Where does the drive come from for top achievers who keep knocking it out of the park long past the point that many of us would have kicked up our feet and called it a career?

That question has fascinated me for decades and today’s podcast guest, Laila Pence, CFP®, shared with me one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard about overcoming early life challenges to become one of the country’s most successful and respected financial advisors.

As we talked at the Barron’s Teams Summit in Las Vegas, Laila also explained how her approach to overcoming some incredible personal hardships informed how she built her billion-dollar advisory firm with an intense focus on creating true, lasting relationships with her clients.

Laila Pence and Steve Sanduski at the Barron’s Teams Conference in Las Vegas.

Laila Pence is the President of Pence Wealth Management, one of the nation’s leading private wealth management firms with over $1.0 billion in AUM. She’s currently ranked in the top 1% of female financial advisors nationwide and, in 2019, she was named among the top 6 female financial advisors in the country by Forbes, and the #38 top independent financial advisor nationally by Barron’s Magazine. Forbes also ranked Laila #1 on their Best-in-State Wealth Advisors List for Southern California in 2019.

“How did this happen to us?”

Laila grew up in Egypt, where her father was the president of a bank. Her family’s seven-bedroom villa was two blocks away from the Suez Canal. Laila remembers, “We had maids, we had a chauffeur, we had it made. We lived very well.”

Then, one morning when Laila was 9, she heard air raid sirens.

“We get in the car, we’re just driving around the corner, and we hear, ‘Boom!’” Laila says. “That was the bomb hitting the room I was just in. It was like seeing my childhood disappear right in front of me. My sister had to go live somewhere else. I had to go live, at nine years old, with my grandmother in a different city. At that time, she didn’t even have a telephone. I couldn’t talk to my parents, I was all alone and it was really hard.”

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Eventually, her father’s banking connections helped Laila and her parents emigrate to New York. “Here I am, at 12 years of age, with my mother, not speaking a word of English,” Laila says. “It was really tough because you always think America, the streets will be paved with gold and things are just so different. It was freezing cold. I had never felt anything like that. Couldn’t feel my ears, I couldn’t feel my toes. I had to take two buses to go to school. It was just miserable. I remember my mom crying every night. ‘What have we done? How did this happen to us? How did we have everything and come here and had to live that way?’ It was really difficult.”

The family’s sudden reversal of fortune instilled a strong work ethic in Laila. She sold hot dogs on the Staten Island Ferry. When the family moved to California – dad hated the cold too – Laila worked her way through UCLA as a waitress.

“I had really no, per se, college life,” Laila says, “because I had to work and go to school and study. I learned about service and I learned about how hard it is actually having to balance all these things.”

Laila’s perseverance paid off, however, when an acquaintance who appreciated Laila’s customer service skills and work ethic recruited her into finance.

“I was really young, I had an accent, I’m a woman,” Laila says. “But my dad being a banker, I was always interested in finance. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I thought that this was going to be a part-time job to finish school instead of waitressing, and then I would graduate and do something else. I never thought for one minute that this would be my life story.”

“People don’t fire their friends; they refer to them.”

It took a lot of long hours and old-fashioned pavement pounding for Laila to find her footing as a financial advisor. But it was her customer service acumen that set her business apart and helped Laila define her role in the company as it grew.

“I really build personal relationships with clients outside the office,” Laila says. “Whenever I get a new client, especially a referral, I take out the client with the referral because, unless you build these strong relationships, you really don’t get the clients, you don’t get that commitment. Once you become a friend, clients never fire a friend. They refer to them. And so I learned that you can’t just go out with them and fake it. You have to be really interested in these clients and you have to build relationships.”

Laila takes clients to baseball games, football games, plays, restaurants. She sends them birthday and Christmas cards. She friends clients on Facebook so she can keep up with their lives and their families, and vice-versa. And she doesn’t mind extending that commitment to relationship building beyond traditional office hours.

“I have to be passionate about it and love it,” she says. “If I enjoy it, it’s not work. If you just think it’s a 9 to 5 job and you’re just going to go home and do whatever, there’s lots of advisors that do that, but you don’t excel.”

The affection that Laila’s clients have for her is a clear measure of just how well she’s excelling. When Laila’s mother passed away recently, she received over 300 sympathy cards.

“I was overwhelmed with the amount of love I received back,” she says, “and I think in this business whatever you put out, you get back someday.”

“I always tell my team they’re my biggest assets.”

As a daughter growing up in a culture that prizes male heirs, Laila felt a little extra motivation to make her parents proud. But she’s rounded out her personal drive with a strong team of complementary professionals who create an exceptional client experience while allowing Laila to focus on what she does best.

“One thing that really has helped me is to realize that I can’t do everything, from really the beginning on,” Laila says. “I had to decide what I’m good at and build a team to do the things I don’t know how to do and the things I can’t do. I don’t do any of the investments. I have a whole team that does that. I’m the rainmaker. I bring in the funds, then I hand that money to my team, which is headed by my wonderful husband and his team. I have a service team, I have a marketing team. I meet with clients and I talk to clients and I entertain clients. I build relationships.”

Laila’s onboarding process starts with a 25-question risk assessment that helps clients see their preconceptions about financial planning from a fresh perspective. This leads into what Laila calls the “pre-talk” about the client’s life, family, goals, etc. Because she believes this is an important part of the process where she adds real value, Laila has a team member in the room taking notes so that she can focus on the conversation and the client 100%.

So that Laila can focus her time on client face time, every client is assigned a service advisor, who in turn is supported by a team of assistants. That way, if Laila or the main service advisor is unavailable, a client can ask to speak to someone from his or her service team to get the help they need when they need it. That’s a huge differentiator for folks who are used to talking to their advisor’s voicemail.

Further enhancing the client experience is the year-round engagement that Laila creates between quarterly reviews and trips to the ballpark. In addition to annual client luncheons and Christmas parties, Laila’s husband hosts monthly “private briefs.” These presentations on what’s happening in the markets get clients into the office – often with a referrable friend in tow.

“I always tell my team they’re my biggest assets,” Laila says. “It’s really having that right team and having a team that has a servant’s heart. People trust us with their money, we are here to serve them. Having people, the team, it’s what allows me to do what I do, and this is one of the reasons I’m at the Barron’s Teams Conference. That is one of the most important things that you can do, is really build a great team around you, because, eventually, that’s what the clients relate to. That’s a reflection of you.”

Resources Featured In This Episode

Pence Wealth Management Visit Laila and her team.

Values Clarification Toolkit Click here to download this FREE tool and start living your values.

Full Transcript

Steve Sanduski: Laila, welcome to the show.

Laila Pence: Thank you, Steve.

Steve Sanduski: Well, it’s great to have you here. We’re here at the Barron’s Conference and there’s a lot of little activity going on here in the background, which I think will give us a little bit of excitement, but I’m super excited here to have this conversation because I’ve known of you, I think we’ve met in the past, back in the day at LPL, you’re still at LPL.

Laila Pence: Yes.

Steve Sanduski: I remember seeing your name on these top advisor lists all over the place, so it’s a lot of fun here to be with you here in person.

Laila Pence: Thank you very much.

Steve Sanduski: Yeah. Well, you have such a fascinating story, and I think that’s where I’d like to start. Let’s go back to Egypt and tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up in Egypt, and then we’ll talk about how did you get here to the US and then, ultimately, how did you get to be such a successful financial advisor?

Laila Pence: Well, my dad was president of a bank and we were quite well off. We had a seven bedroom villa two blocks away from the Suez Canal. We had maids, we had a chauffeur, we had it made. We lived very well, and I just remember when I was nine years old, sitting on Sunday morning in the veranda, having breakfast with my family and then hearing the sound of the planes coming and I had no idea. What was that sound? My parents got very disturbed, and that was the raid, sound that means we’re having an air raid. We started having more and more of these and the planes going overhead, and then we started seeing the soldiers come across the Suez Canal. Actually, we lived across from a big park and we started seeing these soldiers come in and it was really scary. It was very scary.

My parents moved us away from this house inland, and then things quieted down a little bit, and then we decided to go back to get some clothes. Here we are, we’re back, things were quiet. We’re in my room, getting some clothes and so forth, and we hear the sound again. That sound of the siren, of the raids. My dad started yelling, “Let’s go,” and I’m still in my room trying to get more clothes, trying to pack things away.

We get in the car, we’re just driving around the corner and we hear, “Boom!” That was the bomb hitting in the room I was in. It was like seeing my childhood disappear right in front of me. That was one of the scariest things to ever imagine, to see our house get bombed, and we was just there. Then we couldn’t really live in that town anymore and we had to spread around. My sister had to go live somewhere else. I had to go live, at nine years old, away with my grandmother in a different city.

At that time, she didn’t even have a telephone. I couldn’t talk to my parents, I was all alone, really, with an older grandmother, and it was really hard. My dad decided, he had a friend that worked in a bank in New York City, and he said, “Why don’t you immigrate? With your background in the banking system, you’d have an opportunity in the United States.” My other three sisters were grown up, so they stayed behind, and it was just me and my mother and my dad.

Well, we got the paper and everything, and a month before we’re supposed to leave to the United States, my dad fell and broke his leg in many pieces. It was either me and my mom leaving, coming to United States by ourselves, or voiding our visa so we decided to just come by ourselves. We had no family. We just had that one family friend of my dad that helped us get the visa to come to United States.

Here I am, at 12 years of age, with my mother, not speaking a word of English, coming to Staten Island, New York. It was really tough because you always think of America is that the streets will be paved with gold and that things are just so different and you come here and I don’t speak the language. It was freezing cold, we came in January and it was so cold. I had never felt anything like that. Couldn’t feel my ears, I couldn’t feel my toes.

I had to take two buses to go to school. It was just miserable. On top of that, we had to move in with … We had to rent a room from a Puerto Rican family for me and my mother to stay, and I remember my mom crying every night. “What have we done? How did this happen to us? How did we have everything and come here and had to live that way?” It was really difficult.

Steve Sanduski: Yeah. I can’t even imagine having that kind of childhood and then looking at, with that kind of start, to where you are today. What is it that has enabled you, some character traits, some personality traits, to overcome starting out everything, “We’ve got all this money in Egypt,” and then the house gets bombed, you emigrate to the US with with no money, don’t speak the language, and then I think you go off to college, you move to the West Coast, you get into the financial industry.

Tell me a little bit about that part of how did you get from New York out to the West Coast and get your start in the financial business?

Laila Pence: While waiting for my dad, I actually started working on the Staten Island Ferry selling hot dogs and knishes. Then, by the time my dad came, he hated the cold weather and he could not live in New York City. At that time I was finishing high school and we decided to move to Los Angeles for me to go to college and to get away from the cold. Came to UCLA, started working as a waitress the whole time. I had really no, per se, college life because I had to work and go to school and study.

That taught me about service right there and then. I learned about service and I learned about how hard it is actually having to balance all these things. In my last year of school, I met this one gentleman that told me about the financial services and he says, “If you’re such a good waitress and you know about serving people, why don’t you come into the financial services?” and he recruited me and I followed him everywhere to learn how he does it. It was really hard here. I was really young, I had an accent, I’m a woman. But my dad being a banker, I was always interested in finance and something that intrigued me, the whole thing intrigued me, but I really had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea that this would be my ultimate … I thought that this was going to be a part-time job to finish instead of waitressing, and then I would graduate and do something else. I never thought for one minute that this would be my life story.

I remember working very hard and meeting my very first client and I had to go to see her in Corona, to her big house, and she had all these dogs and I’m scared. These dogs are wild and I was so scared going into the house with all these dogs around, but I was determined and I met her and I told her a story and she gave me $20,000 to invest, and I was so excited. I could not believe anybody would trust me with $20,000 of their hard-earned money.

Steve Sanduski: What year are we talking here?

Laila Pence: That was in the ’80s.

Steve Sanduski: ’80s, okay.

Laila Pence: Yes, and I put her in a mutual fund and she told me, “I just don’t want to be a bag lady. Take good care of this money,” but that was just the beginning, it’s just really someone trusting you, saying, “Hey, I’m going to give you my money to actually invest.” I was persistent. I would go talk to teachers and get them to do tax shelter annuities. I worked really hard. I worked where people were off. Weekends, evenings. At that time, people were not coming to your office; I had to go see them in their home. I had to drive miles and miles. There was no computers, there was no cell phones. I remember the Thomas Guide and getting lost. It’s what you have to do, and that’s what I did.

I just worked really hard and started doing seminars and trying to see people and talk to them about investments and doing financial strategies for successful retirement and working one client at a time.

Steve Sanduski: As you think about all the people who started as a financial advisor at the same time that you did back in the 1980s and you’re at the top of advisors since then, what do you think are some of the things that really separated you? I know you’ve talked about persistence, you’ve talked about the hard work, but what do you think has made you different that enabled you to get to the very top versus all the other people that didn’t get to the top?

Laila Pence: Really early on, I realized I had to build personal relationships with these clients, and I had to find a common goal with them. One of the things that I did is I really loved sports. I’m a very unusual Egyptian woman that loves sports, and I love plays. I’m very eclectic until today. One of the things I do is I really build personal relationships with clients outside the office. That is a real key.

Whenever I get a new client, whenever I get especially a referral, I take out the client with the referral to somewhere because, unless you build these strong relationships, you really don’t get the clients, you don’t get that commitment from the client because once you become a friend, first of all, clients never fire a friend. They referred to them, and so I learned that you can’t just go out with them and fake it; you have to be really interested in these clients and you have to build relationships.

I love baseball. I would take them to baseball games or football games or plays or tennis or whatever event that came on that I am passionate about, because I have to be passionate about it and love it. Because if I did, they then I enjoyed that and it’s not work, but I realized later on that this business i not a 9:00 to 5:00 job. If you just think it’s a 9:00 to 5:00 job and you’re just going to go home and do whatever, there’s lots of advisors that do that, but you don’t excel.

If you really want to get to the top, you have to do more. You have to build these strong personal relationships. One of the things that I do now that is different, I befriend my clients on Facebook. When I first started doing that, I said, “Oh gosh, they’re going to know everything about my personal life,” but I realized that this is what our business is, is that you have to build these personal relationships with these clients.

What a great way to do it now through Facebook. It’s not just that I do these events and I do go out with them still, but now I get to know about their family. I go to their funerals, I go to their weddings, I get invited to these things. Also, from day one until today, I write personal birthday cards. Every month my assistant gives me all the cards and I write them, and I have to tell you that my mother passed away just about a month ago and I got almost 300 sympathy cards.

I was thinking about it the other day and I said, “That’s unbelievable.” I think it’s just their way, because all those years I’ve been sending these birthday cards, that I’ve got an abundance of these sympathy cards and flowers and they came to the funeral, they came to the service. I was overwhelmed with the amount of love I received back, and I think in this business whatever you put out, you get back someday.

I never put out thinking this would happen, but I’m receiving it now. The other thing that really has helped me is to realize that I can’t do everything, from really the beginning on. In the beginning I really realized that I had to decide what I’m good at and build a team to do the things I don’t know how to do and the things I can’t do. I don’t do any of the investments. I have a whole team that does that. I’m the rainmaker.

I bring in the funds, I have a team, then I hand that money to my team, which is headed by my wonderful husband and his team, and then they do that. I have a service team, I have a marketing team, we have teams that … What I do is I only do two things. I meet with clients and I talk to clients and I entertain clients. I build relationships, because if I focus on just doing that, because there’s only so many hours in a day.

I have a 17-year-old daughter, my family is the most important thing and I need to spend time with her. She comes to all our events. Every year when I send out my Christmas card, it’s me, my husband, and my daughter. People know it’s a family, it’s not just me, it’s not just that. It’s family. They see her growth through them, and it’s those relationships. I build strong relationships with my clients.

One of the reasons I’m so high ranked in all these things is because we have a very high persistence. Clients don’t leave us because we build these relationships, through bad times, through good times. Again, people don’t fire their friends, they refer to them.

Steve Sanduski: Well, this idea of having such close relationships with your clients, I 100% think that that’s what advisors should be doing. What do you say to an advisor who says, “Look, I’m not here to be my client’s best friend. They hire me to do a job, to invest their money or to put a financial plan together”? How do you think about that in those terms?

Laila Pence: You see, investing right now is a commodity. They can just go online and invest, and eventually, if you’re going to do that, you’re going to get replaced. That advisor’s going to get replaced because what clients are looking for is that human touch, that relationship. You can do that and you can be a mediocre advisor, you can be what my husband calls a lifestyle advisor. You have your own lifestyle, you work to have your lifestyle, and you do just the minimal amount to work with clients.

That’s fine, and some advisors do that, but if you want to really get to that next level, if you want to have a business that sustains itself, I virtually never have to market because it’s relationships. We get so many referrals. Now, it’s not true that we don’t market; we still market and we prospect and so forth, because I just feel that that’s in my DNA, that if you don’t actually market and prospect, you constantly have to do that.

It’s so much easier because our clients do a lot of it and so it just depends what … Plus, really, because of the relationship I love what I do. Because if you don’t love what you do, you cannot excel. If you just do it for the money, it’s not … One of the things that I love doing right now with my clients is teaching them how to give back. We open these donor advised funds almost every single week.

We teach our client, and clients love that. We show them, “Rather than paying taxes, why don’t you do these donor advised? Why don’t you give back?” and just teaching them that it helps them to pass on values so the kids and the grandchildren, you have to have passion about what you do, and you don’t have to take every one of your clients out, and we don’t. It’s really building those relationships.

We do a lot of client functions all year long, because as our client base has grown, we build relationships with them by having … We do a big client function every year, and we do also a Christmas party every year where we don’t talk about business, where we just say thank you. It’s those things that … “Oh, if I bring my friend, are you going to invite them to the Christmas party?” These kinds of things.

If you don’t want to have as much relationship after hours with your clients, then you need to do a lot more client functions.

Steve Sanduski: Tell me about the client functions. You mentioned you have this Christmas party and any other events, I’d love to hear a little bit more about what happens at those events. Maybe a little bit of, say, the agenda or what takes place at those kinds of events.

Laila Pence: We have a big client luncheon coming up here in April, which we do every year. Clients always know it’s the last Saturday of April every year. This will be our 24th client luncheon, and we basically do … This year, we have an outside speaker that’s going to come and talk about the election. That’s what’s on everyone’s mind, so we always have an outside speaker that talks about whatever this year … What’s on the clients’ minds.

This year we have this great speaker, then my husband gets up there and talks about the markets and what we see and the year ahead and what happened last year. Then I get up there and talk about taxes. One of the big things that I’ve realized later on is that I have to have something, a referrable saying, “Why would clients refer to me? Because I’m an expert in taxes. I learned early on that, really, clients …”

As much as they like making money, they hate paying taxes even more. I know about corporate taxes, partnership taxes, personal taxes. I took the time to really excel at that. My assistants and my people call me the tax whisperer because that’s … When they come in, very few advisors, we always see every client’s tax return and they bring it in for every review in the beginning and we look and we do tax projections, and we really focus on that.

In these lunches, I talk about all the new changes in the tax dollars, or all the planning ideas, or whether it’s a donor advised fund or whether it’s a secure act coming up here, or whatever this year’s subject is, we talk about planning ideas. Basically, investments planning and an outside speaker, and then we always do a raffle at the end of the event where, in order for them to participate, they have to turn in their response sheets and we give away tickets.

We give away gift cards and it’s amazing. No matter how wealthy your client is, they love winning something so everybody turns in a response sheet. In this luncheon, we also ask them to bring their friends, we ask them to bring their family members because we really want to get to know the next generation so they do that and we have very successful luncheons. After that luncheon, we generate so many referrals for our team and we also show our team, we introduce our team members.

Sometimes, because we have different offices they don’t get to see, and we build, again, these close relationships. One of the things we do as well is we take a picture of every one of our clients. In our CRM system, whenever I punch in a client’s name, I see their picture.

Steve Sanduski: What CRM system/software are you using?

Laila Pence: We use Salesforce.

Steve Sanduski: Salesforce, okay.

Laila Pence: Right, so what it does, it allows every assistant, when they’re dealing with the clients, they see their picture and they remember them. Everyone must have a picture and sometimes, so with these luncheons, if we see that we don’t have a client picture or we take their kids’ pictures and we put these in the system. We’re always taking pictures of clients, in every event, and when they’re with us for 10 years or 20 years, we might do a book of all the pictures and we send to them.

We always have a Christmas picture, that’s the other thing we do in these Christmas parties. Clients will come in and say, “We used that Christmas picture as our Christmas card,” and they love that. I find that, in this business, it’s the little things that matter. It’s not the big things, everybody knows the big things. Everybody could tell you about financial planning and investing and so forth. If you really send out, it’s the little things that make a difference.

One is things that we do when they come in, in these lunches, is we give our clients a name tag and every name tag has a “client since.” A client since 2008, a client since 2013, and what it does, when they’re sitting there at the table, it gives a chance for the other clients to ask, “Wow, you’ve been with her since 2008. Tell me about it.” It allows them to talk to other people. It allows the guest to say, “Oh wow. Tell me more about it. You’ve been with her since 2012? You’ve been with her since 1998? What happened in the downmarket? How did she do it? How did Pence do?”

It’s one of the smallest things that we do and we recycle them so then people hand them back in and we give it to them. Every single event, it’s always their name tag and “client since,” and gosh help us if we have the wrong date. “I’ve been with you a lot longer than that! What do you mean?”

Steve Sanduski: “Give me a new one. You better change that.” Yeah, I love that idea.

Laila Pence: It’s a great thing.

Steve Sanduski: I’d love to hear some other service ideas that you do. You mentioned as a waitress that you really learned about service, so what are some other things that you do to really deliver the service? You mentioned it’s the little things that make a big difference.

Laila Pence: Yes.

Steve Sanduski: I’d love to hear maybe, first of all, how do you define service?

Laila Pence: Service, when you deal with people’s money, it’s the most important thing. Every client has a service advisor, because the only way I can do what I do is I have to only talk to clients and meet with clients. Anytime I meet with a client, I never meet with them by myself. I have my number one person with me, who is my paraplanner, and she sits with me. The client is immediately introduced to me and her, and so they always know.

Then she has her own assistants, so she has a service advisor, so the client has a team. They realize that it’s not just me. If I’m on vacation or I’m somewhere else, they hardly ever ask for me anymore. They know they have a team, so I have Emily, there’s a relationship manager and a service advisor, so they have a whole team. When the client calls in, they say, “Can I speak to someone from team Laila?”

There’s a whole team behind them, and it’s so important because they know they don’t want to waste my time. They don’t want to necessarily just talk to me about, “Oh my gosh, I need to change my ACH, or I need to do that,” so having a team approach is really important for the client and it differentiates them. When they’re coming from a different broker that only has one assistant and they can’t reach them, or they have to be in a voicemail, with us it’s still that personal touch.

That’s something that differentiates us. Also, we do a lot of things, we do a lot of small things. We give them a true update every year about their finances and they love that. All the events that we do, we also do a monthly private brief, so we have just in our offices, it allows clients to bring … If there’s something going on in the markets or it’s an easy way for them to refer a friend.

My husband does these where they’re an hour and a half and we just talk about the markets, what’s going on and how we invest and what we think, and we publish these and we talk about having these events in our client luncheon and other events. Clients know, “Are you having a private … I have a friend to refer.” Then, if their market is down a little bit, “Can I come in and just listen in on these private …” There’s so many ways that we touch them. It’s not just the newsletter.

We do e-mails and so forth, but it’s not that normal thing that everybody else does. It’s that extra thing where they can actually come in and just hear what’s going on and be able to talk to me or talk to the team that differentiates us from other people.

Steve Sanduski: Let’s say that we have a client who’s been referred to you, they call the office and they say, “Hey, I’ve heard about you. I’m looking to find a financial advisor.” If you think about from that initial contact all the way to them eventually becoming a client, do you have a very systematic process that you walk people through, or is it maybe a framework and then it’s personalized within that? How do you think about the process to take someone who said, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you,” all the way to becoming a client? What does that look like?

Laila Pence: The first thing we do is, once your appointment is set, we send them a risk questionnaire, which is a FinaMetrica risk questionnaire, 25 questions, which they must complete. It’s mandatory. Husband, wife, each complete their own risk questionnaire and then we send them a data questionnaire. That’s how things start and they need to complete that, and we ask them to bring, of course, their normal statements, their tax returns is a must.

Then we have the initial meeting and then they’re always curious about how they score on that risk questionnaire, because in the questionnaire, ask them to indicate what their score is going to be, and then they’re always curious what their actual score is. It really opens up their eyes to where they are, and we go through and we see where are the outliers. They say, “Okay, I don’t want to take any risk, but I want these high returns.”

It just shows them, “If this is what you want to accomplish, you can’t have that kind of risk score and you can’t have this.” We have a conversation about it. It’s just not saying, “Okay, I’m very conservative, I don’t want to take any risk,” and we just leave it at that. You have to challenge people and challenge their expectations and also set expectations. Then, most important thing, what I do is … When they come in, at that first meeting, it’s the most important thing.

I learned a long time ago to do something, what we call pre-talk. I spend the first hour … I don’t talk about myself, I just sit there and ask questions about them and about their families and about … It’s just pre-talk, and they’ll come in and they’ll want to get into the investment part. When I see them want to do that, maybe I’ll ask something about the investments, then I’ll go back. Unless I can get that comfort feeling when I get them to talk about themselves, because how do you make friends?

If they don’t tell you more about them, you’re never going to have clients. That first meeting, having that pre-talk about their kids and about their grandkids and about their experiences and about really what they don’t like about what they have. It’s spending that first hour, that’s where you really get … Because it builds that relationship. Because I have Emily or someone else sitting with me, I don’t take notes because she’s taking all the notes.

I am constantly just, eye-to-eye, focusing on them. That in itself … A long time ago, of course, “Gosh, can I afford to have someone sit there all the time, just taking notes?” That’s one of the most important things that I found because it gives me … First of all, we have very detailed notes that I go back to and say exactly what makes them tick or what’s the important thing, but it allows me to have that eye-to-eye contact to build that relationship with the husband and wife.

Steve Sanduski: Yeah.

Laila Pence: Then, after that, it’s just through the process, of course. Then we present what our finding is and what the plan is, and then they come back for the implementation and then we have a four-month review after that where we have them come in after they become clients and we go through, “Did everything transfer? What’s missing? What wasn’t done?” It’s very important to have that four-month review after they become clients.

Steve Sanduski: Is it an initial three-meeting process?

Laila Pence: Yes.

Steve Sanduski: This first meeting, get to know each other. If that sounds good, then we have a second meeting, which is presenting a plan or a proposal, and then a third meeting is we come back and we implement and do the paperwork.

Laila Pence: Exactly.

Steve Sanduski: Okay, and then a four-month review after that?

Laila Pence: Correct.

Steve Sanduski: Okay, excellent. All right, well, let’s circle back again where we talked about you growing up and the challenges that you had to overcome. Again, I’m fascinated by what is it that drives people like you, because you’re long past the point where you have to work for a living. I’m just curious, where does the drive and the determination come from to keep knocking the ball out of the park year after year, decade after decade?

Laila Pence: Well, initially, I don’t know if I mentioned that earlier, but I am one of four girls. My parents had my three sisters back to back to back, and they were not going to have anymore. In Egypt, if you don’t have a boy to carry on the name of the family, it’s a sin, and so they waited 10 years and it was my grandmother that kept telling my mother, “You have to have a boy to carry on. You have to have a boy for your husband. How could you not have a boy? You have to have a boy.”

They waited 10 years, and then I came in. I was their last hope. I always felt like I really had to excel, to do just a bit more. I really wanted to make my mother proud, because at that time they didn’t realize that having a boy had to do with the dad, not the mom.

Steve Sanduski: Yeah. Thank you, science.

Laila Pence: They always looked at her. She was not all there, that she had four girls and not a boy, so it always drove me. Then, when we went through the struggles, her and I early on, she would cry every night in New York. I really wanted to do it, and maybe that’s why I worked so hard initially to build this business. Then, now, over the time I’ve built that and why I do what I do right now, first of all, I want to be a good role model for my daughter.

She’s brilliant, but I really look right now for that emotional paycheck. I really love making a difference in my clients’ life. Every single time. I just got a thank-you note the other day from clients. It’s these things, this business, if you do it right, is so fulfilling. Now, I can’t tell you it’s not without headaches and the markets and things out of our control that go wrong and companies, there’s always these little things.

I learned that, and I had to go through a lot of nos to get to yes, all those times. I just learned every day is a new day. In the past when a client leaves you, one of the things early on when I became pregnant with my daughter, here I had built this business and I was doing so well and then I tried to hide the fact I was pregnant because I was always worried, “What will clients say?” Finally I had to show and I had this one client that had done so well for him.

He calls me up and he says, “Oh, I’m moving my account. You’re going to be a mother now and you’re not going to have time for me,” and I cried all night. I couldn’t believe that after all those years, what I’ve done for him, and I said, “What’s going to happen? Are all my clients to leave? They’re going to think that I don’t have time for them.” My husband told me, he says, “If this is the way he is, you don’t want that kind of client.”

That, in fact, having kids gave me something to talk to clients about. I have a picture everywhere, so you go through a lot of these struggles, but every time you go through a struggle, then you realize and you pass it, it gives you that new drive and you make a difference in people’s life, when people come in and they say, “Yeah, I’m able to buy a house for my kids because you did so well, because you did this, because you made me have long-term care when it wasn’t in vogue. Now I can live so well.”

All of those things, all the plain things I do when they come back, it’s those things when people come in and they really tell us how we changed their life is what keeps me going. Now, one of my missions is to really help them give back, because I’m giving back. It’s about being relevant and about changing the world and helping do the things, and I’m now teaching my clients to do that and I love that part.

Steve Sanduski: Well, I could talk to you for hours here, and I know we’re bumping up on time, so I’ll just finish here with one or two quick things. Is there anything else that you want to share that we haven’t talked about? Like I said, lots we could go into, but I’d love to make sure that whatever you want to talk about here that we’re covering.

Laila Pence: I really think that nothing happens by an individual, it’s a team. It’s my team. I always tell my team they’re my biggest assets. It’s really having that right team and having a team that has a servant’s heart. This is the one thing that when we interview and we hire, and sometimes they say, “Oh yeah, they are,” and then they come in and they don’t take that extra time. They’re not patient with my clients.

That’s not the kind of team member we have. They must have a servant’s heart. People trust us for their money, we are here to serve them. That is just so important and it’s really having people, the team. It’s what allows me to do what I do, and this is one of the reasons I’m in Barron’s team here conference. It really is picking the right team because there’s a lot of things I don’t know how to do.

I just find people that do it and do it better than me, and never ever hire people that are below you. Hire people better than you because that’s how they make you better. People are always saying, “Oh my gosh, if they’re better than me then they’re just going to take my clients,” but if you treat them well and you treat them as really … It’s always a team. I’m not a boss. We’re all team members here and respect and going the extra mile for them and realize that they also have families and to do the right thing for them.

That is one of the most important things that you can do, is really built a great team around you, because, eventually, that’s what the clients relate to. That’s a reflection of you.

Steve Sanduski: Been doing a lot of research lately about Ritz Carlton hotels, and one of the things they say is that they don’t hire people, they select people. This idea of the service heart is super important to them as well, you mentioned that. How do you select for that? Is there a way that, in your hiring process, you can tell, “This is a person that’s empathetic, that has this service heart”? Is there a way that you can select for that or screen for that?

Laila Pence: We always ask the question, “What is a bad thing that you went through? What’s something that happened personally and business-wise that you’ve gone through that was really bad, and how did you deal with it?” and it’s amazing what people tell you. It’s just amazing what happens and they start telling you, “This happened to my sister,” and you get this … It’s really just like the pre-talk with the clients. You do the pre-talk with the person you’re hiring.

They’re all professionals, they’re serious, whatever, their graduation, all that. That’s a given, everybody has that. Really, it’s talking to them about their personal life and their experiences and just asking these questions. Asking them if they’ve ever been arrested for anything or just things like that, just their experiences. Really, as an advisor, you have to be … We always say god gave you two ears and one mouth, because you have to listen twice as much as you talk.

Advisors love to talk, but if they listen more, whether it’s to an employee or to the client, they’re going to have better success. That’s really the thing with the employee process, and the other thing, too, is I have to meet all my team members and the team all have to agree that that person fits in, and we still strike out sometimes and we have to do it again. Having the team have input and knowing what we look for.

Also, every single Tuesday we have an office meeting and we always have what we call a shout out. Do a shout out of something that someone did in the office that really went out of their way, and we really spent time on that. People say, “Oh yeah, well, Dina did this, Emmy did this,” and we recognize … It’s not necessarily just about they excel, it’s just how they went to a client’s office to do that, or to their home.

It’s that extra touch, and then I emphasize that. Even if a person may not have had the perfect service heart before we get them to become more service heart, because we emphasize that and we talk about that to clients in our events. We talk about what makes us different, because it all comes from the heart. People know when you’re just there for the money.

Steve Sanduski: Right, yeah, just faking it. Great. Well, Laila, I think we will go ahead and wrap it right there. Really appreciate you being on the show. Thank you for sharing your story, and just congratulations on everything that you’ve done, all the hardships you’ve overcome, and the great work that you’re doing here in the industry.

Laila Pence: Thank you very much, Steve. Really appreciate being on with you today.

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