By Fouad Egbaria – September 9, 2014
Glencoe resident Mike Walther knew he wanted to give back to the community — one day, his wife asked him a simple question, and he knew exactly what to do.
Walther — who grew up in St. Louis — and his family have been living in Glencoe for 19 years. He has a background in financial planning, with a bachelor’s degree in economics, an MBA from Vanderbilt University and a CPA from the University of Illinois.
Eventually, in December 2008, he founded Oak Wealth Advisors, a Deerfield-based financial planning company geared toward families with special needs members. How did Walther decide to use his financial expertise in this way?
“Growing up in St. Louis, I had a younger brother who was two years younger, who had multiple disabilities,” Walther said. “They were never really formally diagnosed. My family was always working with school districts and different agencies in St. Louis to find resources for him and to help him develop to have the most full life he could have.”
Walther’s brother was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in his 30s. That experience proved to be an informative and eye-opening time for Walther.
“I’ve had a whole lifetime of watching a family struggle with and find successes and challenges with the process of navigating the special needs system, finding resources and helping my brother have just as wonderful of a life as I have,” he said.
After moving to Glencoe, Walther said he searched for a way to “pay that forward.” Eventually, he joined the board for the North Shore Special Recreation Foundation, which serves families with special needs from Lake Bluff down to Wilmette. During that time, he became treasurer and president of the board, and later also joined the board for the National Association for Down Syndrome, where he met Randi Gillespie, a Northbrook resident who is now director of special needs services at Oak Wealth Advisors.
Following his experience serving on various boards, he decided to combine his education and professional experience with his volunteer experience. He’s done speaking engagements at the University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin, telling students about the unique nature of special needs financial planning.
“A traditional financial plan needs to be adjusted and modified when you learn that the family has a special needs individual,” he said. “My hope is that in the future there will be more people like me who have the expertise and the ability to focus on those unique challenges.”
Walther said his wife asked him the question everyone asks themselves, the litmus test for determining one’s passions in life: What would you do if you retired?
“That was kind of the watershed question,” Walther said. “It got me to think about what would I do if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, and I said, well, I want to use my expertise in financial planning, but I want to focus on helping families with special needs members. And [my wife] said ‘Well, why don’t you go do that?’”
Walther thought about it, listening to input from those saying that this sort of financial planning was a niche field, isn’t “nearly as profitable” as others of its kind and would be too “emotionally draining.” In reality, Walther said, it has been quite the opposite.
Walther said Oak Wealth Advisors differentiates itself from other financial planning institutions in that other organizations are predicated on “financial sales,” such as insurance.
“I feel that’s adverse to what the family needs,” he said. “Which is to minimize the family’s cost, to get objective advice and have a trust in a financial resource they can go to for financial information and recommendations as they move through life.”
Clients pay according to their wealth, or by a fixed fee designated at the beginning of the year. With that payment, they have unlimited access to the company’s financial planning assistance. Like Walther, Gillespie, of Northbrook, draws from personal experience — she has a 9-year-old daughter, Maddy, with Down syndrome.
“I’ve been there,” Gillespie said. “I know exactly what [families with special needs members] are going through. It’s very emotional for parents and siblings and extended family to talk about this subject of special needs and financial planning. … Nobody wants to talk about money, but you have to.”
Gillespie said it’s all about taking “baby steps” to get clients to where they want to go. Thus far, Walther said they’ve worked with clients in about 30 states; he hopes the special needs financial planning sector of the market grows, opening up a network of entities with which they can work in the future. While he says Oak Wealth Advisors provides “unique” services, he wants to see this niche grow nationwide. Regardless of what happens, Walther says he doesn’t question his decision to enter the field he finds so rewarding. He cited one family from the western suburbs as an example of how rewarding his work can be.
The family has a son with special needs, plus two other daughters, and they struggled with managing the challenges that came with it. They’ve worked with the family for the last two years, and have helped the family achieve one of their goals: scheduling a trip to Disney World. Families with special needs members have to contact Disney ahead of time to arrange accomodations at the park. As such, they helped the family communicate with Disney to make the necessary arrangements. And, this fall, the family will be able to say those famous words: “We’re going to Disney World!”
“While it’s outside the bounds of what people normally think of a financial planning service, that’s a life goal for them,” Walther said. “We’re going to help them achieve it, from a financial standpoint, and also finding the time in their lives to do it and the confidence to do that.”