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Executive Profile: Barbara Finley, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

photo by Eric Tadsen

Barb Finley, 50, laughs when she thinks back on her life and how early decisions made years ago helped develop her into the person she is today. As the "Rent-A-Youth" program coordinator at the age of 16, for example, she learned one of the most important lessons of her life: how to deal with people.

"Rent a Youth" was a government program back then, and Finley spent 40 hours a week during her summer break connecting teens available to do chores — such as lawn or pet care, or babysitting — with people requesting the services. At times, things didn't go smoothly and Finley would have to deal with kids who didn't fulfill their obligations, resulting in some unhappy clients. It was, she recalled, an incredible learning opportunity, though she didn't realize it at the time.

At the same time, the entrepreneurial Finley, who also played clarinet in the Madison West High School band, posted flyers around her neighborhood advertising clarinet lessons, and started her first small business when she landed two middle-school-aged clients.

Competitive by nature, the Madison native developed an interest in softball as a teenager, and after high school attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where she played on the softball team for a year before deciding to transfer back to UW-Madison. She graduated with a BBA, then followed that up with an MBA from the University of Minnesota. In 1985, she returned to Madison and was hired by Kemper Insurance as an Institutional Arbitrage/Convertible Bond Analyst. A what?

"For lack of anything else," Finley explained, "it was probably one of the first hedge funds. We bought convertible bonds and hedged them using options or shorting stock. It was very math-oriented and gave me a great background on bond analysis."

In 1993, a group of Kemper employees left to open a Dean Witter office in Madison, which eventually became Morgan Stanley Dean Witter before it became Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. For someone so interested in math and meeting people, Finley admits she couldn't have chosen a better career path.

Her work as senior vice president and wealth manager at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney has earned Finley a prestigious spot on the 2010 Barron's Top 1,000 Advisor's list, something she credits largely to the example set by her father, John Steffen, a financial advisor for many years at Blunt, Ellis, and Loewi. "He has been a tremendous influence and mentor," Finley said. Her mother, a stay-at-home mother, was equally influential, she said, always encouraging her daughter's career choices.

Patrick Finley, her husband, is also Finley's business partner.

In the community, Finley serves as a financial advisory board member for Attic Angels, has a post on the St. Thomas Aquinas Finance Council, and is involved in the UW Women in Business Mentoring Board. She also enjoys skiing, golfing, reading, and working out. A Badger fan through and through, her enthusiasm for team sports has never waned.

But in a less-enthusiastic economic climate, how does a financial advisor reconcile this market to clients nervously trying to cling to their life savings? "For the average investor," she said, "if you've been following a disciplined approach, you have made money in the past 10 years. You're buying in the dips," she said. "There have been other periods in history with flat or poor markets that, quite often, are followed by strong markets. So you have to stay disciplined."

Luckily, Finley believes the dust has settled somewhat. "We were all scared and emotional 18 months ago. I do think people are more rational and less emotional now, but there still is a lot of concern."

Her best advice? "It's best to be unemotional. Be emotional about family or politics, but not about investments," she advised. "Stay focused."

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