You won't find many advisors with a resume like Michael Alexander's. For that matter, you won't find many who are in partnership with their daughters. But Alexander and his daughter Brandy Sorenson, a former nurse, are anything but typical.
After spending 21 years in Naval Intelligence, where Alexander rose to the rank of Commander, he felt a calling to go into financial advising. And he was as surprised as anyone. "My first reaction was, 'Lord, you've got to be kidding,'" he recalls. "Because I'd never been treated well by financial advisors when I was back in the Navy. But for some reason, I really did understand this stuff and I felt I could make a difference in people's lives."
But he didn't follow the usual path of growing a practice and moving from smaller to bigger. Rather, he twice gave up lucrative practices and moved to new positions and started essentially from scratch because health or family issues demanded it.
A man who grew up modestly (no indoor plumbing), he still works to make sure money doesn't become his first concern. "When I got into this business, it wasn't about the money," he says. "After all, I was retired from the Navy with a good pension."
But things weren't always easy. He started at a large insurance company but grew tired of the pressure to sell proprietary products, or to only pursue rich clients. "I saw this business as a calling and....I didn't like the idea of selling things to people that I didn't think were appropriate." So when he saw a newspaper ad for an advisor at the Security Service Credit Union in Colorado Springs, he applied and got the job.
For three years, from 1992 to 1995, he built a practice, essentially all from referrals, at seven credit union branches. "One time, I'll never forget, I looked out the window, and saw an ancient-looking woman walking up leading a burro," he says. "She hitched it up outside and came in saying she had walked three days coming down from the mountains. She owned some land and mined for gold, and told me she had $1,500 to invest."
He was concerned that this women, who "looked 105 but was really only 45," needed to have funds set aside for daily living and emergencies. "She told me she had enough gold to buy supplies and to walk back up the mountain. So I put her $1,500 into a mutual fund. As soon as I did it, she started to cry! She said she'd been dreaming of the day she'd be able to do that. You have to serve everyone in this business," he says.
Alexander, who today, together with his daughter Brandy, handles 15 branches in Houston for First Service Credit Union, says, "In general, I'd say about one in 10 people come in and I'll have to tell them before they invest, they need a solid base underneath them." Once they can take care of the basics of life without using credit cards, he'll tell them, "Come talk to me about investing."
Getting from that point to his current situation has been a circuitous path. In 1995, an opportunity came to move to the Mountain America Credit Union in Salt Lake City. He and his wife had eight children, five of them adopted, and were happy to have a bigger city and client base. Over the next five years, he said, business was booming, basically on referrals from the credit union staff. Then his father-in-law, in Denver, was diagnosed with cancer. "My wife needed to be with her mother and father," he says, "so I gave Mountain America two weeks notice and moved to the Bellco Credit Union in Denver. Two weeks later, my father-in-law died, so it was good we were there."
Meanwhile his daughter Brandy, who was working as a nurse in Salt Lake City, decided her opportunities in that field were limited. And she wanted more time to spend with her husband. When an opportunity opened up at the credit union, she hired on as a trainee in financial advising. To both of their surprise, she was assigned to work with her dad in the summer of 2000. They've been a team ever since.
"Brandy worked with me there for nine years," says her proud dad, "and along the way she helped us get to $900,000 in production. Then we added two more women, and got it up to $1.5 million." Teaming up with his daughter has worked well. "First of all, she's smarter and prettier than I am," jokes Alexander. "Plus, we complement each other well. She runs the practice, taking all the calls from current clients and seeing maybe 25% of the new people. I do most of the prospecting. I haven't found a downside."
For her part, Brandy, now 35, says, "He's been my mentor and it's been great. We have the same ethics and mindset. I usually know what he is going to say in any situation. We've had our moments where we're going to just agree to disagree. "Maybe it was a bit harder when I was 27 than today. Now I'm more patient. But we're partners. That's how he introduces me. And he's always been great at delegating."
The only problem was medical. Alexander was getting nosebleeds in Denver, and the doctor told him it was a bad mix of allergies, altitude, a dry climate and cold weather. "And Brandy was having the same problems," he says. "I guess she got my sinuses. So we gave our clients to our partners, and left-again for family and quality-of-life issues."
What they left for was a tiny credit union called Right Choice Credit Union in Houston. "Their total assets were less than my book in Denver!" says Alexander. "But they had no investment program and they wanted one."
It might have been a tough haul building a practice there, but within months of their arrival, Right Choice acquired the larger First Service Credit Union (and took on its name), which also needed an investment program. That meant Michael and Brandy had 15 branches to handle by themselves.
Nonetheless, for the first time, he says he couldn't rely simply on referrals from credit union staff. They had to offer seminars, he says. And that was his daughter's bailiwick. She organizes two to four seminars a month, always at lunchtime, at one of the branches, drawing on companies and organizations that are connected with the credit union. "We always offer a box lunch," she explains. "In Houston, people drive long distances to go to work, so evenings don't work."
They both say their prior careers help immensely. "Having been a nurse... people see me as an empathetic person," Sorenson says. "And it's true. Nursing really teaches you the value of a soul. As a nurse, you are a patient advocate, and here I'm a client advocate."
Alexander notes, "In Naval Intel I did a lot of briefings, so I'm really good at that. Also in the military you learn accountability. The military's really big on that. If you goof up, you own up to it."
At this point, after building a practice again from scratch to a point where they have hit $723,824 in production in 2011, their first full year in Houston, Alexander and Sorenson are feeling pretty good about their new location. About half their new clients are coming from referrals and the other half from the seminar programs, and they've hardly tapped the potential of their market.
Neither one is surprised. At the end of separate interviews, they both said the same thing: "You bloom where you're planted."
Name: Michael Alexander / Brandy Sorenson
Bank: First Service Credit Union
TPM: CUSO Financial Services
2011 production: $723,824
2010 production: $106,880 (5 mos. only)
2011 AUM: $23.5 million
2010 AUM: $10.1 million
No. of branches: 15
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