At first, she thought she wanted to attend medical school. Then she thought she might want to try law school. An undergraduate degree in economics, she thought as a college student, might be helpful for that line of work.
But as she delved more into the world of finance, she realized she had found her calling. She changed her degree again and started down a path that led her to a career that has turned into a passion.
Kenawell-Hoffecker is a founding partner and financial adviser at Avantra Family Wealth, an independent wealth advisory firm headquartered in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County. She and Frank Collins, her former boss at Merrill Lynch, launched the firm July 28 alongside several other former Merrill Lynch professionals.
As 2017 came to a close, Kenawell-Hoffecker sat down with the Central Penn Business Journal and talked about the challenge of going independent, shifts in the world of wealth management and her decades-long experience as a fire department volunteer.
Launching an independent wealth management firm is not for the faint of heart. But Kenawell-Hoffecker knew when Collins approached her with the opportunity that it was the right way to go, both for her and her clients.
Kenawell-Hoffecker had a 20-year history with Merrill Lynch, what she still considers one of the best large brokerage firms around, when she decided to help launch Avantra.
She joined Merrill Lynch not long after graduating from Penn State with a degree in finance, applying there after a firm where she had worked as an assistant told her she would need more than a decade of additional experience before entering their financial adviser training program. Their refusal infuriated her at the time, although she says she understands their reasoning now.
Merrill gave her the training opportunity that the other firm did not. So she made her first leap. She spent the next two decades rising through the ranks of the firm, taking on management positions and working with clients.
She was happy there, but grew frustrated with the limited services she could offer while working under a large firm. So when her boss lost his job in 2015 as part of a restructuring at Merrill Lynch, the two decided to make the leap into going independent.
“For me, for my clients, I owed them more,” she said. “So I jumped. And here I am.”
The industry Kenawell-Hoffecker works in now is different from the one she entered at the start of her career.
It’s no longer about just doing the math to figure out the best investments for a client. It’s about asking clients about the kinds of things that brought them to a financial adviser in the first place – their hopes, their fears and what kind of work they need their money to do for them or their families.
“I am firmly of the belief that you don’t start with asset allocation, and these are the securities you want to buy, because you’re offering those things without understanding truly what’s going on in your client’s head,” she said.
That means asking tough questions. What keeps the clients up at night? What motivates them? Do they want to leave a legacy for a family, or do they want to care for themselves? Did their parents and grandparents live to an old age? Is there a family history of dementia?
These kinds of questions, Kenawell-Hoffecker said, help a good adviser devise a strategy that will help clients meet their goals.
Clients aren’t the only people that Kenawell-Hoffecker tries to help. She also has a long history of community service.
She joined the Hampden Township Volunteer Fire Company in her final years of high school, earning her EMT certification at HACC as a senior. She also volunteers with the Southcentral Pennsylvania Critical Incident Stress Team, an organization that helps first responders after traumatic calls.
One of the calls she helped with was after the crash of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was one of the best worst experiences that I’ve ever had, and I never want to experience that again, but I am so grateful that I did,” she said. “Those experiences, they define you. I was very proud of my team members in that response, and I was very proud of all the emergency workers that came together.”
Kenawell-Hoffecker represented Bank of America, parent company of Merrill Lynch, during the dedication of the Flight 93 memorial. Her daughter, Alyssa, stood by her side at that ceremony. It was not the first time Alyssa had, in some way, visited the crash site; Kenawell-Hoffecker was six weeks pregnant with her when the crash happened.
Because of the time demands of her career, Kenawell-Hoffecker’s volunteer work now consists mostly of doing administrative work for the fire department, like setting up a youth emergency response program for high school students.
The work remains deeply embedded in both her life and that of her family. Her husband is an assistant fire chief, and Alyssa is rearranging her class schedule to make room for the high school volunteer program.