When Rita Robbins was an operations manager at a Paine Webber branch on Long Island in the 1980s, the firm held staff meetings at a country club that didn’t admit women. No one seemed to care except her.
Fast forward about 40 years, and Robbins, who has been named the InvestmentNews Women to Watch 2023 recipient of the Alexandra Armstrong Award for Lifetime Achievement, has established herself as a pioneer for women in financial advice. She founded Affiliated Advisors in 1994, marking perhaps the first woman-owned super office of supervisory jurisdiction in the broker-dealer sector.
Yet a couple of years ago, when she was serving on the advisory board of a financial firm, she missed a meeting and was designated board secretary in absentia. She was the only woman on the board and was put off by the assignment, which was a role viewed as fit for a woman. She disagreed.
“They thought it was perfectly OK,” Robbins said. “I’m not excluded from meetings, but I’m supposed to be the minute taker. You have to command respect – to say, ‘No, that won’t work for me.’”
It was an example of how women are still trying to navigate a path in a male-dominated sector.
“Microaggressions occur against women in our industry every second of every minute of every day,” Robbins said.
She also points to conference speaker lineups that are almost all men and C-suites that are mostly male. That means there’s still work for Robbins and other women leaders to do.
“We have to help other women and support their growth and getting them in positions of decision-making and power — so you’re not the only woman in a room,” Robbins said.
Women are a natural fit for the financial advice profession because they’re good at listening and explaining and do so with minimal ego, traits many clients seek, she said.
“I’d like to bring that to the forefront — that we understand this is not the Wolf of Wall Street anymore,” Robbins said. “We’re helping families prepare for their futures and educate their children and take care of their parents when they become old and ill. It’s a physiological truth that women are wired to be nurturers.”
Affiliated Advisors — a comprehensive service and support platform working with 100 independent advisors with $3.5 billion in assets under management — is mostly led by women. Robbins is president and two of the three partners are women, as are seven of eight staff members.
Robbins said she selects her team based on skill sets and ability.
“I’m not looking to hire women,” she said. “I’m looking to hire the best person for the job. This was not a deliberate, exclusionary approach. It was just the way it worked out.”
When Robbins, 66, entered the industry in the late 1970s as a brokerage assistant at EF Hutton, she was often one of only a few women on staff. She became interested in the financial industry when a roommate worked at Merrill Lynch.
She was intrigued by working in an air-conditioned office as opposed to outdoors, where she was an accomplished equestrian. Robbins had been riding horses since she was 4 years old but didn’t qualify for the Olympic trials for the 1976 games in Montreal.
Her career in the brokerage industry took her to Paine Webber & Co., where she was introduced to Jay Lewis, who went on to found the first independent broker-dealer. She worked for Lewis before joining Lord Abbett & Co. in 1983 as the first woman wholesaler, breaking new ground for the sales of its funds by finding new customers, such as independent broker-dealers and other advisors.
In her 10 years with Lord Abbett, Robbins learned that she enjoyed being paid based on her results.
“The numbers were the numbers,” she said. “You brought in x amount of assets, and you were paid that way. That idea of being able to control my own compensation and forge my own financial future became a really important foundation for me emotionally.”
She took even more control of her career when she founded Affiliated Advisors in 1994. It gave her a chance to reduce the travel demands that come with wholesaling at the time when her daughter was born. She also was intrigued by the idea of working with advisors to build their businesses.
Affiliated Advisors is a super OSJ for Osaic. Its network of advisors spans the country, and since 2004, it has partnered with the independent broker-dealer Royal Alliance. The firm is headquartered in New York City, where Robbins lives with her husband, Bruce Arnold. Her two adult children also live in New York.
Affiliated Advisors provides practice management, compliance, business strategy and other services for its advisors. “We want to help our advisors build the practice of their dreams,” Robbins said.
She does that every day by knowing what advisors need, even though she was never an advisor herself.
“I might not have played the game, but I’ve probably seen more games with more teams and more players” than many other industry leaders, she said. “I like to think of myself as a coach for the best advisors in the world.”
Robbins is now working to diversify the advisor universe in a new way — educationally. She didn’t attend college, and as she was watching her son’s college graduation ceremony recently, she realized that she might not be able to break into the industry today without a degree.
Robbins plans to lobby the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. to allow CFP certification for people who don’t have a college degree.
“I don’t think just because you didn’t have that opportunity you should be excluded from our industry,” she said.
If she succeeds, Robbins will have once again cut a new path through the financial advice business that will change the way it looks and operates for the better.
Name: Rita Robbins
Title: Founder and president
Company: Affiliated Advisors
Interesting fact: When Robbins established Affiliated Advisors in 1994, she was likely the first woman to form a super office of supervisory jurisdiction. Outside of work, she has a different calling — as the owner of a lavender farm in Boyne City, Michigan. The operation — Lavender Hill Farm — not only grows 30 varieties of lavender, it’s also the retail outlet through which other businesses in town sell their products, such as candles, beer, wine and maple syrup. It also sponsors 50 summer internships. “Most people wouldn’t think of a lavender farm as an economic development engine, but that’s what it is,” Robbins said.