Sharon Cunningham, senior portfolio management director and senior vice president, The Cunningham Group, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, discusses her 24 years in the securities business.

Growing up in Port Chester, N.Y., my family life revolved around the restaurant business that my grandfather started when he immigrated from Italy. I began working there at an early age, waitressing and serving customers—so you might say that serving clients is what I've always done.

At the restaurant, my family would often talk about finances, and I always wanted to take part. When I was 16, my stepfather died suddenly, and his death made a huge impression on me as to the need to plan for financial security. These experiences helped shape my decision to focus on personalized financial planning and wealth management instead of some other area of the financial industry.

At college, I studied business administration with a concentration in finance and marketing, and my first job out of school was as a financial planner with Investors Diversified Services—then a subsidiary of American Express. In the early '90s I moved to its sister company, Shearson Lehman, to broaden my understanding of financial markets. Many mergers later, Shearson became part of Morgan Stanley, so you could say I've spent my entire 24-year career at this one company.

When I entered the business, there were far fewer women advisors, and I was struck by how often women were overlooked as potential clients and were left out of financial discussions. So, I made the decision to be more inclusive from the start; I wanted to ensure that women were part of the conversation and that their financial goals were addressed.

As I built my practice, like everyone else at the time, I relied on the telephone. But I soon began conducting professional seminars and hosting financial workshops for women. This was before the industry began marketing to women, so I perceived a real need. I found it was more important to talk with women about their goals and objectives than to focus on specifics like whether they should be in stocks versus bonds.

Through the years, I've learned that in the long run, if you are truly mindful of serving the interests of your client, the relationship will be mutually rewarding and more impactful than simply trying to achieve extraordinary market returns.

There are a great many advisors who dedicate themselves to the needs of their clients, and who shoulder the responsibility to look out for their clients' well-being and security. So, when I see a news headline about an industry scandal, or a film like The Wolf of Wall Street, I cringe. I meet many outstanding advisors who put their clients' interests first. They should produce a film where advisors help clients secure their retirement and save to send their grandchildren to college. That's a movie I know many advisors would welcome!

As Told to Elliot Kass

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