A ‘Transition Ninja’ Contemplates His Own Retirement

Helping clients and other men plan their next acts didn’t prepare this financial planner for the emotions of selling his own RIA firm.

By Michael Kay
Michael Kay
Michael Kay

I pride myself on being able to handle change. I’d navigated the shift from CPA to financial services rep to starting my own planning practice — which I grew into a multi-advisor fee-only firm. I traded my salary derived from auditing and tax for commissions earned through insurance and mutual fund sales, and then assets-under-management fees. And as I moved from a quantitative approach to life planning, I swapped AUM fees for planning fees and then started working on a retainer.

I was confident I had mastered the skill of preparing for and navigating the upheaval associated with life transitions. After all, I had helped clients do this for years while creating meaningful financial plans that encompassed their goals and concerns. And two years ago, I founded Chapter X, a project whose purpose is to bring together men who are transitioning to life after work.

But when I walked into an empty office on December 31 and sat in my chair, the day before transferring ownership of my firm Financial Life Focus to my partner, it hit me. It’s now my turn.

While I will still be engaged with clients during the transition, it will never be the same. When I walk into the office next, it will feel differently, because it is different. I will no longer lead, I will no longer carry the responsibility, I will no longer be the owner… but, that’s alright.

A Surprise Email

My partner Jeremy Levinn, and I had our succession plan inked and in effect for several years. Life was good and stable (as much as it could be with the ravages of COVID, the impact of the insurrection and a micro-premie granddaughter). And I had what I thought was a clear picture, at least professionally, of the next several years. Until …

In May 2021, Jeremy sent me an email that laid out his desire to accelerate the buy-sell to where he would become 100% owner on January 1, 2022. I cannot say that my immediate reaction was, “Yeah, great, why not, let’s do this!” In fact, the idea was nowhere in my thinking.  But, having immense respect for Jeremy and my belief that a knee-jerk reaction is never the right answer, my response was, “Let’s talk about it.”

A Little Perspective

Context, everything needs context. Have you ever looked back and wondered how you got from there to here? What confluence of events brought you to your current stage, what influences or happenstance brought you to the front door of your next life change? I can trace back the moments that took my life from one path to the next. One of those was my decision to teach income tax in the CFP Program at New York University, which I did for almost 10 years.

Semester after semester, tentative, anxious and overwhelmed students walked into “tax class” with relatively zero understanding of taxes and experienced my somewhat comical approach to learning what was needed to get through this part of the CFP exam. I met hundreds of prospective CFPs. One of them was Jeremy, who was neither tentative, anxious nor overwhelmed. This young man asked questions that made me work and he remains the most memorable in my years of teaching at both NYU and Fairleigh Dickinson.

One day, years later, I received a call from him, asking if I would be willing to speak with him about opening a practice. Being a “Jersey” guy, I am not known for subtlety and I said, “Forget about starting your own practice, it’s ridiculous, join me here.” The rest, as they say, is history. Jeremy is skilled beyond his years and smart beyond my comprehension. OK, back to the story …

Facing a Blank Wall of Despair

My partner and I talked about his offer and we began working through the issues. We created a timeline (Dec. 31) and looked at what needed to be done to meet it. I admit that while I was a willing participant, I was not the driving force. But I could see the positives and the risks involved in an outright refusal, so I agreed to let the work commence.

I did not foresee what happened next.

I’ve literally been working since I was 12 years old and founded my company in 2001. When I considered that I would hit 68 a month and a half after the sale, the arithmetic hit me like a ton of bricks: I’ve worked for 56 years. I spent nearly 10 years as an accountant, 16 as a financial services representative and the last 20 as the owner of Financial Life Focus.

It was a lot to take in. As I watched the days fly by, I felt as though I was preparing to walk into the afterburner of a 767. In other words, it didn’t feel good emotionally. I faced a blank wall of despair that darkened my normally affable self. This in itself presented a problem from many aspects. First, I was the transition ninja: skilled, experienced and may I say, masterful — or so I thought. Second, my reaction was counter to the purpose and expectation of the Chapter X community that I had built over the last two years.

Our Own Worse Enemy

Chapter X aims to help smooth men’s transition to life after work by giving them an opportunity to talk about it and network. Between my efforts to create a website, a blog and a podcast, and with a great boon from a favorable article from NextAvenue, I had attracted a geographically diverse group of men who were in various stages of pre- and post retirement.

Our monthly Zoom meetings were chock full of frank discussions that covered fear, complacency, motivations, limitations and shared stories of success and frustrations. When was the last time you encountered a group of successful men who were willing to be vulnerable, frank and collaborative? Here are guys who are or were at the top of the pile of success (as they define it), helping each other.

In my writing, which I send out four times each week, I share my thoughts about transitions, challenges, health, fitness, life after work, and a variety of other topics that are interesting (at least to me). My goal is to employ group wisdom to open up constricted mental pathways. After all, as the famous Pogo cartoon said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Thank you, Walt Kelly. While our lives may be complicated due to circumstances beyond our control, how we deal with things are entirely in our hands or mind.

Taking Control

All the questions I’ve been helping people with professionally and through Chapter X attacked my nervous system. I felt scared, depressed, unsettled, and in certain instances, unmoored. In other words, I felt TERRIBLE. But there was nothing I could do to stop the days, weeks and months from counting down to The Day. Believe it or not, I went back to my writing and shared my feelings with the group and received wonderful support. I relistened to some of the podcasts I’d produced and came away with the hard cold truth: If I want to live a life of meaning and purpose, I had better get my act together emotionally (the intellectual part was well in synch).

I began with a list of interests and possibilities. For example, continuing to grow and develop Chapter X is very important and that became the top of the list. In addition, last spring, I began a coaching certification course to round out my experience. I love to write and hope to finish a novel I started several years ago. But, the biggest surprise came over the summer after having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a well-known professional musician.

What did I say about “context”? My early life was singularly driven in music. I was a trumpet player and had climbed pretty far for a youngster. It was my life and goal, until something (which I won’t go into now) completely shifted my belief in my ability to be a top musician. Ergo, I did what anyone who was devoted to music would do: I became an accountant. No?

Valve Oil, Spit and Other Possibilities

OK, back to last summer and my conversation. The question that was posed to me was, “What’s stopping you from returning to the trumpet?” My answer: “Other than 50 years of rust and my ability to get over who I was, nothing!” The idea bloomed in me like a shot of whiskey hitting my stomach and it spread to engulf my imagination. “Why the hell not? What have I got to lose?” And I asked my musician friend if he could hook me up with a teacher.

I know that this next chapter of my life will include working with for a cause that is dear to me. The problem I face is that there are simply too many great causes and I need to narrow down the list to find one to explore more deeply. In addition, I currently have two amazing granddaughters (and a third on the way) and being in their lives is important. I am also committed to fitness (easy to spot this if you listen to my podcasts) and good food from sustainable, regenerative and organic sources.

My list of possibilities is long but has one overriding command: there are no “have to’s or should’s.” If something no longer interests me, it’s OK to stop. Mastery is not important, at least at a skill, hobby or activity. What is important is that I give myself permission to try and to walk away if it’s not what I like. Exploration and curiosity is key.

Letting Go

On December 16, Jeremy and I signed our agreement and toasted each other with a small dram of Orphan Barrel bourbon that he graciously provided. We hugged each other and I handed him a letter stating how much I appreciate, trust and believe in him to carry on that which I built and my belief that he would make it even better.

Learning to let go is an important characteristic. Learning to navigate the head-on collision of emotional fog and fear has been a meaningful experience.

Maintaining positive expectancy, avoiding complacency, building and nurturing great relationships, remaining active and healthy, engaging my natural curiosity and working like a beast to let go of that which is no longer used and to cling tightly to allow myself to grow in unexpected ways is my mantra.

Am I fully there yet? No … but I’ll get there.

Michael Kay, author of “The Business of Life” and “The Feel Rich Project” joined the financial services industry in 1985, after nearly 10 years as a CPA. He founded Financial Life Focus LLC in Livingston, N.J., in 2001 and recently transferred ownership to his partner. Michael has been married to his college sweetheart for 44 years. His Chapter X project is available at www.michaelfkay.com along with his podcasts (Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen). Reach him at mkay@financial-lifefocus.com, mk@michaelfkay.com,  on Twitter (@michaelfkay) and on LinkedIn.

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