Marilyn Holt-Smith
Financial analyst Marilyn Holt-Smith has carved out a successful career in a field still dominated by white men in dark suits. MICHELLE STOCKER - The Capital Times

Financial analyst Marilyn Holt-Smith has carved out a successful career in a field still dominated by white men in dark suits.

She was born in La Crosse and raised in Milwaukee in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Her dad was an accountant, her mother an artist. She has three older brothers.

After graduating from Washington High School, Holt-Smith earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from UW-Milwaukee. She then relocated to Madison in the late 1970s to take a job with Madison Investment Advisors.

Working with local money management groundbreaker Frank Burgess, Holt-Smith quickly found she had a knack for the business. In 1985, she earned the designation of chartered financial analyst, the professional standard for money managers.

By 1987, Holt-Smith was ready to strike out on her own, founding with Kristin Renk one of the first women-owned financial advising firms in the nation.

As a stock picker, Holt-Smith has gone toe-to-toe with the Wall Street big boys. Her firm’s mid-cap growth strategy — which averaged an 8.5 percent annual return over the past 10 years — was recently named a “Top Gun of the Decade” by Informa Investment Solutions PSN, an independent national database. Holt-Smith has also been an advocate for other women-owned businesses, serving as an early chapter president of the Wisconsin Women Entrepreneurs.

Today, Holt-Smith Advisors Inc. counts some 120 clients, with $340 million in assets under management. Clientele includes individuals, institutions, pension plans, endowments and foundations.

Holt-Smith and her husband, Brad Smith, a dentist, live in Sun Prairie. They have two adult children.

Cap Times: So how does a girl from Milwaukee’s north side end up in the dog-eat-dog investment world?

Marilyn Holt-Smith: I was always a pretty good student and got interested in business because I liked economics, the macro end of things. But I figured I’d have a better chance of getting a job with an MBA. Frank (Burgess) really gave me a break when he hired me right out of college. For a long time it was just Frank and me. I mean really, it was a great hands-on opportunity. After a couple of years on my own, more national firms were looking to do more business with minority and women-owned firms. So that is really how we got our start nationally.

CT: How difficult was it, being one of the first woman working in the money managing business?

MH-S: I remember early on being interviewed by a potential client, a wealthy older couple, and after we had been talking for a while, the women suddenly slammed her fist down on the table and said ‘I only have one question for you: Who is watching your children?’ It caught me completely off guard and I said ‘Why, their father.’ Well, it was so bizarre and she didn’t hire us but later her husband came back with a little bit of money he had on the side and I invested it for him without her knowing. Things have changed a lot and I don’t get too much of that lately, although I did have one potential client proposition me.

CT: How do you get paid?

MH-S: The minimum to invest with us is $250,000 and we charge a fee, basically 1 percent based on the assets we are managing. But the difference between what we do as financial advisers and brokers is that most brokers are employees of major wirehouse firms, where the broker is selling products to potential investors and earns a commission on that product. Investment advisers and money managers like us don’t get paid to sell anything. We represent the client and develop a strategy for them and charge a fee. Not only are we a fiduciary for the client but how we get paid is in line with how well the client does. If the client makes more money, we get more in fees. If the market goes down, we make less.

CT: The U.S. stock market has barely broken even over the past 10 years. Have people had to readjust their expectations about returns going forward?

MH-S: I do think things got really out of whack in the late 1990s. But if you think about all the things we went through from 2000 to 2010 — I mean we had the tech bubble burst, we had 9/11, then Katrina and a smaller recession in there and then we had the financial crisis and the biggest recession ever. It feels pretty good to come out of all that at the top of the heap.

CT: Your firm was recognized for its mid-cap growth strategy. What is it about mid-cap stocks (companies with a market value of $2 billion to $10 billion) that you like?

MH-S: The interesting thing about mid-caps is that people tend to think if they have large-cap and small-cap then they have the market. But there is a lot more out there. If you look at the Russell 3000 index, the top 200 are large caps but the next 800 are all mid-caps and they have outperformed (the broader markets) quite a bit over the past 20 years. If you look at the big guys, from a growth point of view, there isn’t a lot of room to grow there. Mid-caps are a little more volatile but much less volatile than small-caps. They are big enough to have a solid business model yet small enough they can still be a takeover candidate. There are just so many more things they can do with their size.

CT: How might you get more women into the money managing business?

MH-S: I am on the advisory board for the investment management program at UW-Milwaukee, which is modeled on the successful program here at UW-Madison. But there are just not that many women applying. To be honest, it’s a grind. To really do this professionally you really need to have a CFA and those are tough to get. If I had to do it over, I would have skipped the MBA and gone right for the CFA.