An interview with Mariko Wilcox, Financial Advisor at Northwestern Mutual

It’s easy to put off today what we need for tomorrow, but now Americans are starting to regret their procrastination of planning for retirement and, for some, they’ve already paid the price. According to U.S. Census Bureau researchers, as reported in Bloomberg, ‘two-thirds of all Americans don’t contribute anything to a 401(k) or other retirement account available through their employer.’ And retirement isn’t their only concern; there are health benefits, long-term care and their legacy to take into consideration. But talking about money, or the lack thereof, can feel awkward, sometimes embarrassing and uncomfortable. Taking the first step is not always easy, but once it’s done, there is great relief in having a plan for the future. Mariko Wilcox, a financial advisor, has seen first hand what happens when someone is not prepared for their future or worse, unforeseen sickness or injury. I had the opportunity to speak with her and learn how she approaches this now very common situation.

Tell me about your investment approach – what’s your differentiator?

Behavioral coaching. I always remind the young investors that we haven’t gone through a crash together yet, so I get their commitment that they trust me with my recommendation of dollar cost averaging and remind them of our agreement to stay the course and not be emotional about their investments. I do this by reminding them of the mix of non-market based and tax efficient vehicles we have appropriately blended in their retirement portfolios. Our approach is to not have to withdraw assets in down markets.

Where do investors like to read most?

The investors I work with are focused on their long term investments, so they may glance at their quarterly statements. We rebalance and review at every annual meeting, but our clients really love our client website that has a powerful aggregation tool to check daily and weekly, especially on the iPhone app.  I know that they want online services so I’m guessing that they read there too.

Where do you normally end up doing your reading?

I listen to the radio and podcasts for the bulk of my news and intellectual consumption. I’m a Planet Money, Freakonomics and NPR junkie. In print, I am a lifelong fan of the Economist, which I discovered in college.  I like the social side of the economy – it’s what I wrote about it for my college independent study.

As a company, as a financial advisor, how do you keep up with all the disruption?

Northwestern bought LearnVest in 2015 for exactly that reason; to keep up with the disruption and have the ability to offer our clients online resources and attract a new demographic. Known as a 160-year-old, old-school company, we clearly needed to update our strategy, so that’s why appealing to other groups is a part of our businesses model. The planning that we do is vital for every life stage. I encourage my clients to sign up for the client website to track their financial health.  We’re constantly adding new features to give them the ability to view their portfolios in greater detail and more exciting ways. This keeps our digital service dynamic and nimble.

As an advisor, what would you like to see from asset managers?

Easy access to information. I really like the webinars and/or conference calls American Funds offer; they’re great about keeping them to 45 minutes which is the perfect time allotment and they’re easily accessible.

What are your views on traditional mutual fund fact sheets? Crying out for disruption or still an essential tool for investors?

I wish they were easier to access to turn around and give to my clients; digital would be great, since I’m supplying my clients with a digital folder anyway.

Tell me about your clients:

  • How do you handle their unmet needs?

I am a lifelong learner so if I don’t know an answer I leverage the talent of my team to help me meet needs and also try to learn more on my own with personal research. All of us at Northwestern Mutual have a very deep bench; we have access to the highest performing advisors and investments advisors alike. It’s a culture of going the extra mile for the client; the entire company works as one team.

  • How do you coach versus try to control them?

I remind them of the vision of the long term. I ask them to visualize a lot, to picture their best future, how it looks, smells and feels, with that kind of alignment, they can usually postpone immediate gratification.

  • What’s been your greatest success with a client?

I work with a young couple who are urban dwellers, carless and childless with lots of upward mobility.  They have built the foundation of their financial plan by covering all aspects of their risk and leveraged and maximized their work benefits. They are nearly bulletproof and are so excited to watch their investments grow, taking a really aggressive approach since they have all their risk covered. They’re checking their net worth regularly on the client website too.

Our mantra is “being the center of our clients’ financial lives” and I truly believe this. I’ve been invited to their weddings, I get texts sharing personal events like engagements, pregnancies and adoptions. I have LGBTQ clients who I help plan financially for their IVF treatments and it makes me so happy to watch them achieve their vision of creating their own families. I often patronize their businesses and I consider a lot of my clients to now be my friends.

  • What’s been your greatest learning moment with a client?

Letting clients know that “no” is a completely acceptable answer and that we have to be a good fit to work together long-term; sometimes, it’s just not the right fit.

What is the biggest mistake you see people make when it comes to financially preparing for their future?

Each year that I have worked as an advisor, I have lost peers and friends whose lives and whose families could have benefited from the planning I do. In each of those cases, there is a specific financial product that would have been a game changer for those they left behind. In the first case, my friend did not know about protecting her income (with supplemental disability insurance), above her Federal Government benefits.  She was forced to retire at 38 to pay for her cancer treatments. In those subsequent cases, those peers I approached as a new advisor had put off planning and left beautiful children all under 10 behind.  Sometimes I ask those to whom I’m introduced if they’ve ever seen a kick starter/ GoFundMe post on Facebook, to raise college funds or pay medical bills, that the deceased parent could not provide for with the planning they had in place. That puts it in perspective and creates urgency around planning and identifying gaps in their current approach.

I had to make end of life decisions for my father when there wasn’t any planning in place. Having gone through the agony of that experience, which takes months, I began my practice with estate planning at the center of every plan. One of my differentiators is my strong focus on estate planning, no matter one’s age, for everyone I sit down with, since everyone has a need to make it easier on those they will leave behind.

I understand that it’s easy to put it off for the future. At the end of the day, we buy with our hearts, not our intellect, and I offer people the gift of peace of mind by not having to worry if their families will be taken care of, because they know we constantly refine their plan at our annual reviews.

I understand you work with a lot of millennial investors. What do you find inspires their investing goals?

They are interested in socially responsible investing, volunteering, giving in-kind and shunning companies that receive negative press on issues about the environment and social improvement. I have had the opportunity to discourage throwing the baby out with the bath water by discounting entire sectors. For example, don’t discount oil and gas because you think they are enemies of the environment. I’ve read that Shell Oil happens to be a major investor in renewable energy sources as part of their exploration strategy. So, if they don’t want any of their mutual funds investing in oil and gas they may be missing an opportunity.  Because of scale, corporations who take socially and environmentally conscientious actions can have a lot of impact. I also point out that investing in small local businesses can be a form of socially responsible investing.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Diversity and inclusion is an important value in my business. Being a diverse person myself (I’m bi-racial and female) I find that I tend to appeal to under-represented groups that find a commonality with me. I simply help them align their values with their actions. It makes me happy that people feel safe enough with me to talk about money, which can sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable.

About Mariko:

Mariko Wilcox is a Financial Advisor who is impassioned about communicating the concept of financial security.  As a career changer who brings upper level management and small business experience to her practice, Mariko helps individuals, families and small business owners achieve their personal, professional and financial goals.  She has conviction in promoting the Northwestern Mutual planning philosophy, which focuses on solving risk-based needs first to create a solid financial foundation, for a lifetime of planning and success.

Mariko graduated Cum Laude in Economics from Connecticut College and has a Masters in Library Science from the University of North Texas.

Connect with Mariko on LinkedIn


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Courtney McQuade

Courtney McQuade is an expert in financial technology and social media, with specific focus on marketing and sales strategy. Over the past 18 years, she has worked at startups, hedge fund and private equity firms, and several of Wall Street’s largest banks. Courtney is recognized for her unique ability to train and coach financial professionals at all levels of technology literacy.
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