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After struggling with substance abuse, this financial adviser found a mentor who helped him rescue his career - MarketWatch

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In the late 1980s, Gary Schwartz hit rock bottom. Drug and alcohol abuse led him to lose his bearings and his business. In his early 30s with a wife and two newly adopted sons, Schwartz operated a butcher shop in the Bronx, N.Y. But after it failed due to his substance abuse, he sought treatment and went into recovery.

By 1989, Schwartz was clean and ready to restart his professional life. A friend suggested he work at MetLife in life insurance sales, and that experience served as a springboard for a career in financial planning.

“It took me awhile to get comfortable,” Schwartz recalled. “There’s a thin line between honesty and stupidity. You want to make amends and be honest about what you’ve done and those you’ve hurt.”

But he found that disclosing too much information could backfire and drive people away. Even if they were sympathetic, they might subtly look down on him or pity him.

Now clean for more than 30 years, Schwartz is the founder and president of Madison Planning Group in White Plains, N.Y. He launched the firm in 1997 to reclaim his entrepreneurial roots. Before opening his butcher shop, he had started a landscaping business while in college.

Schwartz cites his early struggles as a key to his success as an adviser. “It gives me a tremendous amount of empathy,” he said. “Everybody’s got issues.”

But after a few decent years at MetLife, he needed more than empathy to persevere. His overspending jeopardized his career. “I bought a house that I couldn’t afford, so I got myself into financial trouble,” he said.

A friend noticed that Schwartz seemed depressed, so he asked what was wrong. Schwartz responded that he had a wife, two five-year-olds and no money.

The friend introduced Schwartz to his father, a retired executive, who in turn connected Schwartz with Bernie Mayer, a longtime insurance salesman and financial adviser. “That’s how I got into financial planning,” Schwartz said. “He became my mentor. I was completely broke but I had found someone who believed in me.”

In their initial conversation, Mayer told Schwartz, “I won’t lend you money but I’d be more than happy to help you.”

Before long, Schwartz earned his securities license and continued to burnish his credentials. His pursued his professional education with such enthusiasm that Mayer urged him to balance his studies with prospecting for clients.

Mayer supported Schwartz in both large and small ways. At first, he even drove Schwartz into New York City so that his mentee could save the train fare. He also set Schwartz’s expectations for his new career as an adviser — and encouraged him to look beyond early stumbles to think long-term.

“You’ll be dramatically underpaid at the beginning,” he told Schwartz. “But you’ll be dramatically overpaid at the end.”

Schwartz was particularly touched with Mayer’s commitment to mentoring. Mayer pounced on every opportunity to teach the newcomer. “He’d make me call him after every appointment I had with a prospect and go over it with him,” Schwartz said. “Even if it was 10 o’clock at night.”

Schwartz finds that some clients resonate with his experience. If they’re undergoing hardship, he might say, “I’ve been through something similar myself.” That can spark the kind of heartfelt, confessional conversation that few clients have with their adviser.

“I listen for what’s important to others and sense where they’re coming from,” he said. “I don’t get into the war stories, the minutiae of what I went through.” But he might share the biggest takeaway he extracts from his personal story: “Raise your hand and ask for help. It teaches you a lot of humility.”

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