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Broadway, financial advice and Kilimanjaro: The Anne Graham story

Anne Graham and her fellow co-founders named their advice business Story Wealth because they believe every client has a compelling story to tell. Turns out Anne's own story is quite the odyssey, as well.

Anne Graham did not set out to be a financial adviser; the profession seemed to find her.

Graham came to planning after working in banking, and completing a Bachelor of Business in Accounting while doing that. But it wasn’t a smooth, linear progression into advice.

At 24, in 1989, Graham became an “expat wife”, living in New York, where her husband David had been posted, as a foreign exchange trader. “That was amazing, because we were child-free and living in midtown Manhattan. It was just a wonderful time. I studied part-time – international relations and economics – in between attending as many Broadway shows as possible,” she says.

  • Another expat stint, in Singapore in 1995-96, saw her balancing a two-year-old toddler and a newborn (who arrived in Singapore) – a very different situation to the New York salad days, she says – and this time, she was studying the CPA Program.

    It was the CPA course that settled her professional direction.

    “I came across a unit that was closely related to financial planning, it covered superannuation and tax. That kind of lit me up, because it was a combination of rules and strategic knowledge; if you knew how the rules worked, you could get a really good outcome for an individual. And I had been thinking that I needed to educate myself to get back into the workforce. That then led me to do the Certified Financial Planner (CFP).”

    Back in Sydney, in 1999, in a difficult job market, Graham got a role with a financial planning firm. But, she says, she was a “bit naïve” about what being an adviser meant.

    “I had been quite captured by the idea of sitting down with a person and telling them, ‘if you did this instead of that, you could get this outcome, and it would be much better.’ I thought it would be really cool to interpret for people where the technical and tax aspects of super and investment intersected. But I didn’t even know how advisers got paid.”

    Forming a philosophy

    Graham says she has had a front seat as advice has “achieved legitimacy,” as it has moved from being a cottage industry to a professional service. Her own journey reflects the changes that have swept through the industry. Story Wealth started in April 2017, evolving from a merger between a business called McPhail HLG Financial Planning, where she was a partner, and Thinc Wealth. She set up Story Wealth with fellow directors Kara Treeby and Sarah Leslie (both were from Thinc Wealth). Initially licensed through BT licensee Securitor Financial Group, the trio, like many advisers, were suddenly homeless in 2019 when the banks pulled out of wealth management. Story Wealth decided to get its own licence.

    “The situation became quite messy and we had to make a quick decision,” says Graham. “We didn’t really trust anyone else, and none of the dealer groups’ offerings really appealed to us, so self-licensing looked quite attractive. We’d make the same choice again.”

    Story is aimed at the middle of the market. “When the banks were doing wealth management with large planner forces, sort of lowest-common-denominator, it really created the ability for advisers and firms to differentiate themselves at the higher end of the market, with a complete bespoke service.

    “We wanted to replicate that in the mid-range. Our clients are not by any stretch ultra-high-net-wealth people, but you can replicate the high-end experience simply by focusing on that person as a person, and not just a client, and really drilling-down to assess their needs, first, and then, trying to meet those needs,” Graham says.

    The firm takes a highly individualised approach. “That’s actually why we called our business ‘Story,’ because we believe that everybody has a story to tell. For us it is all about assisting clients in their journey to financial independence. I personally quite like a smaller number of clients where you can do deeper work,” she says.

    And the philosophy is very education-based. “We believe strongly in educating clients around the advice we provide and enabling clients to make informed decisions,” says Graham. “A well-informed conversation is better than us simply telling them what they should be doing, because in that situation, the client generally isn’t all that deeply engaged. We always want to work with our clients on a collaborative basis to achieve their financial and lifestyle goals.”

    Graham certainly believes in her profession, and the difference a financial planner can make. She uses the analogy of a personal trainer versus a gym membership. “You’ll get something out of your gym membership – provided you actually use it – but a personal trainer will help you achieve your goals much faster, with less worry and risk. In the same way, when you work with a financial planner, you don’t just see progress in your financial affairs, you see yourself steadily moving from milestone to milestone as your goal comes ever closer.”

    Climbing mountains

    Outside of work Graham is a keen “charity knitter”, but apart from that isn’t one for sedentary activities. “In my mid-40s I took up running and completed about six half-marathons. In my 50s I started hiking and climbing mountains. The first – and tallest – mountain I climbed was Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania,” she says.

    “It was a trip with Future2 (the charitable foundation of financial services professionals), of which I was director and trustee for six years. At that time, I had never climbed a rock, let alone a mountain. But there’s nothing like a challenge to prove to yourself that nothing is off-limits.”

    Since then, Graham has been a keen hiker and climber. “We did quite a few multi-day walks for Future2, raising money from financial advisers, and advisers would also nominate grass-roots organisations for grants; the grants were targeted at programs for disadvantaged youth.”

    Graham is no longer officially involved with Future2, but has kept up the hiking and climbing interest. “We’ve explored places like Mt. Anne in south-west Tasmania, and the Blue Mountains; we spend a lot of time in the Yarra Valley, and we did the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory last year. But these days, my walks are a bit easier than Kilimanjaro,” she laughs.

    James Dunn

    James is an experienced senior journalist and host of The Inside Network's industry events.

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