As part of my series about “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Motske.
Jeff Motske is an author of a financial compatibility guide, an accomplished executive, radio personality and host of The Jeff Motske Show, and financial advisor. More importantly, he is a believer in the power of everyday Americans and is committed to helping them reach financial independence. He began his career in retirement planning out of college, and as he watched the landscape of financial services, Jeff saw how disconnected most of his industry was from the real-life issues of Americans. In partnership with Kevin Mackintosh, he created Trilogy Financial in 1999 to bring together resources on financial, tax and estate planning for middle-class Americans. Jeff started Trilogy with the vision of improving the industry, a vision that is still guiding him today. In 2016, he spearheaded the creation of Trilogy Capital, an RIA asset management firm that provides investment solutions for everyday Americans. Jeff has dedicated his career to helping everyday Americans, business owners, savvy investors, and new couples build the business and lives they dream.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was a math major in college, and one of my professors suggested I get into the mutual fund or financial services business. At the time, it wasn’t a very common business. So I thought about it for a bit and found a wanted ad for a financial advisor in the local newspaper. I took the job and was blessed enough to have a manager that trained and mentored me. This person really taught me to be an advisor to my clients, and I grew my career quite quickly. If it weren’t for that professor, I’m not sure I would have considered finance as a career.
When he retired, he recommended I be the manager of the office — and I was the youngest guy in the office! And I managed it really well. Once you have that kind of confidence, it helps take you out of your comfort zone.
That’s exactly what I did. And it helped me grow in my success with both clients and team members. I was happy and in a great place in my career. But one night when my wife and I were visiting with friends, my buddy’s wife — who was a woman of few words, but a deep listener — said to me “well, you know you’re going to leave that firm and start your own, don’t you?” She said it so confidently, and it meant a lot coming from her. At the time, my wife was pregnant and I thought there is no way this is a good time to take a risk like that. But she made such a bold impact on me, and so I did — I went and started Trilogy Financial in 1999 because I was in a good place financially. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have started my own company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There’s a lot of funny mistakes, but I think one of them stands out the most. When I left the old firm to start my own, I didn’t do it the “right” way. I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have office space, I didn’t have a team — nothing! I just dropped off my letter of resignation and that was that. Looking back, that probably was not the right way to do it, but it worked out somehow.
When I left, team members wanted to come with me! We had nothing — we worked out of my garage with cardboard furniture. It was late in the 1990s and when we had a new computer get delivered from Dell, people would call dibs on the box to use it as a desk!
Integrity aside, I would have planned better. But it worked really well, and I’ve learned a lot from it and other mistakes.
It was funny because when the pandemic hit, I needed privacy at my house to take calls (we have a lot of glass walls), and I found myself back in my garage with a make-shift desk and a water heater in the background — just like old times.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m a big reader. I’ve read so many books that have helped me in my career. I’m a big Patrick Lencioni fan, he writes on business and team management, and how to get teams to work better. I’ve read every book of his and love his disruptive style. His podcast The Table Group is great as well.
The book Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman is another great one. If you can get through the first third of it, I believe it’ll make you a better person, advisor, father and help you better speak for yourself. I’ve read it three or four times and I get something new from it every time.
Max De Pree wrote a great book called Leadership is An Art that looks at leadership as a kind of stewardship, stressing the importance of building relationships, initiating ideas, and creating a lasting value system within an organization. This book has also greatly helped me grow, lead and train teams.
All of these are a bit disruptive and unique, and I love that perspective because it really helps you step out onto a new platform of leadership.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are! We are working on a state-of-the-art client experience service center. As financial advisors, many people perceive our job is to advise people how to save and spend their money. But we believe it takes more than that to make an impact.
The service center is called the Mack Service Center, named after my late partner and co-founder of Trilogy Financial Kevin ‘Mack’ Mackintosh — a meaningful client service team was one of his core focuses. He designed and developed the service team based on what he learned over the years as an Eagle Scout, rowing crew member and in business. From day one, he had a clear vision of what Trilogy could accomplish when we worked together and focused on service. In fact, he was an early and passionate adopter of our ONE TRILOGY culture — One Purpose. One Plan. One Experience.
This service team consists of a group of people with a unique culture that will be delivering great, helpful service to our clients. This is contrary to what’s “the norm” for financial advisory companies. Most have an advisor-led service model, and there’s nothing wrong with that except that not all advisors have service as their strong suit.
We’re building what I call a “trust transfer” — we want the advisors spending more time advisor-ing while the service team does what they do best.
Mack took the ball and really got it rolling for this project. He found the right people to lead it and get it off the ground. He passed in early 2020, and the Monday before he did…he told me it was ready.
He instilled the right attitude, built the right culture. And I’m proud that his legacy lives on.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I started Trilogy Financial, my vision and purpose were to help financial advisors be better advisors. However, as time has gone on, that’s evolved into something bigger. Now my purpose is to help everyday Americans gain financial independence. They are the group of people that often struggle to achieve their financial goals, and we want to focus and help those that need sound advice.
This is the culture we’ve built today. Our advisors want to help as many people as they can, and my job is to make those advisors more productive so that can do more for their clients. I know they’re making a difference. I see it, and clients tell me all the time “if it wasn’t for my Trilogy financial advisor, I don’t know where I’d be.” That is purpose-driven business.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I have so many, but the one that first comes to mind is that you have to wake up and challenge your comfort zone every day. Never challenge your values or morals, but always your comfort zone. If you do that, you’re going to continue to get better.
I’m a big fan of mentoring. I believe it’s important to know who is in your foxhole with you as you go through life. Who are the people you know will be there for you and you’ll be there for them? Know who they are, because they will help you succeed when you step out of your comfort zone.
As it relates to my business, I believe in One Trilogy, One Mission, and One Vision. I wake up, think and talk that every day and it helps me challenge that comfort zone.
I also believe you have to trust your instincts. If they’re telling you something, you have to dig deeper to find out if it’s valid or not. That helps you be a better leader. And it is a muscle you have to flex. My instincts over time have grown and improved. It’s important to think through those instincts because your words matter. You also can’t let your emotions get in the way of better decision-making.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
The best form of advertising is word of mouth. It’s your reputation! If you do good work, you’ll get introduced to high-quality people and new clients. Your digital reputation is right behind that — potential clients are going to do their research and Google you, and you may or may not get a call based on that.
When you get a good referral, the foundation of trust is built-in. And it’s all driven by integrity and good work you provide from there.
If a fellow business leader would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
Well…I bootstrapped it and I think that was the best decision because I didn’t have a boss with a different agenda. I have friends who went the VC route and they almost left because of that voice hanging above their head.
I recommend bootstrapping and raising the capital yourself if you have that luxury. But if you have to go the VC route, choose wisely. This goes back to the beginning of my story. We bootstrapped everything. We had heart and grit and integrity to make it all happen. That’s why we succeeded.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
The traditional answer is to try to maximize revenue and get your margins in line. But there’s always a story under the numbers, and I think we have a great story.
Right now, we’re focused on attracting advisors approaching retirement age with a financial planning book of businesses they need to sell and pass off their clients. Our firm is attractive to those entrepreneurs because we have the right people paired with the financial stability to take care of their clients when they retire.
Your company value includes those resources, your culture, and story. We have built teams with advisors of all experience levels who support each other and the various generations of clients we have. That’s valuable.
Another huge component in your valuation in your team members’ tenure. We have long tenure within our entire team and those that are looking to sell us their business see the value because they know our team will be there for their clients for the long term.
What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
This was Trilogy Financial in 2015. The best piece of advice I can give is to think about what the future looks like, and how you’re going to pivot to reach that place. It’s the old Wayne Gretzky story — he wasn’t the fastest guy on the ice, but he always knew where the puck was going. And he could put himself in a position to succeed.
So how do you go about figuring out what the future looks like and how to benefit from it? It’ll take reflection, reading, some discussions with mentors or friends and more. But don’t do it in your office, or with anyone from your office. Go on vacation or put yourself in a situation that takes you away from your everyday so you can think clearly.
For example, I travel a lot for my kids’ sports. When I’m on that plane, I can put in my headphones and really go to that 35,000-foot space to think. Sometimes it’s on a beach chair on the sand — same thing.
In was 2015 on a beach reading a book that I realized I needed to pivot Trilogy from a broker-client relationship to a true fiduciary and advisor platform. I was clear we had to make that move in order to have experienced advisors making a big impact for a bigger amount of people. It was going to be hard, but we had to do it.
As a CEO, you’re constantly making decisions. And there are a handful of pivotal ones that you HAVE to get right. Think them through, talk to people who can give you advice — maybe a mentor from the past, but it’s most likely not someone inside your company because it could impact the company negatively.
What are the most common financial mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Early on, it’s easy to not have an organized budget and operating plan. But you NEED to do those things. You need to figure out your budget quickly, your costs and your cost controls. If you’re not thinking about your Return on Investment (ROI) on every dollar you spend, you might get to a point where you’ve gone too far. Don’t just spend money on something because you need it. You have to draw a line, see the line and know where you will get results if you cross that line. It’s easy to misunderstand your ROI or not be able to apply the concept to everything you buy, because they’re not very tangible benefits. That’s when you have to think through it to identify them so you don’t spend your way into trouble.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.
There are a lot of things people need to succeed in the modern finance industry. It’s always changing!
- You have to have grit: Grit and perseverance are huge because it’s not an easy business. The barrier to entry is getting harder and harder. If you have grit, tenacity and can get out of your comfort zone, you can be successful. There are elements within the industry that are naturally not fun, but you have to do them in order to succeed.
- You have to be able to cater to the masses: It’s very important to hone your people skills and your communication skills. If you can figure out how to communicate with people individually, in a manner that best works for all different types of communication styles, the sky is the limit. And this goes for both speaking and writing!
- Be great at follow through and follow up: You have to say what you’re going to do, and then do it. At Trilogy, we get our clients’ questions answered, and we follow through on everything we said we were going to do. Sometimes it requires 2 of us in a meeting, so things don’t get missed, but that’s ok! There’s nothing worse than telling someone you’re going to do something and then don’t.
- Position yourself well: To excel in any business, you have to get good at promoting yourself in a way that makes your clients talk about you when you’re not around. That’s the fastest and healthiest way to build a financial firm. Make that positive impact on them, service them well and they will tell their story. You may even get longstanding professional friendships that give your business value through obtaining good referrals.
- Structure your week: Plan your week, your calls, meetings, and the time you need to build plans, recommendations, etc. If you plan well, have good systems in place, and are focused on doing good work for your clients, you can spend 90% of your time working on your clients and 10% of your warm referrals that are coming in the door — instead of spending a significant amount of chasing cold leads.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The best tip I can recommend is to build that structured week. The beauty about a financial career is that you have flexibility to carve out what you need to do.
It’s important to keep ahold of your support system. They matter. For example, for the last 26 years, my wife and I have had a date night every Wednesday. And we stuck to it — if I had a late meeting or engagement, I made it clear that I had to leave by 7 pm. I also make sure I’m at my kids’ games or matches. And when we take our vacation over 4th of July weekend, we maintain a “no electronics week” to make sure we get the release we need. The ability to “shut off” is important. So plan your vacations and your breaks. If you’re working hard, you need a break. It’s the best way to be great for your clients.
Another suggestion is to not give your clients your personal cell number. You need to set boundaries and be able to let go. A lot of good advisors get too many clients they’re trying to service, and it ends up being detrimental to everyone involved. You have to trust people on your team to help you out. You can only do some much and you have to let go and trust others — this is that concept of trust transfer again.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My movement would be to have a well-regarded advisor in front of every everyday American. They’re the neglected population! I hear people who only want to go after high net worth individuals, but it’s those who are 52 years old with $400,000 in their retirement that need someone to get ahold of them. These are the people who need the support and the education to get to where they want and need to be.
The hard part is that person who needs support the most often doesn’t think they have to money to sit down with advisors. These are everyday Americans and they deserve someone to help them pursue their dreams.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’d love to connect! They can follow us on LinkedIn or check out my podcast Life & Money.