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How a Merrill Lynch internship boosted this $4.3M advisor's career

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This profile appeared earlier this year as part of On Wall Street's Top 40 Under 40. All details are as of Sept. 31, 2017. To see who else made the top 10, please click here.

As a double major in history and philosophy at the University of Michigan, Nicole Christians figured she'd follow in her dad's footsteps and become a lawyer. Or, maybe, pursue her love of playing the cello at music school.

But then, "almost by happenstance," she landed a summer internship at Merrill Lynch that set her on a very different career path. There she met John Kulhavi, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot who became an enduring mentor to Christians, immersing her in all sides of the business.

"I've worn so many hats here — went from grabbing sandwiches at golf outings, to anything and everything that could be done here, I've done," says Christians, who ranked No. 7 on On Wall Street's Top 40 Under 40 with $4.33 million in production.

Now, more than a decade-and-a-half later, Christians and her partner Aaron Romain, together own 84% of the practice (Kulhavi retired last year). The firm, based in Farmington Hills, Michigan, serves about 700 households, each with assets typically in the range of $1 million to $10 million.

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Christians takes pride in the size of her team — 20 strong, representing a diverse array of expertise.

With such a large group in place, Christians says her team is geared toward a high degree of specialization, so one associate might concentrate on lending, while others are focused on other aspects of financial planning.

"We really don't have a lot of overlap in terms of what we do best. We've built the team around people's strengths," Christians says. "The market environment is so vast in terms of products, we came to the conclusion that we should just really be laser-focused on what interests us and what we do best."

The practice is so specialized that it even divides up different generations within client families. "I may handle mom and dad," Christians says, and another advisor might work with their adult children.

In a field where advisors frequently jump ship from one firm to another, Christians says that her clients appreciate continuity of the Kulhavi team (one associate has been with the team more than 30 years).

Christians is also painfully aware of the infrequent appearance of women on lists such as these, and often steps out from her practice to promote women's involvement in wealth management.

"I think there's a general lack of awareness," she says. "It's something that I'm pretty passionate about. I feel like the industry could really benefit [from greater gender balance]."

So any regrets about choosing financial services over music school? Christians would say “no.”

"It's the best of both worlds," she says, "because I still get to play, and I really like my day job."

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