Mind Your Money
An honest conversation with United Capital.
photography by Amie Vanderford
United Capital Financial Advisers, LLC, is a fast grow- ing investment and financial planning firm with 40 offices around the U.S. and more than $14 billion of client assets under administration.
CEO Joe Duran founded the company in 2005. His is an unlikely success story made even more unique by what happened after he achieved the so-called American Dream. Duran was born in the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa. “It was an incredibly tough environment,” Duran says. “The country was in the middle of a civil war and my family was in the midst of a divorce, with a very violent father and a Spanish Mom who did not speak English well.”
A young Duran got a glimpse of the American Dream watching episodes of Dallas. “We watched Dallas every week, and when I was 14, I said to my family, ‘I’m going to be like J.R. Ewing. I’m going to be in America, making big deals happen.’ My Mom said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I was a dreadful student and I had a family with no means of any kind.”
Sure enough, though, Duran left home when he was 18 and traveled around Europe doing odd jobs before starting school in the U.S. He graduated from St. Louis University, met his wife while studying in Spain, and moved back to her home state of California.
In California, Duran started at a small investment firm as an intern and worked hard on his way up to CEO of a company that he helped grow into a multi-billion-dollar business. Duran sold the firm to General Electric when he was 34 years old for a fortune. “It was the ultimate American Dream,” Duran says. “I came with absolutely nothing and at 34 had sold a company for more than $100 million in cash.”
The day he sold to GE was pivotal for Duran and informed everything that came after: He was wealthy beyond imagination and realized how unhappy he was.
He spent some time as president of GE Private Asset Management but realized he’s not someone who can work for others. He had a two-year non-compete agreement, during which time he wrote a book about how to build a successful business, did some lectures around the world, raised some money for charity, and then started United Capital, a firm that would put into practice some of the hard lessons Duran had learned.
One of United Capital’s methods is an exercise called Honest Conversations, which utilizes a series of cards along with an open dialogue with the financial adviser. The client prioritizes a series of color-coded cards based on fears, commitments, and happiness, and couples and families discuss what those priorities mean. Clients learn what type of “Money Mind” they have, i.e., why they make the decisions they do.
MBQ: When you sold your company: that was the moment where you should wake up and you feel like you had accomplished it all. But you woke up and you didn’t feel good. Was part of that you had bought into an ideal that wasn’t true?
Joe Duran: “There’s a fantastic book that describes my dilemma beautifully: Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. The things you assume will give you happiness, you have no knowledge what it will take for you to get them and what your life will be like when you do actually get them, and therefore it is literally impossible to ever get to the place you assume will get you happiness. Because happiness does not come from external factors.
I had assumed I would reach that destination and that would be it, Mai Tais and cocktails on an island. What I realized is that it’s scary to be in this very lush place reaching the pinnacle of what anyone would assume to be the American Dream, and say, ‘I did it, I am J.R. Ewing, yet I still feel like I’m not where I want to be.’ It was a big surprise. I said, ‘I have gotten to where almost every human being would dream of being, including myself, I’ve gotten here 30 years sooner that most could dream of getting there, and yet I’m not happy.”
What was missing?
“I realized something has to have been wrong in the way I did things. I was not spending enough time with my wife and daughters. My balance and the way I got there was wrong. I also had 10 years with clients, many of them the wealthiest people in America, and I had seen the misery they had even though they were as successful as anyone could be. I realized there has to be a different way.”
It’s more about knowing what’s going to make you happy and getting there?
“And not waiting until the destination. Do the things today that will give you joy today.”
How do those lessons inform how United Capital operates?
“We work with many clients who have reached all levels of success, and it’s hard to be on this quest you assume is going to give you a certain sense of accomplishment and peace of mind and find out it’s not true. We deal with clients who have the assumption that they’re working until they get to 58 and then retiring, and they get there and it’s an incredibly anti-climactic experience. They realize maybe the highlights were 10 years ago when they were getting there.
When I started United Capital, the overwhelming desire was to find a way to give back in a more holistic way to the country that had given me every success I’d ever had. People are prone to making bad decisions and not owning the consequences of the decisions, and then blaming other people for their bad situation. The only proven way for people to improve their lives, whether they’re growing up in Zimbabwe to bankrupt parents in a dreadful environment or living in Beverly Hills in the lap of luxury, is to improve the way they make decisions.
I had a reasonably good education but I don’t think I had a grand total of 30 minutes dedicated to the decision-making process. Yet your entire life is framed around the way you make decisions. I’ve always found it interesting the way people repeat the same patterns, don’t adjust them, and yet they think the outcome will be different. The only common ingredient is you, and you have no control over the external factors.
United Capital is going to obsess about the decision-making process and help people clearly define how their biases are affecting their decisions, how to understand, prioritize, and communicate what’s important, and how to make sure decisions are furthering their path on the life they want.
Money is scary, overwhelming, confusing, and doesn’t give the comfort you think it should. And when most people approach it, they don’t give it the seriousness it requires. We don’t want to think about it or talk about it with our spouse because we know it will end in a fight. It’s time we were honest about money. We want to create a fun, safe, and understandable way for you to talk about money.”
Were these things you had been thinking about for a long time and then began to apply them, or did it spring from the GE moment?
“I’ve done a ton of research, met with countless people, and studied Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of philosophy about decision-making. We’ve entrenched ourselves in that decision-making process at United Capital.
When I started this company, we started with a very simple rule: Everybody who works for United Capital cannot be gone from their family for more than two consecutive nights. That was unimaginable in my last firm.
Nobody wants to be gone from their family. We’re not going to work weekends around here. We’re going to have a culture where we care about our health, families, and communities, and we’re going to do good work that we’re all proud of. You’re going to have a balanced life if you’re going to work at this firm.
Was it difficult to build a company and convince people to work for you when you’re doing something different?
“The people we have chosen are the best in their cities. I am hugely confident, but I feel like the less ego I bring to things, the more likely really good people will join. We have a mission that’s really important. The great firms are obsessed about doing what’s best for their clients.