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Columbia Business Monthly

Cheryl Holland turned her passion into a business model with Abacus Planning Group

Apr 02, 2019 09:55AM
By Emily Pietras
Photo ©2019 Brian Dressler / dresslerphoto.com

Cheryl Holland didn’t realize it at the time, but when she joined the nascent profession of fee-only financial planning in the early 1990s, she was well ahead of the curve.

“I wanted to charge a fee and not a commission,” says Holland, president and founder of wealth management firm Abacus Planning Group, which is based in Columbia. “I wanted to be independent, and I wanted to do financial planning and money management. So at the time, 20 years ago, to do all three of those things, I had to be on my own. It was more led by ‘What is the service I want to deliver’ than any grand vision of ‘Isn’t this a smart thing to do?’ And there just happened to be and continues to be a high demand for that.” 

Founding Abacus in 1998 was the result of “following a passion that turned into a business model,” says Holland, who graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1980 with a bachelor of arts in economics. She began her career in econometric research but realized that constantly looking at a computer screen wasn’t fulfilling.  

“I began thinking, ‘What can I do that I can work with people and yet not forego being able to use my brain?’” Holland says. “What I really loved doing was talking to people about their life goals and what they wanted to do.”

Holland earned her certified financial planner license in 1991 and later became a registered independent adviser. 

“That is really where all the growth has been over the past 25 years,” she says. “I just lucked out to find the profession at the right time, especially for a woman.” 

Holland doesn’t shy away from addressing the early challenges of working in a male-dominated field. After transitioning out of econometric research, she took a job as a broker at a large firm. 

“I pretty quickly realized it was not a friendly place for women,” Holland says. “Looking back, I could tell a lot of horror stories. At the time, you don’t experience it that way, right? You’re just trying to move forward and do what you think you want to do.”

Those experiences, as well as recent stories of workplace harassment emerging from the Me Too movement, continue to influence Holland. 

“I’ve become more aware and, at the same time, less willing to tolerate certain conversations and ways of being,” she says. “Not so much for me, but I realize if I don’t do and change and be a little less accepting, it’s not going to make a difference for the women coming with me and behind me.” 

Holland laments that the wealth management sector continues to have a significant gender gap, one that hasn’t narrowed at the pace of other fields like law or medicine. Around 20 percent of practicing advisers are women, and even fewer are leading firms. 

As president of Abacus, Holland has garnered national recognition, both personally and for the firm. In 2017 and 2018, Barron’s named her the top financial adviser in South Carolina. And in 2017, Abacus was named to the Financial Times 300 Top Registered Investment Advisers.

Today, the firm manages $1.2 billion in assets and employs 14 certified financial planners and charter financial analysts. The majority of the firm’s 220 clients “are families who have a shared asset,” Holland says. 

Key to Abacus’ success has been the emphasis on leadership and learning. Every four months, the leadership team assesses the state of the culture and conducts a firm-wide survey. 

“There’s always something where we aren’t living up to our aspiration that we then peel into and say, ‘What’s not working? Why is it not working? How can we do this better?’” Holland says. “So it’s a living thing that we’re always careful to nurture and assess and understand that sometimes we’re off and we need to correct course.” 

One long-term initiative Holland has planned for Abacus is continuing to expand the firm’s talent pool. While the organization has done “a great job on gender and age and religion,” Holland says, focusing on racial diversity will be a priority moving forward. 

“We are super digging into that: what do we do differently from hiring to training to expanding our pipeline to supporting [and] mentoring to be widely successful at all kinds of diversity and inclusion and integration,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I feel very hopeful and positive and optimistic about that opportunity.”