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Planting The Seeds to Become a 'Star'

If you happen to live in the working-class town of Ripley, Mississippi, and you have some savings to invest, you've likely already met "Miss Starlette." That would be Starlette Vance, the financial advisor at The People's Bank, a six-branch institution in Tippah County along the state's northern border with Tennessee.

Far from the glitz of Los Angeles or the towers of Wall Street, Vance has found a niche in Ripley using her combination of loyalty, genuine fondness for her clients and (when needed) a tough skin. "I'm doing well in a community where people aren't that well off," she says, explaining that after years of struggling with a weakening manufacturing sector, the town of Ripley suffered a major loss of three manufacturing firms during the financial crisis and recession that began in 2008.

Nonetheless, Vance has continued to see her own business perk along. Her production for 2010 was $107,500, up from just $81,400 in a tough 2009. Moreover, with her production this year hitting $72,000 by the end of May, she was on course to surpass 2009's total by the end of June; and 2010's total by the end of August.

Many of Vance's customers have known her for years: People like Wanda Kuykendall, a retail salesperson at the local Lowe's building supply store. "Miss Starlette is a great friend," says Kuykendall, 37, using the nickname most people prefer. "When my aunt passed away, Miss Starlette was at the funeral. She's a friend to everyone that way."

Kuykendall says that while Vance "always explains everything to me," she is happy to let Vance decide what to do with her IRA money, which includes 401(k) funds she rolled over into her IRA when she changed jobs. "I trust her to make the right decisions, and I know she would never lead me wrong," she says confidently.

In fact, Kuykendall says that when her husband Brian entrusted some of his savings to a relative who had begun working as a financial advisor in a neighboring community, she urged him to switch it back to Vance, arguing that family and money shouldn't mix. "He agreed, and then confessed to me, 'I miss Miss Starlette anyway.'"

While Kuykendall may frown on the idea of mixing family and money, that hasn't prevented her from enthusiastically recommending Vance to her relatives, including her sister and her mother.

In fact, Vance says that referrals from clients have always been a big source of new customers for her, as well as referrals by bank employees, who pocket a $25 bonus from the bank for each referral.

Vance insists that while she's no farmer ("I love vegetables, but I can't grow them!"), she nonetheless sees her work in a similar light. "I plant seeds, and then wait for the harvest," she says. "Sometimes the fruits don't appear for two or three years, but many times when you do something like visit a branch, or call a company that doesn't offer a retirement plan for its employees, people come to you much later."

Vance has worked deliberately to position herself as the retirement specialist and college fund specialist in Ripley and around the wider reaches of Tippah County. "College plans are a good way for me to get my foot in the door, because people here are still not that comfortable about the stock market and mutual funds," she says. "It's all about planting seeds and watering the shoots," she says with a laugh.

For example, the bank's CFO once referred someone to her who had some CDs coming due. "He wasn't happy with the rates being offered, so I told him about some Jackson National Variable Annuities where he could draw 5% for life, and more if the market went up, and also leave a legacy for his daughters. He said he wanted to think about it. Well, I didn't hear from him for some time but I didn't hound him. A long time later, though, while I was preparing for a lecture presentation, in he walked, saying he wanted to buy a $150,000 variable annuity." Vance dropped everything and got him set up. "I planted the seeds and eventually they came up," she says in her southern drawl.

It wasn't always this way. Years ago, Vance pulled double duty working in the bank's bookkeeping department and keeping an eye over the lockboxes. "I was a dual-capacity employee." When people needed to get to their lock boxes, Vance was the one to open the box and take them to a private room to conduct their business.

It was a position of trust, not to mention an opportunity for Vance to get to know many of the bank's customers. And that later paid off as she moved to a new profession as financial advisor at the bank, where these days she is part of the Sorrento Pacific Financial (SPF) platform.

When she first went to work as a young woman at The People's Bank, back in 1977, Vance had completed two years of college—the first half of a business degree.

Her studies were interrupted when she married and had her first child. But then she continued to take classes, first in the evening, and then by day, with the encouragement of the bank's president, Bobby Martin. "He allowed me to fit day classes into my schedule," Vance says gratefully. "I graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor's Degree in business technology from Blue Mountain College." A license for selling mutual funds and annuities followed quickly.

She began working as an FA, along with another woman who was already working as bank rep. When that woman left, along with a second man who had been working for years at the bank as an insurance agent, Vance had the position to herself. Now 54, with two grown daughters of her own and two from a second marriage, as well as one grandson, she has remained the only rep at The People's Bank since that time.

While Vance has the advantage of a college degree—something most of her customers in Ripley don't have—she says she never talks down to anyone. "I don't ever want people to feel inferior," she says. This down-to-earth manner, and her long tenure at the bank, have paid off.

Although some people panicked in 2008 and 2009 when the markets were tanking—and some even went against her advice to cash out of their mutual funds—most listened when Vance urged them to sit tight and wait for markets to recover. Kuykendall, for example, says she was horrified when the value of her IRA plunged, but "Miss Starlette told us not to do anything, and it came back."

Of course, some of the people who ignored her advice were upset when they lost money. "In this kind of business, you have to have some tough skin," says Vance. "It's not for everybody."

But those who stuck with her have become even more committed clients. "There was one gentleman who had a $10,000 mutual fund," recalls Vance. "In '08, his assets dropped 30%, but in '09, they came back 35% and were up another 12% in 2010." This customer, a clerk at a local Kroger's grocery store, never closed his account, but he still wasn't happy with his anxiety-producing experience. When he sold a piece of property later for $20,000, he came to Vance, and she convinced him to put it into a Jackson National variable annuity, along with the money from his mutual fund. "He's 43 now, and he won't began drawing on that annuity until he's 65," says Vance. "During those years, his money will grow at 8%, or even more if the market goes up." She pauses, and then adds: "That's why I'm here. To help these people set up a nice secure retirement."

Because the average income and investable assets of her customers are generally low, Vance has to compensate by having more of them (over 400 at present and still building). "I think I've probably only reached half of the available customers in the area," she says.

To get to those others whom she hasn't reached yet, she is starting do more informational presentations. She's also gearing up to approach the remaining companies in town about their retirement plans. "Some of them didn't close during the economic downturn, but they cut back on their benefits," she says. "But they could always offer a plan where the employer doesn't have to make a contribution. I always try to have a plan B!"

Vance says she acquired the name Starlette because her mother liked the idea of her being a star. "And that's what I want to be," she says. "I want to be known as a star so that, when people come into the bank thinking about retirement, they say, 'I want to see Miss Starlette.'"

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