The dynamic woman behind this Crystal Lake financial planning business has spent more than three decades building relationships – an important component to quality customer service.
In the early 1980s, Paula Dorion-Gray was at a crossroads in her life. The Canada native was divorced with three young children and living in New Jersey. With no college degree, she took the first job she could find: receptionist in a New Jersey financial planning office.
Dorion-Gray credits her first boss and mentor, Charles Lefkowitz, in helping get her on a path to success. Without much preamble, Lefkowitz instructed Dorion-Gray to present a series of seminars on IRAs at Rutgers University. “He saw something I didn’t see in myself,” she says. “I was fortunate he believed in me.” Dorion-Gray soon became a Certified Financial Planner and was on her way.
In 1984, she moved her family to the Chicago area, where another financial planner, Joan Bauer, hired her in Crystal Lake. Two years later, she moved onto jobs with accounting firms, banks and insurance agencies in downtown Chicago. Although she realized those industries weren’t for her, the experience proved invaluable.
“My goal was to learn as much as I could,” Dorion-Gray says. “I got a flavor of many different components of business, which helped me later on.” She returned to work for Bauer and eventually acquired the business.
Today, Dorion-Gray is the CEO of Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning, 2602 Illinois Route 176, in Crystal Lake. The firm focuses on all facets of financial planning, including estate planning, tax planning, life insurance, long-term care, portfolio design, Social Security strategies and retirement planning. The latter, however, is the firm’s specialty.
“Most of our clients are in retirement or near retirement,” says Dorion-Gray. “We spend a lot of time talking with our clients, because at the end of the day, they are hiring us to guide them through retirement.”
Dorion-Gray serves as a sounding board, guiding clients through the pros and cons of every financial decision they make. “It’s a matter of matching a client’s needs with risk tolerance,” she says. “We use different models and services to help our clients achieve their goals. Every client has a different portfolio breakdown.”
“We find out about them both personally and financially,” Dorion-Gray says. “We ask questions such as, ‘What kind of legacy do they want to leave their children? What does their retirement picture look like?’ We spend a lot of time talking about the best ways to take their distribution from Social Security.”
In addition, they utilize an approach called ‘Next Phase Retirement Income Strategy,’ which provides a sound foundation for creating that vital stream of income during retirement.
When potential clients walk into Dorion-Gray’s office, the team walks them through an eight-step process. During initial meetings with prospective clients, Dorion-Gray looks at everything including insurance, taxes, investments and the cost of Medicare.
“Many times, clients either haven’t thought of or had the time for these discussions,” she says. “We can focus on what the future looks like. We lay out the entire income strategy, from the time they retire to the time they’re 95 or 100. We take the emotion off the table.”
Another area in which Dorion-Gray has excelled is helping female clients. During several presentations, Dorion-Gray discovered many women were uninformed when it came to understanding their finances.
“What has always amazed me is how many times women would not ask any questions during our presentations,” she says. “There is a perception that men know more about the financial matters and money management than women do. They don’t feel comfortable. You don’t have to read the Wall Street Journal or follow the market to handle your financial matters. The reality is women tend to live longer than men and the vast majority of women end up managing their own financial assets at some point in their life, due to a spouse dying or divorce. Many times, women whose husbands have passed away have never spent any time understanding the full scope of their financial life.”
Dorion-Gray still remembers one client whose husband died from cancer. While he helped transition all financial matters over to his wife in his last few months, she was inundated with the amount of information she was provided.
“They were in good shape financially, but she was completely overwhelmed,” says Dorion-Gray. “She never looked at the big picture. It was a very scary time for her until we walked her through the process.”
To better educate female clients, Dorion-Gray and her team have developed an educational series. The firm hosts bimonthly, hourlong informal sessions at a local coffee shop, where clients are encouraged to bring their daughters and friends and learn about finances in a low-key environment.
Regardless of gender, Dorion-Gray has a few tips for people looking for a financial planner. For starters, she encourages conversation with friends, neighbors and co-workers to find out who they work with. Once you narrow the list, do some research on how long they’ve been in the business. “Do your homework.” she says. “When you meet with potential advisors, ask plenty of questions.”
And make sure the advisor is proactive in your financial matters. “Are you going to meet with him or her once a year or every five years?” she says. “One of the biggest reasons we see people leave their advisor is because they don’t have much contact with them. They’re not as proactive as they’d like them to be. This is a very personalized business.”
Developing solid relationships with clients is vital in the financial planning world. Dorion-Gray often spends a majority of her client meetings catching up on family, work and travel matters. “Relationships are the most vital part of our business,” she says. “At the end of the day, they have to be comfortable with us and trust us.”
The Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning team is truly a family. Dorion-Gray’s husband, Bob Gray, now semi-retired, handles marketing duties. One of her sons, James Davids, is president and chief investment officer, while his brother, Mark Davids, is an advisor. Dorion-Gray says her succession plan includes her sons as well as other shareholders within the company.
Dorion-Gray and her team also are deeply involved in the McHenry County community. Dorion-Gray serves on the Pioneer Center Foundation board and Executive Committee for Education to Empowerment, a program affiliated with McHenry County College that raises funds for scholarships for women.
Dorion-Gray is a newly elected Prairie Grove trustee, which is a four-year position. She is also past president of the Rotary Club of Crystal Lake, former chairperson for the Planned Giving Committee of the Centegra Foundation, and a past board president of the Raue Center for the Arts. “The community has been great to us and to sustain that level of success, it’s important to give back,” she says.
In 2006, Dorion-Gray wrote a book, “Ready, Set, Retire!” a collection of stories from current and past clients about the financial process, their concerns and fears of retirement.
Good things continue to happen for Dorion-Gray and her business. In early 2016, the firm plans to open a second location in Vernon Hills. Even after 34 years in the business, Dorion-Gray never shies away from opportunities to learn and grow.
“There’s no direct line of success and it never happens overnight,” she says. “It’s a long road of persistence and tenacity.”
“I look back on my career and I wouldn’t have changed much,” she adds. “I am who I am because of all the decisions I’ve made, good or bad. If you never fail, you never really learn. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s also been a lot of fun.”