Are You the Next Suze Orman,” internationally acclaimed personal finance expert”?

I don’t typically watch Suze Orman – because a) I don’t like her style and b) I don’t watch QVC or Oprah where she is televised a lot. Many middle class American women seem to resonate with her strong personality and focus on the psychology and relationships of money, but many others are just plain turned off by her approach and basic financial advice.

Whether you like her or not, you must admit that she has made herself a fortune as a financial ‘expert’.

How did she do it and if she could do it, why not you?
A lot of our readers are providers of personal finance information – a lot of it very well thought out and expressed. Some of our readers have written books about finance as well. Will one of you be the next “internationally acclaimed personal finance expert” with your own finance empire of books, media appearances and speaking engagements?

Based on research I did for an article – Suze Orman – Whether You Love Her or Not, Is a Self-Made Millionaire – here are the things which I believe contributed to Suze’s ability to rise above the crowd of personal finance experts and take center stage.

She had entrepreneurial parents.
Her parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania had their own businesses. In addition to working in the businesses, her mother worked as a legal secretary (something not many women did in the 1950’s). Suze was exposed to an entrepreneurial environment – working in the business from age 13 on.

She developed strong personality traits.
As a child, she was unafraid to speak up, not constrained by middle-class norms and now is willing to tell others in no uncertain terms what they should do financially. She seems to have a tough hide, willing to take action when the rest of us might cringe – actions such as suing Merrill Lynch while employed by them to bring a broker that lost all of her money to justice.

Although her upbringing may have allowed her to build her strong personality, she is the one who turned it into a media presence. Jacob Berstein in Suze Orman, the Money Lady labels it ‘populist rage’ and paints this picture of her:

“There’s the highlight-heavy blonde wedge haircut, the chunky gold earrings and the way she cocks her head to the left and furrows her brow when asked a question about whether to declare bankruptcy, take a loan out on a 401(k) or switch credit card companies. Then there are her trademark gesticulations and phrases: the wagging of an index finger, the shaking of her head in dismay and her habit of responding to a question with a sentence like, “Are you kidding?” — drawing out the “r” with such flourish that this three-word expression of opprobrium seems to last half an hour. Arrre you kidding? Righteous indignation is almost an orgasmic experience for Orman.”

She was willing to take risks.

  • She stole. “On one occasion, Orman’s mother told her she couldn’t afford to give her a dollar to go to a swimming pool with friends–but Orman filched the money from her parents because she was afraid her friends wouldn’t like her if they thought she was poor” as reported in If you knew Suze…by Robert Frick Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, November 1998.
  • She set out to see America with a van and $300.After failing to graduate from college in 1973, she bought her brother’s van, used help from a couple of friends to outfit it for sleeping and drove across the country to California, from Chicago.
  • She dreamed of starting her own restaurant. During her childhood, she had assisted in her Father’s deli from age 13 on. As she worked as a waitress for seven years in Berkely, CA, she dreamed of starting her own business and received venture money from multiple customers to start it up. Although she wasn’t able to make it happen because the Merrill Lynch broker who was supposed to be investing her money safely lost it all, she was in process with trying to find a location and all of the other steps needed to build a business.
  • She cornered a broker trainee job in the 70’s – with no background in finance – at Merrill Lynch. Because she needed to pay back that fifty thousand dollar loan and could not do so on the $400 a month in waitress salary she was making, she went down to the very same branch office that she had invested with, applied for a job – and got it!
  • She sued Merrill Lynch while working there. As she was learning how to be a broker in her new job, she discovered that the broker who lost her money had violated laws and she decided to sue him. The hiring broker had pretty much told her she wouldn’t make it 6 months in his office and she thought she had been hired just to fill a ‘female’ trainee quota – so she felt she had nothing to lose. As it turns out, laws prohibit an employer from firing an employee who is suing them!
  • She started her own firm.After working for both Merrill Lynch and Prudential, specializing in insurance products, she set out on her on and started her own firm.
  • She tried new things.Although she had problems with reading, speaking and writing as a child, when a book agent suggested she write a book, Orman tackled it – with help from the agent in selecting a topic on which to write. Although she had never been on radio or television, when the opportunity presented itself, she did the shows.

She specialized.
Investment product specialization.
Although the Series 7 license she had to earn to be a broker required her to be well versed in a wide range of investment options and products, knowing all about single premium whole life laid the foundation for two great opportunities: 1) her first radio and television appearances and 2) building a clientele for her own firm.

First Radio and Television Appearances
Success Magazine in Success from the Ground Up quotes Suze as saying: “I started to specialize in an investment called single premium whole life,” “I loved it!” She describes the product as a legal tax loophole that allowed people to invest with minimal risk and high returns. Then one day, while listening to a radio talk show on KGO in San Francisco, she heard another financial expert answering callers’ questions about single premium whole life. “He was answering them 100 percent wrong. I was outraged,” Orman says.

The article goes on to say that “She wrote a scathing three-page letter to the show’s host, Jim Jorgensen, outlining the points the guest advisor had explained incorrectly. A short time later she got a call from Jorgensen who invited her to come on the show and explain the product. “The next Saturday I went down there and did a show. After that, my phone started to ring off the hook,” Orman says. Other radio shows and TV shows requested that she come on as a guest expert. “Everybody all of a sudden wanted me on their show, because at that time, I was the only one who had mastered how this investment truly worked. It was one of the greatest investments around.”

Building a clientele for her own firm
Her specialization in single premium whole life allowed her to conduct retirement seminars to Pacific Gas and Electric employees. She gave the seminars for years because no one else in the Merrill Lynch office wanted to – all the other brokers considered them a waste of time because no one retired from Pacific Gas and Electric which meant they wouldn’t get any business from those employees. Because she had built up her reputation by doing all of the seminars, after she opened her own firm in 1987 PG&E retirees came to her with their business after PG&E laid them off.

Audience niche specialization.
Although her paths to appearances on both QVC and Oprah were not focused on obtaining a niche audience, she ended up with them. Both shows focus mostly on women and are heavy on life’s softer qualities (like relationships). Her first book focused on older boomers – somewhat of a niche.

If you knew Suze…by Robert Frick in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, November 1998 says “She hasn’t ferreted out any new financial truths, but she seems to have tapped into people’s primal fears about money and its effect on happiness, relationships and self-esteem.” – a niche focus.

She enjoys connecting with people.
She was a waitress for seven years and it seems like she enjoyed it. She made such an impression on her customers that several of them wrote checks (totaling $50,000) as an interest free loan to start her own restaurant.

At Merrill – rapport with clients let her become a best seller. According to If you knew Suze…by Robert Frick in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, November 1998, her mentor Cliff Citrano said that Orman had “an uncanny ability to put stuff into layman’s language, and she was a potent salesperson. I’ve met much better investors in my time, but no one who could market to investors better.”

She used help to network and market herself effectively.
At each stage in her development Suze Orman made connections to carry her to the next level. She used her personality to impress the connections that could advance her and she put in the work and followed advice from mentors to make progress.

Note her stepping stones – from college – to seeing the world – to waitress – to wanna be restauranteur – to investor – to broker to insurance sales – to owning her firm – to local radio/TV appearances – to super fund raiser – to book writing and tours and then – to national TV shows.

She called on friends to help her outfit her van for sleeping so she could take off from Chicago and see the country. After ending up in California she turned her experience working in her Dad’s deli into a waitress job. She impressed her customers so much that they loaned her the money to start her own restaurant. She leaned on a disappointing broker, but turned the experience around by winning a job as a trainee in his office. She found and used a mentor at Merrill Lynch to teach her about investing. She used her niche expertise on insurance to build a reputation by doing seminars for PG&E staff, and then turned that expertise into radio and TV appearances as well.

She networked at cocktail parties, met and impressed a book agent (Linda Mead) who helped her write and publish her first book. Orman followed Mead’s advice and worked hard on a book tour for a year and ended up landing a spot on the shopping network QVC and being a huge success on PBS fund raising in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where a critic claimed that she promoted herself as much as she did the TV station. These led to being noticed by the senior supervising producer of the Oprah show and to ongoing appearances there.

Orman also uses help from her life partner and female spouse to run her personal finance empire.

How does Orman define success?
Erin Casey author of Success From theGround Up Suze Orman, one of America’s favorite financial advisors quotes Suze as saying

“Liking who you are and liking what you do can make you an incredibly successful person. That is how I define success. I would not define it financially. You can be a really successful person and never really have a penny to show for it.”

Do you have what it takes to be the next internationally acclaimed financial guru? What else do you think Suze Orman did to become rich and a famous personal finance guru?

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