At the young age of seven, Winnie began learning the value of money and sold avocados from her friend’s yard to friends and family in the neighborhood. Her parents made sure she understood that hard work would give rise to success. That hard work has paid off and now she’s built her own firm with a signature culture. A key ingredient to her success is her early embracing of social media to build her brand, engage and connect with her clients; she often holds the top spot in our list of the 100 most influential women in finance on Twitter. Throughout her journey she has learned that often times the greatest rewards are not always in the form of financial compensation. Here’s her story.
From your childhood story it sounds like you were a natural with sales and numbers. What drew out such a keen sense of business at such a young age?
Actually, I don’t think I was natural with sales or numbers. I always preferred cartooning. My Mom, on the other hand, was a natural at sales and although I didn’t know it at the time, all the hours I spent listening to her talk on the phone with her clients taught me the skill. As for numbers, that was something every Asian parent strongly encouraged their kids to get good at.
What inspired you to branch off from Smith Barney and start your own firm, Sun Group Wealth Partners? What is the culture like?
There were two main reasons why we wanted to branch off from Smith Barney, the first being that Morgan Stanley bought out Smith Barney which changed the culture and management of the firm. The second was that my business partner and I wanted a different culture and workplace environment; we felt this could only be created by giving birth to our own company.
At our previous firm there was always a “top floor” with people in suits. We have a different mindset than those older, larger firms. There is a very comfortable, bright vibe to our office; it looks like an Apple Store married a candy store. Regardless of where you come from, any walk of life, once you walk in, you feel welcomed.
We rarely wear suits anymore; we are casual, but very nice casual. We even have our own in-house video production setup. It’s busy, very productive, and everyone enjoys coming to work. We don’t have any issues with people coming in late or missing days; if anything, I have to encourage our team to take time off work. I want to be sure our office is a sanctuary for everyone.
Tell me about your investment approach – what’s your differentiator?
We are very client-centric and believe that financial planning precedes investments. It’s what we don’t get paid for that makes us different from the rest of the investment industry.
Where do investors like to read most? Do they show a preference for video, text or sound?
From our studies, in person and then video is preferred.
Where do you do your reading?
On the screen: MacBook, iPad or iPhone, often audio. Anywhere and everywhere, from in my office to the line at Disneyland.
I love your podcast, The Renegade Millionaire Show. What was your inspiration for creating this show?
My best friend was working with TuneIn which is a huge player in the radio and audio content space. They were interested in a business podcast and I was tapped for the opportunity. I wanted to create a show that I would listen to; something that talked about how business leaders went from nothing to something and all the trials in between. My motto is to keep it true, keep it real, and keep it kind.
As an advisor, what would you like to see from asset managers?
Less fluff, more customization, and attention to relationship detail. I don’t want to hear about what you want to talk about, I want you to help me with what I need help on. Get to know me, my team’s focuses, and figure out how to support our clients and business. So many fund companies send me messages that begin with “Hello Winifred” or “Dear Winifred.” If you really knew me, or even just Google me, you would see I haven’t used that name in years. So it shows me they haven’t taken the time to do their due diligence; they just want to sell to me. How would they then treat my clients?
What are your views on traditional mutual fund fact sheets? Crying out for disruption or still an essential tool for investors?
They need disruption – their investor usage is highly limited. They should be made digital, client interactive, customizable, client-friendly. Great question, this got me to think about something I don’t evaluate much.
Talk to me about your clients.
I have the best clients on the planet, I am so grateful for each of them. I work with a lot of entrepreneurs as well as people in the movie / TV business and professional sports. My clients tend to be extremely busy, so I make sure that every second I spend with them, I’m giving them value.
What’s been your greatest success with a client?
When I was a trainee at Smith Barney one of my very first cold calls was with a gruff, older man, I’ll call “Mr. C.” He didn’t have a lot of patience, but he did speak to me. He said he wasn’t interested, yet he stayed on the phone for a little while telling me how he didn’t need my services.
He happened to mention he had a lot of assets at a competing firm. I knew the odds of him signing with me weren’t very great, but there was just something about him… he kept me on my toes and was really fun to talk to.
I called him pretty much every single week for about a year, hoping he would one day have a change of heart. Through that process, we became good friends, going to lunch or meeting in my office.
Then one day his advisor did something he wasn’t happy with so he moved a small portion of assets to me – about $200,000 – $300,000. For me that was huge and I was so grateful he trusted me with it.
Eventually, he transferred over all of his assets; well in the millions. We continued to speak often with 90% of our conversations just being about his day. Our friendship continued to grow with he and his wife coming to my wedding and my husband and I going to their family gatherings.
He was a client of mine for over a decade, and he eventually got older and his health deteriorated. One day, a few weeks passed and we hadn’t connected. I discovered his health was getting worse and he was in hospice. I also learned his wife was out of town on a pre-arranged trip, his son in Europe and daughter away. He was alone, and I knew I had to go see him.
Mr. C was shocked when Brandon and I walked in, and so happy. Right away he began talking about the market and the Wall Street Journal, wanting to know what was going on. We brought him ice cream and sat and just talked for a while. Then he grabbed my hand and said, “I always knew you were a good one. And I’m really glad, you know, that I chose you.”
I was so touched.
When people ask me about what I’ve done in terms of wealth management, I think about him and I think about how, at least as a financial advisor, we should embrace the whole client, the whole person.
My clients contribute so much more to my life than what I’m compensated for monetarily. It’s these friendships and these relationships I have with my clients, that are important to me. I don’t really lose many clients; these relationships are real. I think we have an opportunity to really make a difference in our clients’ financial life by doing things that aren’t of the ‘norm.’
This is what separates us from computers, because we care. To me, this story is an example of success because I was able to add value to Mr. C’s life financially and otherwise.
What’s been your greatest learning moment / challenge with a client?
I had a client I worked with very closely, I spent a lot of time nurturing my relationship with him. As his wealth continued to climb, he started to become increasingly hostile with my staff. It got to a point where they became fearful each time his name came up on the caller ID.
I have a really good team; they’ve been with me forever and are my center. This client really stressed them out.
Most advisors dream of signing a client of his stature once in their career.
To the shock of my entire team, I let this client go. I didn’t want to work with someone who treated my team this way. At times, I can be too nice, but in this situation I knew that I needed to be smart and make the right decision, even if it was uncomfortable, it was the best for my team.
As a company, as a financial advisor, how do you keep up with all the disruption?
We’re constantly evolving, redefining and we’re staying relevant. I look at millennials and I look at my children and I think about what they’re going to need in terms of financial planning, and how they’re going to want to receive that information.
I see disruption as a huge opportunity because I think it gives us room to differentiate. It used to just be the larger firms that could afford to provide the greatest value. But today I find that no longer true. Value is communication and building relationships. It doesn’t matter if you’re a team of 12 or 12,000, you can add that value through in-person meetings, social media, events… anyone can build those deep relationships if they really want to. What motivates me now is finding new ways, pushing the envelope in trying different things so that we can stay relevant to the next generation.
Clearly you’ve turned out to be a huge success. How do you teach your three children the value of money and hard work?
I don’t know about huge success; I think I’m a continual work in progress. My kids think we’re actually poor and that we need to skimp for everything. It’s how I grew up and I want them to understand that even though we’re not struggling. They also know that I value hard work and so they also value hard work.
When I was a kid, my parents told us not to worry about money, that it was only for adults to discuss. I don’t think that’s a good idea.
We talk about money all the time; the value of money, the way we save it and spend it. My oldest came to me once telling me how much one of the other kids’ parents gave them to spend at the book fair; it was the perfect opportunity to have another financial conversation. I try to give them the best information I can, then let them make their own decisions as to how to handle their money.
You are very active on Social Media with a huge following – how did you get started, what’s your strategy and why do you like it so much?
It began when I was getting ready to go on maternity leave; I was worried about my clients not hearing from me while I was away. There weren’t many female advisors and even less of them actually left for maternity leave. Luckily I had a supportive branch manager and my partner Brandon, but I’d always had a high touch point with my clients and wanted to find a way to keep in touch.
So I started sharing little updates; what was happening with the baby, the little things parents go through, and when I would be coming back to the office. It worked really well, I enjoyed it and so it has continued ever since. My one rule is, other than newborn photos, I never post pictures of my children’s’ faces, just the backs of their heads. I want to let them decide when they want to share their images, I don’t think it’s my right to do so.
I don’t use social media for personal reasons, it’s strictly business. I hone in on an agenda and have a management process.
Facebook is to maintain relationships with existing clients; it gives them insight on my day to day life, bringing a human component to business. It also allows me to see what’s going on in their lives such as birthdays, retirements, vacations and other milestone events. It enables me to really deepen my existing client relationships.
I use LinkedIn primarily to share relevant content and garner the attention of centers of influence who could potentially be clients or make introductions to potential clients.
Twitter, I was not originally comfortable with, but my publicist encouraged me to devote more energy to it and I’m glad I did. Twitter is now where I can cast the widest net. It enables me to not only to find out what my audience wants to hear, but it allows me to share and test new ideas, run surveys, keep up with the media and talk to clients.
Now after years of using these social platforms, my strategies have merged a bit. Facebook now offers me prospects and influencers through whom I’ve become friends with. LinkedIn is still very much a business platform but I also share my (business) experiences there as well.
What’s your experience been like as an Asian woman in this industry?
I remember when I was hired at a large financial firm I was so excited because I knew my parents were so proud of me. I’d gotten a “real job” at a big firm everyone had heard of. It was the first time I had ever worn a suit. I remember going into the office that first week, just so happy and thinking “My Mom must be so proud of me right now.”
As a rookie I shared an office with another advisor and one day, a larger producer walked in to say hello and welcome us to the office. I remember smiling, so happy and so proud, thanking him and telling him I was happy to be there. He responded with “well the manager must have gotten a great bonus for hiring you because you’re a double minority.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he seemed really polite and funny, so I just laughed a little and said, “oh yeah, thank you so much.” After he left I realized what exactly had just happened, and it was not a good thing.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles; I had never thought of myself that way, I’d never heard that before. I wondered how I would walk out of the office that day, facing everyone, because I guessed everyone must think that way too. That was the only reason I was hired. That I didn’t actually deserve to be there.
But I quickly kicked those thoughts away and decided I would show him and everyone else in that office what I could do. And I did. I turned out to be pretty successful growing a large book of business. To this day I remember that comment. It’s one of the reasons I started my own firm. I want to be in an environment that is healthy and positive. I’ve been able to create that here.
Just for fun:
Writing or reading? ~ Reading
iPhone or Android? ~ iPhone all day long
Coffee or tea? ~ Neither, I don’t drink caffeine
Beer or wine? ~ Wine
Favorite candy ~ B. Toffee
Favorite sport to watch? ~ Tennis – my kids
Favorite hobby? ~ Outlet Shopping and Organic Gardening
Winnie Sun is the Managing Director and Founding Partner of Sun Group Wealth Partners, a trusted award- winning financial consulting firm providing financial planning services to small business owners, senior executives, celebrities, tech elite, and established families throughout the West Coast.
With over 100K followers on Twitter alone, Winnie is one of the most followed financial advisors on social media today.
With more than 16 years of experience in the financial services industry, Winnie has been selected as Investment News’ Twenty Women to Watch, is frequent speaker at national events, appears on CNBC’s Closing Bell, Fox Business News, and Cheddar as a market commentator and personal finance thought leader, is a regular contributor to Forbes, is the host of TuneIn radio’s business show Renegade Millionaire, host of the Renegade Mom TV show on Modern Mom, appears on CBS as a finance expert, and is quoted in publications including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, The New York Times, Yahoo! Finance, AOL Finance, HuffPost LIVE, theStreet TV, USA Today, TheStreet show, Rep Magazine, OnWallstreet Magazine, Financial Planning Magazine, FA Magazine, AdvisorOne Magazine, GreersOC, Orange County Business Journal, Orange County Register, OC Metro, OC Family, and many others.
Winnie was previously First Vice President of Wealth Management, Senior Investment Management Specialist, and Lead Financial Advisor for the Sun Group at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Her exemplary young team was a premier leader in managing client portfolios and providing professional customized service. Winnie began her investment advisory practice with Salomon Smith Barney where she was awarded their highest honors for success with her membership in the elite Blue Chip Council (2001-2004), Century Council, and President’s Council throughout her tenure. Winnie was also an advising member of the Smith Barney Asian Advisory Council.
Prior to entering the financial planning industry, Winnie was an entrepreneur. She owned and operated CH Entertainment, which was headquartered in Los Angeles, California. Her firm was a leading television audience production company, with many high profile clients including America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune and Judge Judy. Winnie participated in over 350 television taping productions, and was a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (Emmys).
As an independent wealth advisor and financial planner, Winnie is regularly called upon to educate large corporate and nonprofit groups on planning strategies. Winnie has been honored with invitations to the Barron’s Winner’s Circle for Top Women Financial Advisors beginning in 2006 to present and coined “The Wealth Whisperer” in OC Metro’s “40 under 40” recognition.
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