Long-time readers may recall Denise White who, 10 years ago at the age of 39, was featured as the year’s No. 1 bank-based financial advisor.
A lot has changed since then. Today, White is the controller of a small bio-tech firm, Ocular Systems, in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she is being groomed to become CFO. It’s a job she says she loves so much that “I practically skip in here each morning.”
And therein lies a tale of grit and triumph over adversity, not to mention a tribute to the skills gained from 28 years spent working as a financial planner.
White begins her story in late 2008, when she still worked at Allegacy Credit Union (as she did in our list 10 years ago.) Like many financial institutions around the country at the time, it ran into trouble with mortgage securities it had been involved in. White says Allegacy, one of the nation’s largest credit unions, had to trim costs, and she was let go.
“They looked at their payroll, and I was earning more than anyone at Allegacy, including the CEO,” she says. “So the choice was clear.”
As part of her severance deal, she adds that she had to agree to a two-year, no-compete clause, which covered a 250-mile area around Winston-Salem. Since she was a single mom with two boys in high school, and she didn’t want to move them. So the clause essentially meant she couldn’t work as an advisor any longer, she says now.
Forced to find a new way to earn a living, she did what a lot of people do in that situation: she opened her own business. She had reconnected with a high-school friend living in New Jersey who had always wanted to open a gelato shop, and the two teamed up to do just that in nearby Greensboro.
“At the time, in 2009, people warned me, ‘You can’t borrow money these days!’ But you know, I find you can always do what other people say you can’t do.”
The forged ahead, financial crisis or no financial crisis, and succeeded in convincing local High Point Bank to loan them their start-up capital for the shop. They also arranged with a local mall owner anxious to fill empty storefronts to give them six months’ free rent on a space for their shop, which they called Gnami-Gnami.
With the help of some good reviews written in local papers by local author/celebrity Orson Scott Card, the shop did well—so well, in fact, that they were able to operate through the winter months.
White attributes their success at obtaining a loan and a favorable lease to her prior advising experience. “I was already familiar with banks,” she explains. “You know, people can say a lot of bad things about bankers, but bankers will tell you what you need to have in order for them to lend, and I did all those things that we needed to do. They were sort of my people. I had also done my share of advising small business people as a financial planner, which helped us, too.”
Still, as successful as it was, the new gelato business was not enough for White, who says she lost 20 pounds on a start-up entrepreneur’s diet, and also had to downsize to a small house for herself and her two sons.
"It’s a good thing I had been a financial planner,” she says. “With our income limited, I at least knew how to make a budget and to live and work within my means.”
Eventually, after two years running Gnami-Gnami, White, wanting a higher income, says she sold her share of the business to her partner and began looking for another job opportunity. “I needed more income and I needed benefits,” she explains.
Returning to her old skill set, she hired on at Stearns Financial in Greensboro. She was happy there as an RIA, doing a lot of family advising, she says, but then she was approached by two former Allegacy clients, Jerry Barker and Ted Rehmeyer, two entrepreneurs who had founded medical firm Ocular Systems in 2004. It processes corneas for use in implants and makes other products to help surgeons improve people’s vision. It also had grown to $7 million in sales, and they were looking for someone to groom as a new CFO.
Barker, a scientist by training, is CEO of the firm and Rehmeyer, a Wharton MBA grad, is CFO. But Rehmeyer, approaching 80, was ready to slow down and was wanted to retire in Florida. “They wanted someone they could trust, and they said to me, ‘As an advisor you were good with our personal assets, and even wrote checks for us, so we know we can trust you with our company’s money,’” recalls White.
So in March of 2012 a deal was struck. Barker and Rehmeyer created the position of controller for her, and included a clause in her contract saying that she was being trained for the CFO position at Ocular. White says the new work was challenging. “For a while, I went around feeling like my hair was on fire,” she admits. “In fact it’s still smoking! I only started to feel comfortable about this work in the past few months. Fortunately, I had Ted as a mentor and a list of CPAs and attorneys he gave me, plus a few of my own, to call on for advice...It’s been sort of like being paid to get a hands-on MBA here,” says White, who earned a B.S. from UNC-Greensboro and a CFP from the College of Financial Planning in Colorado.
In fact, she had been thinking initially of going for an MBA at near-by Wake Forest University, but was advised against it by a friend who had been CEO at a biopharmaceutical company.
“He told me, ‘Don’t do it. They’ll just screw you up.” White says this friend told her she was “more the kind of person who just makes things work, and that an MBA program would just try to change the way I think.”
White concedes she doesn’t fully buy that idea, but she does feel that with the experience she’s had as an advisor, and the resources she has, including the smart people she works with, she can handle her new responsibilities.
She’s already helped to handle a spin-off from Ocular Systems of a sister company—a process she says required her to learn a whole new skill set.
Then last April, Ocular Systems was acquired by Seattle-based SightLife, a not-for-profit global health organization focused on eliminating corneal blindness around the world.
SightLife, White notes, was interested in Ocular for both its expertise, and because the little company generates about $100,000 in surplus funds every month that can be used to support SightLife’s international programs.
“So now I’ve had to learn how to work in the not-for-profit world,” says White. She adds: “We’re audited regularly too now, so that’s also new.”
White says she’s still not making as much as what she made as a financial advisor. But she hastens to add, “This is a very satisfying job, the benefits are great, and they’re more than fair. I’m may not be working at a Fortune 100 company, but I get to wear all the hats here, and it’s just so much more fun.”
Dave Lindorff spent five years as a China correspondent for Businessweek, and has written for The Nation and Salon.com.