeying to represent financial planners may seem odd, especially to younger advisers. But that was the way things were almost two decades ago — and Peggy Ruhlin felt it didn't make sense.
Describing herself as someone "not afraid to dream big," this year's recipient of the Alexandra Armstrong Award for Lifetime Achievement in Financial Planning decided to undertake what most believed was impossible, or at best highly unlikely: merging the Institute of Certified Financial Planners (ICFP) and the International Association for Financial Planning (IAFP) to create one organization representing financial planners.
Using what others describe as her vision, humility, diplomacy, good humor and sheer willingness to just work hard, Ms. Ruhlin played a pivotal role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in creating what today is known as the Financial Planning Association. While many things — her long, successful career as an adviser, her track record of leadership in the field, her demonstrated commitment to serve as a role model/mentor to other women — all qualify her for the award, it is the creation of the FPA and its impact on planners and the public that is likely to be considered her greatest professional legacy.
"It took a woman of tact and a willingness to listen, as well as a lot of hard work by someone as uniquely positioned as Peggy, who had both the CFP and [Certified Public Accountant] credentials, to make it happen," said planning pioneer Alexandra Armstrong, chairwoman and founder of Armstrong, Fleming & Moore, who served on the IAFP board for seven years, and whose own contribution to the profession makes her the award's eponymous inspiration.
The key to engineering the merger, as Ms. Armstrong and Ms. Ruhlin herself point out, was persuading members of the IAFP to acknowledge that the Certified Financial Planner designation was the standard of the profession, as the ICFP maintained, and not just one designation among many, a stance the IAFP understandably supported.
"The genesis of this was a NAPFA [National Association of Personal Financial Advisors] conference I attended in the mid-1990s as president-elect of the IAFP, and my friend Judith Lau attended as incoming president of the ICFP," Ms. Ruhlin said. "Over drinks one evening, we were talking about how great it would be for the profession if we could create one organization out of the two competing groups. We agreed that would be difficult, because previous attempts had failed."
Nevertheless, she decided to try. In 1997, when she was the outgoing IAFP president, Ms. Ruhlin wrote an article for Financial Planning magazine titled "If I Ruled the World."
"In it, I said that if I were the queen, anyone who called himself or herself a financial planner would hold the CFP designation, and that the IAFP and the ICFP should merge," she said. "I felt that if the public was going to recognize financial planning as a true profession, they needed to be able to identify a single standard for minimum competence."
The article caused a stir, and at one of her final IAFP board meetings as president she made a passionate argument for the merger (a term she actually didn't like, because she viewed the combination as an opportunity to create a new, more effective organization, rather than as a hostile takeover of one entity by its rival).
"What I said that I think made the IAFP board members change their minds was asking what they would say if their own child wanted to become a financial planner and that child asked which designation to get. Everyone knew the answer, and that changed things and started the process that led to the creation of the Financial Planning Association," she said.
Judith Lau, head of Lau Associates in Greenville, Del., who — along with Ms. Ruhlin — was later credited with being the "Mother of the FPA," led the merger efforts at the ICFP, her organization. She said that it was the strength of Ms. Ruhlin's character, along with her diligence, that made the combination possible.
"So many people knew her and trusted her, because her commitment has always been to the greater good of the profession and how she could help people," Ms. Lau said.
After the merger took place in 2000, Ms. Ruhlin continued to take a leadership role in the industry. For example, she spent eight years serving as a trustee of the Foundation for Financial Planning, which supports pro bono programs that provide needy families and individuals with professional financial planning services.
"It's also important to note that, unlike some other financial planners who become active in professional groups, Peggy wasn't a sole practitioner," said Ms. Armstrong. "All during the time she was involved in the IAFP, she was busy building and managing a large firm that is recognized as a leader in planning, in wealth and investment management, and in encouraging women."
That firm is Budros, Ruhlin & Roe in Columbus, Ohio. Ms. Ruhlin joined its ranks at the invitation of James Budros: She had referred clients to him when she worked as an accountant. Eager to gravitate to financial planning, she made the move in 1987 — just in time for the stock market crash of that year, she jokes. Six months after she came on board, the company's owner decided to exit the planning business and asked if the two wanted to buy him out.
"Basically, we bought it for nothing," Ms. Ruhlin recalled. "At the beginning, we didn't really manage money; we told clients to implement our advice on their own. But clients started saying they wanted us to do that, so we did."
The timing was fortuitous: Charles Schwab's focus on the custodial business supported the growth of independent registered investment advisers and enabled her firm's business to "explode," Ms. Ruhlin said. Budros, Ruhlin & Roe is now a 42-employee outfit, managing more than $2.3 billion in assets, and winner of the 2011 Schwab IMPACT Award for Best in Business. Ms. Ruhlin, who serves as chief executive officer, drove the practice to hire and develop female professionals, to serve female clients, and to be in active female-oriented community outreach efforts. Today, about half the client base is served by female advisers.
Currently completing her four-year term as a director of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards and still involved in several charities, Ms. Ruhlin said that in two years, she will begin the process of winding down her role running BRR and starting the next phase of her life. Odd as it might seem for someone who is so active, she claimed to be looking forward to "more home-oriented things, and not having to work — although I might find it completely boring."
The mother of an adult daughter and grandmother to a 13-year-old, Ms. Ruhlin said that "family is everything" to her.
"Nothing is more important," she said. "You find happiness not through money or things, but from close relationships with friends and family."
She recalled that at one family gathering, her brother paid her what she considers to be the highest compliment she has ever received by noting that her signature trait is kindness.
"If there's anything I would like to be known for, it's for being kind," she said.
Evan Cooper is a contributing editor to InvestmentNews.