Financial Planners And The Art Of Shell Cracking

Yesterday my boss asked me a question out of the blue. 


“Didn’t you used to sell stocks?”

“A long time ago,” I said.

And with that, he began to tell me the story of an orphan IRA he had that had been floating around the ether of the financial services world for over twenty years, shuffled from place to place by both voluntary transfers and later on by a spate of corporate mergers.

It turned out that the original account had been opened by an American Express Financial Planner. Twenty years ago, before I moved to Atlanta and became a stockbroker, I had been a part of the American Express subsidiary in Minneapolis known as IDS Financial Services, which at the time was one of the leading financial planning companies in the country oriented towards middle America. It was during my mercifully brief tenure as a personal financial planner that Jeff Stiefler, the president of IDS, announced our name change as a part of the final steps to fully align the Midwestern business unit with the American Express corporate identity.

The conversation brought to mind a short story called "Shell Crackers" I wrote a few years ago:

Our in-home appointment spiel was memorized—twenty nine minutes of verbiage, timed and syncopated down to our last utterance before we extended the application for the client’s John Hancock. The Script interjected the pauses after you rang the doorbell, instructed you on whom to compliment first, and told you, in minute detail, how to summarize the shell cracking technique you were going to use to Mr. & Mrs. Prospect before you started gathering their personal information.

They termed it a “Financial Reform” exercise. To me, it looked more like an “Assume the Position” questionnaire.  

Qualify your appointments. Just Do It. Don’t set an appointment unless both husband and wife can be there. Just Do It. Build rapport with your prospects. Just Do It. Always ask for referrals. Just Do It.

Just Do It? I unzipped my leather appointment organizer the Company provided, lifted the notepad up, and read the tag underneath.

“The CrossTasker - Manufactured by Nike

Excerpted from “Shell Crackers”   Daddymomma and Other Stories

My boss thought I was joking when I told him that we had memorized a thirty minute script, until I started reciting the bits and pieces I still remembered. His eyebrows raised as he recognized the spiel.

“I thought they were pretty sharp for telling me how much my fun was costing me,” he said when I described the way we were trained to gather detailed information about our prospect's expenditures and point out any aberrations from the norm. 

“How else were they going to get you to believe that a twenty something year old could actually give you good financial advice?” I said. “It’s really an art to get people to trust you with their money.”

I started calling my mentor Bennie “Fourbutton” after noticing that all of his suits had…well…four buttons. The suits themselves were stylish, but at five foot eight, Bennie looked more like a bellman at the Swisshôtel than a financial professional.

He came down to my cubicle later that day to fill me in on his plan to guide me through the intricacies of the Company. Double-O Soul was at lunch. Bennie plopped down in his chair and swiveled around to face me. “Anything you want to ask me?”

“Once you get to know your client’s risk tolerances,” I said to Bennie, “how do you decide what to recommend so you can help them reach their investment goals?”

“What?”

“I said how do you help your clients attain their goals?”

“Kid, you got a lot to learn.”

I didn’t like the tone in his voice. “I know that. I’m just trying to figure out where to start.” I fingered my Product Manual. “There are forty different investment categories in this book. And each category has at least ten different products. So how do you figure out which ones to use?”

Bennie took the two inch thick binder, pulled out the page showing the commission grid in the back, the one that listed from highest to lowest the amount of commissions a planner could earn from each type of product, and dropped the rest of the manual in the trash can by my desk. He ran his finger down to the tenth item on the list. “It’s simple. They can have anything above this.”

Excerpted from “Shell Crackers”   Daddymomma and Other Stories

The 80/20 rule—20 percent of the people in a given field are more productive than the other 80 percent—would probably be the 90/10 rule if it was applied to financial services. In an industry rife with turnover, there are only a handful of my old co-workers who were able to stay in the business long enough to begin generating those all important referral clients. The best planner in my old office back in South Carolina, a former school teacher, kept her clients happy by offering healthy doses of basic, common sense investing advice instead of relying solely on the planning software and its often arcane methodology. Twenty years later, she’s still in the business.  

By this point, my boss was more than a little pensive, as if he were being reminded yet again that most of the decks in life were stacked against him. His orphan account, the one that had been opened with such painstaking care years ago, was now being handled by someone who worked in a call center full of telemarketers whose voices he could hear in the background.

So I gave him the best financial advice an ex-financial planner and ex-stockbroker could. I told him to go to one of the no frills storefront financial services offices in his area, open an account, and ask for an account transfer form.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.