Nelrae Pasha Ali, a
advisor in Jacksonville, Fla., often calls clients on rough days in the stock market, as much to reassure them as to inform them it’s time to take action. “Hey, you know that uncomfortable feeling you’re feeling?” she tells clients. “That’s the buying opportunity.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with Barron’s Advisor, Ali explains how her background as a standout athlete—she’s a six-time NCAA All American in track and field, and won a bronze medal in the 1995 World Indoor Championships—prepared her for a career in wealth management. The head of a $275 million-asset practice also explains why she’s on a mission to meet with each of her clients before the end of the summer.
Where are you from and how did you get into the industry? I’m originally from Cincinnati, and when I was about 12 we moved to Marietta, Ga., the suburb right outside Atlanta. I am one of eight children. Both my parents were attorneys by profession. I grew up with what I would say are high achievers. My dad’s motto was “Failure was not an option.” And if we complained about a teacher, he made sure we were taught by that teacher, which was insane. Now that we’re adults, we’re very appreciative of it. He would tell us that life is tough, but you’re stronger.
When something bad happened, my mother would say, “You get one hour.” I’d be like, “One hour for what?” “To feel completely sorry for yourself. And then after this hour, we’re going to start focusing on solutions.” If it was something really bad, she’d give you the entire day. But the next day we’d wake up and focus on “What are we doing now?” We thought our parents were just so weird, but they were preparing us for life.
You were also an outstanding athlete. Can you talk about that? I participated in basketball, volleyball, and track. I was the high school state champion in the 400-meter and 200-meter races in track and field. I was all-state in volleyball, which I love, but my full scholarship came in track and field. I was recruited by all of the major colleges—Georgia Tech, Alabama, Florida—all over the SEC and the ACC. My first choice was Georgia Tech. I got accepted to Georgia Tech academically, got a full ride, and became an All American there. I also went on to run for the U.S. team after college and got a bronze medal in the World Championships in 1995.
How do you think your sports background has impacted your career? It prepared me not to be fearful in corporate America. I think women who have been in sports have an edge in my industry, which is male dominant. It’s never been an issue for me to be in a room and speak my mind and just do what I need to do. I think the sports background and that competitiveness has been an advantage for me just because I’m comfortable in my own skin.
Who are your typical clients? They’re business owners and retirees. Assets can range between $500,000 and $1 million as a minimum. Probably 50% of my clients are in the $1 million to $3 million range, and about 20% are in the $5 million-plus range of investible assets. My target client is someone who is planning to retire in the next five years or so, or is currently retired. Or they may be having a life event other than retirement. Maybe someone’s passed away and there’s inherited assets or an estate that needs to be settled or a conversation that needed to happen. As a Certified Financial Planner, I’m all about the planning. It’s not just about what the markets are doing or the hot stock pick of the day. I focus on what the clients’ needs are, what their goals are. I want to look at everything.
If someone is preparing for retirement, I want to know how much they are going to need to keep the lifestyle they’re accustomed to. I never discuss a product or investing before I know what that client needs and is concerned about. It could be their estate. It could be about building an inheritance for their children.
Please describe your team. It consists of myself as well as two client associates. One focuses on service for the clients, and one focuses on marketing, scheduling, and things of that nature. In November I brought on a next-gen junior financial advisor who has been in the industry probably less than five years and is now growing her book.
What was the impetus for that new hire? I really needed to grow the team, but I wanted to make sure it was someone who was relatively new to the industry, who I could give support to, and who had the right mindset. And then if possible, I also wanted a diverse hire. I’ve been in this industry for 20-plus years, and one of my passions is around the fact that we need more diversity. I would like to see more people, to be honest with you, who look like me.
I’d known this particular person for almost nine years. The opportunity presented itself, and she was exactly the right fit. She’s really smart, and she majored in engineering, so she’s very analytical—I had to explain to her that it’s about relationships and making sure we explain to clients what’s going on in everyday terms.
What are two or three keys to your professional success? I think the keys are believing in yourself and having determination but also being able to relate to people. I don’t really think of what I do as working. I just feel excited about having conversations and helping and providing solutions. That sounds corny, but it really is true.
How did you land your first few clients? When you’re starting out with zero, it’s smile and dial. I’ve always had the mentality that failure wasn’t an option. I knew that I had what it takes to do this and that it was just a matter of time. My very first client was referred to me by a friend. She worked as a waitress at IHOP. She didn’t make a lot of money, she was going through a divorce, and her father had passed away. She had a total of $50,000. We invested $20,000 and kept $30,000 liquid.
What she didn’t realize is that because she had been married more than 10 years, she was entitled to half of her husband’s Social Security. That was the first time I realized that having information can really make a difference for my clients. Having that Social Security amount meant she didn’t have to tap into her savings and was able to contribute to a retirement account. She’s still living quite comfortably. And actually, that client has referred to me at least 10 clients with half a million dollars or more.
It sounds like building your book was a slow process. Honestly, the hardest was getting from zero to $300,000. I was working every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, meeting wherever clients needed to meet. And then from $300,000 to half a million was hard, but probably not as hard, just because it’s like a ball rolling downhill. But I’ll tell you that my business tends to bloom when crisis happens. Every time there’s a crisis, I tend to get more referrals. And it’s simply because they’re needing someone to talk them off the ledge. What’s the saying, never let a crisis go to waste?
What is your biggest business challenge right now? We have a great service model, and as we grow and add people, I want to maintain that. We’re close knit and our communication is very positive. So it’s making sure we find the right next person over the next year or so, the next client associate as well as an additional financial advisor as we get out of this correction.
How are you framing this ugly market for clients? My biggest thing is trying to get to them before they get to me. The objective for my team is to get me scheduled with every client before the summer’s out, to make sure they’re getting the right information. A lot of them have been with me for a long time, and they’ve been through this before. They’re just wanting to know, “Hey, are we OK? Do I need to reduce my income or make any other changes?” For the most part, everyone is on track. But I’m also preparing them for the likelihood that we’re going to be here for a little bit. This is not going to be a quick one like it was two years ago. The next six months may not look good.
I also think it’s important to address what the clients’ holdings are. I try to peel back some of the mystery of what the market is. For example, I’ll say, “Hey, where did you spend your money today? Where did you go?” Nine times out of 10, some of the companies they talk about are in their portfolio. I’ll then talk about what those companies are doing, the dividends they’re paying, and so on.
Do you gravitate toward dividend-paying stocks? I do like dividend-paying stocks. I love that they pay you to wait. Dividends can help you get through the storm. And if you’re not needing those dividends, reinvesting them becomes quite powerful during a correction, because you’re buying quality companies at a lower valuation.
How are you handling the fixed-income portion of portfolios during this tricky period of rising rates? A lot of the bond allocation in a broader diversification is meant to help cushion volatility during times like this. For clients who are looking for a better rate of return but not necessarily wanting to take on the full volatility of the market, I try to keep it simple. With rising rates, we’ll look at Treasuries, short-term individual bonds with definite maturity dates versus a bond fund. So even though rates are rising and the value of a bond that we purchased six months ago may be down, clients know they’re getting a certain amount of interest. And they know that if they invested $10,000 in the bond, they’ll get $10,000 back. I’m a big believer in laddering, especially when interest rates are rising.
Have you been actively buying stocks this year or waiting for a bottom to form? We’ve been dollar-cost averaging into it. I get particularly excited on days the market’s down. I’ll call clients who have been waiting for opportunities and say, “Hey you know that uncomfortable feeling you’re feeling? That’s the buying opportunity.” I always stress that this is for money we don’t need for a year or more.
For new money, I’m not putting everything in at one time, because I don’t think we’re done with this correction. For example if a client is rolling over their retirement account, we may invest half of it and average in the other half over the next six months to try and take advantage of the possibility of a continued pullback.
You mentioned you have seven siblings. Do you manage their money? Do they come to you for advice? I had to earn their trust! I have two older sisters and five brothers, and it took about 10 years before they were like, “OK, we’re ready.” That was everyone except my eldest brother: He believed in me from the start. I have one brother who does his own investing. But he calls me like every day, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, let me give you some more free advice. Absolutely.”
What do you do to relax and recharge? I go running or get on my bike. I got a Peloton bike during Covid, and it has been a lifesaver. I have to get 30 to 45 minutes minimum of sweat in every day. That kind of resets everything. When you’re sitting here looking at the news, even the best of us can be lured into the darkness. But getting that sweat and clearing your head lets you realize that the world is not coming to an end.
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