Heather Fortner, CEO and Partner at SignatureFD.
As CEO, Heather leans into her passion for listening – to the SignatureFD team, our clients, and the industry – to create and implement the organization’s vision and mission to impact the lives of 10,000 families.
Practicing a “coach with empathy” leadership style, Heather leverages her unique ability to harmonize people’s passions and talents to build teams and lead organizations that deliver excellent and inspiring client experiences.
Previously serving as Chief Operating Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, and President of SignatureFD, Fortner has learned, navigated, and held strategic oversight for every aspect of the organization.
A highly-sought-after leader in the industry, Fortner is regularly asked to speak on the ever-changing landscape of wealth management. See a small sample of her previous speaking and media engagements below.
Additionally, in 2021, Heather was awarded CEO of the Year by WealthManagement.com for the category Individual RIA Firm Leaders.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Career journey
- Net Worthwhile
- Helping high-net-worth families use their wealth to truly live a great life
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:03] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Atlanta Business Radio, brought to you by on pay. Built in Atlanta, on pay is the top rated payroll and HR software anywhere. Get one month free at on pay. Now here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:31] Lee Kantor here, another episode of Atlanta Business Radio. And this is going to be a good one. But before we get started, it’s important to recognize our sponsor on pay. Without them, we couldn’t be sharing these important stories today on Atlanta Business Radio. We have Heather Fortner, the CEO and partner with Signature PhD. Welcome, Heather.
Heather Fortner: [00:00:53] Thanks, Lee. Great to be here with you.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:55] Well, I’m excited to catch up. But for the folks who aren’t familiar. Can you tell us a little bit about Signature PhD? How are you serving folks?
Heather Fortner: [00:01:03] Yeah, I’d love to. We are a $6 billion independent registered investment advisor in Atlanta. We have offices in Atlanta and in Charlotte, and we are celebrating our 25th year anniversary this year.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:18] Well, congratulations on that. You have kind of worked your way through the ranks at signature to get to where you are today.
Heather Fortner: [00:01:27] Yeah, yeah, I started. It’s been almost 20 years. I started in February of 2003 as a client care associate and have held many, many positions through the firm. Was the chief compliance officer for 15 years and then also kind of built the operational platform of the firm becoming CEO and then president and now will have been CEO for two years in October of this year.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:55] So when you first started, did you dream this dream? Was this how it was supposed to end?
Heather Fortner: [00:02:00] You know, I’m not sure that anybody could have dreamed that dream. Lee I knew that and knew that I loved to be busy. I knew that I loved the business and I knew that. I always tell people I am my worst self when I am bored. So I knew that I was willing to do whatever I could to just keep learning. And I have to tell you, building building a business is just a very fascinating and fun journey. So I’ve just been very blessed.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:28] Well, having seen the business from kind of a variety of viewing points, does that you think that gives you kind of a competitive advantage as the leader now of the firm?
Heather Fortner: [00:02:39] You know, I think that the benefit of having really grown up through the business when I started with Signature PhD, we were about 250 million under management and we had probably six or seven team members at the time. So having been with the business that long and having such different vantage points, I think the benefit that it gives me is that it allows me to be able to pull threads all the way through the organization to know intended and unintended consequences when we make a decision. And that that I do believe as a leader is a benefit within the business itself.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:20] Yeah, I think that a leader of anything, whether it’s a company, whether you’re in politics or government, to have kind of worked at a low level and and kind of earned your way up the ladder, gives you a different perspective. I mean, you your your empathy gene is a lot different than someone who just pops in from another firm. And if they were just made CEO of this firm.
Heather Fortner: [00:03:47] I completely agree. I think it it enhances our ability not only to understand how the decisions affect the client experience, but also how it affects the team member experience. And when you have those long standing relationships and you know people for who they are and not just as a number, it changes things. It changes things for the better, in my opinion.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:13] Well, part of your mission, as I understand it, is to help high net worth families kind of use their wealth to truly live a great life. Can you talk about that mission and how it kind of came to be?
Heather Fortner: [00:04:29] Yeah, absolutely. Overall, we want to serve 10,000 families. We want to help 10,000 families live their net worth while in our definition of net worthwhile is really just the intersection of a family’s wealth, which is more than just their money. Money is just a tool. Wealth can be time, it can be health, it can be resources, it can be money. It can be all of those things where the intersection of your wealth overlaps the things that you find worthwhile. And many times people don’t necessarily know what it is. They haven’t they haven’t had the freedom to sit down and really define the things in their life that are worthwhile to them, that the dreams, the hopes that they have not only for themselves, but for their families. And so we hope to be able to come alongside, to partner with families, to provide the confidence. For them to free up their worries and concerns, because, quite frankly, there are a lot of worries and concerns that come for people with money to be able to free some of those up, to provide a space where people can lean in and say, you know what? These are the real things that I want to accomplish in my life. These are the things that really matter to me. These are the things that I want to grow and live and give and protect that matter to me. And then our job is professionals is to come alongside with expertise and say, well, here’s, here’s some options on how we can build that plan.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:05] Now, having a plan is critical and whatever stage you are in your life and your career, when we’re in this kind of turbulent time that we are today, it is especially important to have a plan. Can you talk a little bit because a lot of folks, when they have a plan and they’re young, that’s fantastic because right now, the the economy, the market is kind of upside down and you’re buying everything on sale if you believe in our economy and our system. Right. But if you’re like 70. This is where a plan really is important because this is, you know, when you’re not having the ability to buy things on sale and catch up, you look at your net worth and your net worth while differently.
Heather Fortner: [00:06:57] That’s right. That’s right. You know, I love the fact that you bring that up. I was just having a conversation with some of our team yesterday. I spent a lot of time talking to our advisors about what their conversations are with their clients. And it’s fascinating because the overall sentiment is that when you have put in the time on the front side, when you have done the work to create the plan, to be sure that those things that need protecting are protected. When those things that are important to you, that you have a plan to provide for those things, and then and then that you have secured, whether it’s income, whether it’s giving or whether it’s whatever those things are that are important to you. When you’ve built a plan around each one of those, it’s okay when you start to have turbulent times because you will have those consistently. The history, the history of the market, we all know it. But when you have taken the time to insulate those things that are important to you and build a plan that can accommodate those turbulent times, you still have freedom to go and live your life without all of that worry. And I think that that’s the thing that as financial professionals, that’s where we really thrive in helping our clients, is seeing someone who has built a solid plan, has identified those things, has worked the plan, and is now in their seventies or in their retirement. And they’re not worried when it’s turbulent times. That is success for us as professional advice givers.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:39] Yeah, and that’s for the folks who don’t have a professional advisor. This is when you need them. This is this is when it becomes clear that you have to have a plan. You can’t just whenever circumstances change and they do constantly, if you’re making kind of major adjustments, you don’t have a plan.
Heather Fortner: [00:09:03] Yeah, yeah, I agree. I also think it’s so critical. The behavioral component of finance is just you cannot discount how important it is to to really, quote unquote, know thyself in one of these environments, to know those triggers that you have around money, to know those those those issues that are going to create, whether it’s anxiety or fear or worry or whatever it might be for you to be able to call those out and know what they are and then have that unbiased, objective thought partner that in the moment when you are experiencing whatever those emotions or feelings may be, knows you, knows your goals, knows your plan, and can really step in as a thought partner for you to help get you through the time where you may pull the plug out of fear and not need to. Because guess what? Objectively, you’re going to be fine. We’ve built for it, we’ve planned for it. We’re going to hold the course. And, you know, living in that community and having that thought partner, it’s really critically important, I think.
Lee Kantor: [00:10:17] Yeah. Now it sounds like empathy is an important component of your coaching style, your teaching style, your leading style. Can you talk about how you coach empathy to folks maybe on your team or maybe that’s the only people you hire that have that kind of trait? But empathy is, again, a secret sauce, something that not everybody has, and especially I would imagine as you’re going through wealth advisor school, in college or in your learning, I don’t know if they have classes on empathy. That’s usually not part of the test.
Heather Fortner: [00:10:56] Yeah, no, that training I got when I did my graduate work in counseling. So I will say there is there is training for that type of stuff and those are skills that can actually be developed and learned, but they are not necessarily a component of a core finance curriculum. I do think that the majority of professionals in the finance world, most of the people that I know, they’re helpers and they love to be able they have an enormous helping gene, but they also have an enormous capacity to be an expert in their technical field. So you usually find people who are passionate about helping. Others. They just happen to be very competent and have an expertise in the financial arena as well. I do think, however, just from my background and my training, that those are skills, those skills of empathy, those skills of the soft skills, the emotional quotient can be developed over time. But it is something, first of all, that you have to be willing to learn, and it requires a level of self awareness that some people are not willing to pursue. But it also requires work. It requires you to say, I’m going to develop this skill and I’m going to practice this skill consistently, not only at work, but in my personal life as well. And I think that level of commitment, that level of self awareness, those are the people that typically can develop those skills well over time.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:37] So for leaders out there that want to help their team develop those skills, is there something actionable that you can share that maybe you do with your team that can help them be better leaders?
Heather Fortner: [00:12:48] Yeah, you know, I think one of the things first of all, it has to start with self, it has to be that you are willing to pick the log out of your own eye before you try to pick the speck out of someone else’s, you know. And there’s a ton of ways that you can do that. There’s meditation, there’s counseling, there’s therapy, there’s there’s all kinds of stuff that you can do there. There’s coaching, great coaching. I have two external executive coaches that I use myself, but then there are also resources. So not only do we do coaching internally in our organization, but we get coach training for the people in our organization who are doing coaching. So there are plenty of professionals out there. We actually partnered with a team that had done some of the coaching training over at Emory and brought them into our organization, not only to do coach training for our team, but to be an on call resource for our other directors and leaders in the organization that if they had questions or they were experiencing issues, if they needed coaching themselves around, I need a safe place to process what I’m feeling or what’s happening on my team that they have someone external to the organization to call as well. That is is, I believe, qualified and able to give them sound advice on how to move forward.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:22] Yeah, it’s fascinating how this career has evolved over the years. I remember my dad was involved in the stock market decades ago and I can’t in a million years envision the person who is advising him of having that kind of training. I mean, his conversations were always about some hot tip or some, you know, it’s time to make a move or things like that.
Heather Fortner: [00:14:46] And I do think that that’s part of the difference in a broker dealer mentality versus a registered investment advisor mentality. And over the years in the industry, we have seen a lot of convergence of those two things because people do recognize that other humans, they want to be in community and they want to be in relationship. They don’t necessarily just want transactional advice, which is is really what you’re talking about.
Lee Kantor: [00:15:19] Right. And to me, it’s changed dramatically. I mean, this industry has evolved dramatically.
Heather Fortner: [00:15:26] Absolutely it has. And it’s also created you know, there’s if you look into any type of research about our industry, it’s also created some confusion for the consumer around who actually is an unbiased advisor, who is getting paid based on what they’re selling or not selling or advice or not advice. And so some of the regulatory bodies have really been focused on trying to create ways that the public can be well informed on those issues as well.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:05] Right. Because it is I mean, not only do you have the confusion there, you have the individual person being able to do some of this, work themselves with these robo advisors that aren’t human, that. Right. So there is a lot of confusion out there to the public for the people that you serve. Who is that ideal client for you? Who is that kind of family or individual that is the best fit for signature PhD?
Heather Fortner: [00:16:36] You know, I love that question. I, I think if you had to ask me. The most ideal client for not even for us, but for any registered investment advisor, it would be the very first component would be a delegator. Someone who really wants to hire an expert in the area of planning and financial expertise, wants that help, and then wants to really incorporate that advice into their plan and delegate a lot the majority of that work to the team that they have hired for people who really want to do it themselves. Those people that are going to robo advisors, they want to be in there, they want to be doing the research, they want to be directing which investments at what time and those types of things. I would say a relationship with a registered investment advisor would be difficult in that regard because that’s not really how registered investment advisors work. That is definitely a more transactional based. The registered investment advisor relationship is definitely more collaborative and and really requiring someone who wants a comprehensive help in a delegation type way. Now for Signature PhD specifically, we are so blessed that we have so many communities, different communities with expertise and different in different areas. So we have Signature Exact, which serves a corporate executive community, we have signature law, we have Signature Health Signature Pro, which serves professional athletes. So we have signature women. We have very, very vertical niches, very focused on certain types of communities of clients, which is really been not only wonderful for our client base because we can serve them with an expertise of planning in that specific area, but also wonderful for our team members because they are able to serve the communities that they’re passionate about.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:02] Because they get to kind of go deep within a niche and then really figure out kind of the nuances there and really kind of anticipate needs of clients.
Heather Fortner: [00:19:12] Exactly right. So for example, our signature entrepreneur team, they are highly skilled in dealing with closely held businesses. Tax implications of that M&A type transactions, how you do startups like that is their passion and their love, and they have seen it over and over and over again. So they are very, very qualified to work with owners of small businesses and entrepreneurs that look very different than our signature pro group. Who is they understand the NFL and NFL contracts inside and out. Right. That that is that is a niche that absolutely looks very different than another niche. But the expertise, the very deep technical expertise in that area, it is necessary when you are trying to give quality advice to someone in that community.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:12] Well, if somebody wants to learn more, have a more substantive conversation with you or somebody on the team, what’s the coordinates?
Heather Fortner: [00:20:18] Absolutely. www.signaturefd.com. Our whole team is listed on the website as well as our different communities. So please there is a contact us page. Please reach out. We would love to have a conversation with anyone.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:36] Well, Heather, thank you so much for sharing your story today. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Heather Fortner: [00:20:41] Thank you. We appreciate it.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:42] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see y’all next time on Atlanta Business Radio.
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