Eleanore Szymanski, a high school graduate from a gritty factory town, got her start by working for billionaire philanthropist Gordon Gund — jetting around in his private plane, taking notes at meetings with bankers, celebrities, and venture capitalists, and learning about finance from the top down.

“I learned the business of business from him and got a taste for finance,” Szymanski says. “I worked my way up until I was an executive vice president. I loved the life, yet I had a yearning to serve others.” She left that job to study full-time to take the CPA exam. “My family thought I had lost my mind.”

Szymanski ended up turning away from the CPA path to be a certified financial planner and open her own business, EKS Associates LLC, in 1983. Over the years she turned down a half dozen offers, but Szymanski has now merged with a larger firm, Access Wealth Planning LLC, based in Roseland (www.awplan.com). It is owned by a long-time colleague, Lawrence M. Zagarola, who shares her beliefs and values. Though she has been in business for 25 years, Szymanski has no plans to retire and the EKS Associates division will continue to operate from its Princeton Professional Park offices. Together, the companies have 20 employees, more than 500 clients, and manage more than $400 million in assets.

Eleanore Kulakowski grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, one of eight children. Both her father and mother were chefs — not the fancy kind, the short order kind. She knew she didn’t want to follow her parents’ path, but she still wanted to dedicate her life to serving people. Fresh from high school, she got a secretarial job at DuPont “and got lots of experience working in a man’s world.” Later she married Gene Szymanski, an electrical engineer who was a decade older than she, and they moved to Princeton.

Szymanski worked in various jobs, including with the Gund organization, while earning her bachelor’s degree at Rider University. When she tried to obtain the CPA certification, fate intervened. She had completed her studies, but a family emergency (an ill mother-in-law) prevented her from taking the exam. “At that time the CFP field was emerging. I left my CPA by the wayside and studied two more years for the CFP exam.”

When she opened her business, fee-only planners were few and far between. As a CFP she aimed to help clients with life problems. “I saw that Gordon Gund had advisors who came together on his behalf,” she says. “He could afford an insurance advisor, an accountant, an attorney, a benefits advisor — and they all sat around the table and counseled him and interacted, whereas the general public doesn’t have the money to do that,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a CPA in a back room just working with numbers.” Now she helps clients with all kinds of financial issues, everything from a mortgage on a starter house to selecting a nursing home.

If Szymanski is anything it is fiercely independent. So the merger was unexpected. How it happened was: Zagarola’s former company (he was managing partner at JH Cohn) had made one of the early buyout offers to Szymanski. She rejected the offer, saying she didn’t want anyone telling her how to serve clients. So JH Cohn bought Access Wealth Planning instead. As Szymanski had predicted, the addition of a financial planning firm to an accounting firm was not a comfortable fit. Zagarola, who has a BA from Seton Hall, an MBA from Pace University, and a CFP from Fairleigh Dickinson, left Cohn and bought out Access Wealth Planning. He runs it as an independent company, just the way Szymanski likes to run hers.

Meanwhile Szymanski’s husband was struck with untreatable lung cancer and died in 2006. “My clients were wonderfully understanding, but it wasn’t really fair,” she says. “I realized I needed better backup. I needed to have, in my office, planners as competent as I was, with the same philosophy.”

The Roseland headquarters has five financial planners. Szymanski has been joined in Princeton by Larry Zagarola’s son, Darren, a CPA and CFP. They provide comprehensive wealth management services to individuals, trusts, and institutions in the areas of cash and investment management, tax planning, risk management, retirement planning, and estate planning.

Based on a personal experience, Szymamski has no minimum net-worth requirement. “A long time ago my husband and I went to a financial advisor thinking this person would show us how to manage. But because we had no assets, we weren’t a worthwhile client. We were mortified. I decided that anyone with any amount of assets should be able to come and get services.”

Her dream is to open a financial diagnostic clinic where lower and middle-income families can get an overview of their situation. “Most people don’t understand what their real problem is,” she says. “I focus on problems and raise issues that people never see, such as what kinds of insurances to buy. Low and middle income people don’t have a clue about whether they have too much or not enough.”

What she offers, she says, is empowerment. “Nothing is more satisfying to me than if I helped make your life smoother, more comfortable.” If someone is unhappy in a job, she points out potential lifestyle changes and investment strategies so that person can have a more satisfying life. Her clients are professionals, often, couples, and at first she was surprised to find men coming to her for advice. Then she realized that men grew up taking counsel from their mothers, and that it may be less threatening for a man to take advice from a woman.

Clients pay $300 an hour for her services and the initial “life plan” takes from 20 to 25 hours. “Our services include analyses, evaluating insurances, making projections on how the money will last compared to inflation, and helping with decisions on buying a home, or taking a pension,” says Szymanski. Most clients get an annual update, though some review portfolios quarterly. After the investment plan gets approved, her firm makes the purchases through a discount broker.

Szymanski passes along certain principals to her clients. Her investment philosophy is long term — buy and hold, regardless of the market. “We are not doing market timing; we do not think we have the arrogance to know that we can guess when the market is up or down. Our clients are diversified with all-weather portfolios and investments that balance each other.”

How are they doing in this bear market? “They are coming in feeling relieved that though the market is down 10 or 20 percent, their portfolios are not,” she says. “They have learned the difference between losing money and fluctuation.” For those “going it alone” without a professional planner at their side, she recommends joining the American Association of Individual Investors (www.aaii.com). For $50 you get lots of help, including free tools, online courses, and monthly analyses. Other tips:

Establish your own investment philosophy and risk level. “High returns usually equal high risk,” she says. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Diversify your portfolio. To really understand this oft-repeated adage, know that there are really only two kinds of investments — equity and fixed income. Equity investments give you ownership. They include stocks and some mutual funds. Over the long term, in return for taking on some risk, you will see their value — and your profits — grow.

With fixed income investments, such as bonds or CDs, you are lending money and being promised a fixed rate of interest. Bonds often do well when stocks are down, but they don’t keep up with inflation. “In general, the shorter the time period that your money is lent out, and the better the credit quality, the lower your interest income.”

Purchase mutual funds, not stocks. Let the pros, the fund managers, choose the stocks, Szymanski urges. Choose funds that are already diversified, that have been around for five years or more, where the fund manager has a good track record.

Use a discount broker. Full-service brokers must make money on products they sell to you, whereas discount brokers charge only minimal transaction fees. The full-service brokers might indeed offer advice but Szymanski questions advice given when the advisor does not have a complete picture of the client’s situation.

Diversify according to the type of company (for equities) and time period (for bonds). Put the most money into large companies (large cap mutual funds) and also choose some funds that focus on medium, small, or international companies. For bonds, choose different maturity dates and quality levels.

Find out how the salesperson is paid. They can glean some big fees, up front, from some products, such as annuities, limited partnerships, and certain insurance policies. “It is appropriate to make money on a product, but if you know how much, in advance, you can decide whether it is worth it,” says Szymanski.

Cut your losses. If an investment has dropped precipitously, how do you know when to sell? “Look at the indexes,” she says. “If your portfolio is moving with the appropriate indexes, then that is your indicator. There is no way anyone can protect against the market itself.” The worst mistake? “To sell quality investments when they are down.”

Be a skeptic. “When I was working for Gordon Gund many years ago, I was impressed by everybody I was dealing with,” she says. “He taught me that the way you get to know somebody is to ask the questions. If they cannot explain, they don’t know what they are talking about, so when sales people are trying to sell you a product, ask questions about how the product is relevant to you. The financial world is designed to intimidate, not to encourage questions.”

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