The past several decades have brought monumental societal and workplace changes for the LGBTQ community. Over the course of his 32-year career at Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), Partner Jeff Schoenfeld, an LGBTQ leader in the firm, has witnessed first-hand the remarkable change in the LGBTQ landscape around the world, and at BBH specifically. Now, as both an owner and a client of the firm, Jeff helps lead BBH’s effort to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace environment, one that strives to ensure that members of the LGBTQ community have the same access as he does to culturally competent professionals and the wealth planning services they deliver. We recently sat down with Jeff to discuss his experiences at BBH, why seeking out LGBTQ-knowledgeable investment advisors and wealth planners may be useful for LGBTQ individuals, and some of the financial and wealth planning obstacles that remain for LGBTQ individuals.
Brown Brothers Harriman: Let’s start out by having you tell us a little about your professional background. How long have you been at BBH, and what is your role here?
Jeff Schoenfeld: I joined BBH in 1984 after receiving my MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I chose the firm precisely because it offered me a direct investment role on the Fixed Income Management team where I could learn the world of bond management. I have since been on an amazing professional journey spanning 32 years – all at BBH. I have never stopped learning; I have never stopped growing; I have never stopped being challenged; and I have never stopped feeling enormous gratitude, both for the opportunities that have been afforded to me and for the talented professionals with whom I am privileged to work every day.
My entire career has been focused on BBH’s Institutional Asset Management business and its clients. Over my career, I have had numerous investment roles, and today I oversee our client activities on a global basis, which takes me all over the world. I am constantly engaging with clients from very diverse geographies, and am fortunate to be able to see the world from many different cultural, economic and financial market perspectives.
BBH: What have been your most memorable professional experiences as a Partner of BBH?
JS: Throughout my BBH career, I have helped build the investment strategies and results that have allowed our clients to achieve their investment goals. It has been quite rewarding to see the efforts of so many talented professionals come together to deliver impressive investment results under a broad range of challenging market environments, and to help BBH become the premier investment firm it is today. Some of the most memorable experiences quite naturally stem from crisis situations – like the 1987 stock market crash, 9/11, and the 2008-2009 financial crisis – which bring out the best in human beings, the best in leadership, and which required extraordinary skill to successfully navigate.
BBH: Tell us about how changes in the workplace have affected the way you work and approach your role at BBH.
JS: There is a lot to say about this question. When I joined BBH in 1984, I was out to my family and friends, but I could not be out in the workplace – not at BBH, and not anywhere else in the financial services world. My personal life remained completely separate from my professional life, and I came to work each day not as a whole person. Fortunately, the nearly four decades of my professional life have corresponded with sweeping changes in American society, in the workplace at BBH, and most everywhere else. Today I come to work as a whole person who is most comfortable self-identifying as a gay professional and Partner at BBH. Given my tenure and position in the firm, I also know that I have an important role to play in encouraging other LGBTQ professionals to bring their whole selves to work in order to excel in their careers and rise up in the organization. In all geographies around the world and at all levels in our firm, I am proud of BBH’s leadership in promoting diversity and inclusion so that all professionals can contribute at their maximum potential, no matter their race, birth-related circumstances, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
BBH: LGBTQ individuals often seek out other LGBTQ or LGBTQ-knowledgeable service providers, such as doctors and lawyers. Do you think it is worthwhile for LGBTQ individuals to similarly seek out LGBTQ or LGBTQ-knowledgeable investment advisors and wealth planners?
JS: Let me answer this question by sharing a personal story. Outside of my BBH life, I am deeply involved in philanthropic work. Part of this focus is to make sure that Holocaust survivors live out their final years in comfort, safety and with dignity. Survivors quite often seek out senior centers that are organized just for survivors. When asked why they look for such a specific social environment, they will often say: “Because I don’t have to explain myself.” I feel the same way about the wealth planning professionals I seek to work with – I don’t want to have to explain myself. And while my doctor or my lawyer knows parts of my life intimately, my wealth planner knows it all – my income, my wealth, my investment preferences, my spending, my relationships and the intricacies of my estate plan. I want to be able to feel 100% comfortable with all of my service providers so that I am maximizing all aspects of my life. It is great to be able to do that today, but I will tell you candidly that this was not always the case. At BBH, we have a broad set of LGBTQ-knowledgeable estate planning and investment experience – so I don’t have to explain myself.
BBH: What qualities or characteristics should LGBTQ individuals look for in their investment advisor and wealth planner?
JS: Successful investing is really difficult; it is resource-intensive, and it requires highly skilled, exceptional professionals. Individuals should identify investment advisors who are 100% focused on excellence in investing with few distractions – and that is surely not defined by the sexual orientation of the decision-maker.
The operating model at BBH is to deliver the very best of our investment thinking consistently across our client base. Asset allocation can be customized based on individual circumstances, but investments are not customized at a security level. If we believe deeply in the merits of a particular investment for Mrs. Smith, then we believe it should also be owned by Mr. Jones and every other client. There are a limited number of great investments at any one time, and they should be owned consistently across our client base. Thus, the standards and goals for great investing should be identical for LGBTQ clients and others. It is only the implementation that may differ based on each client’s return requirements and life stage.
I have a different view regarding the role of the professional advising LGBTQ clients with their estate and family succession planning – what at BBH we call a Wealth Planner. During my career, I have had the privilege of working with families of significant wealth who, through early and thoughtful planning, have successfully minimized taxes as they pass along their wealth to the next generation. It has made me an ambassador for the critical importance of wealth planning for any individual with total wealth above estate tax exemptions. Personally, I want my wealth planner to deeply understand the complexity of issues surrounding my life situation, which are similar to the vast majority of other LGBTQ adults, but can be quite different from the issues faced by opposite-sex married couples. I am an unmarried individual with a partner, a portfolio of financial and real estate assets, a range of family members whom I support, and extensive philanthropic commitments. Naturally, I need my wealth planner to have great fluency with estate planning techniques, gift tax issues and other strategies that are unique to my life situation. As I mentioned, I don’t want to have to explain myself, and I want to work with professionals who can advise me from a position of familiarity and deep experience. I believe that LGBTQ individuals should look for wealth planners who meet these requirements.
BBH: What obstacles are still present for LGBTQ individuals in terms of their financial planning?
JS: Let me share a specific situation that is happening to a friend right now who recently became a new client of BBH to benefit both from our investment work and our wealth planning expertise. He lived with his former partner for nearly two decades, and they are no longer together. They were unmarried in a world where marriage was not a possibility, and my friend fully supported his former partner during their relationship. If they were a married couple who divorced, they would be dealing with a conventional legal process and distribution of assets, overseen by a court. In the case of my unmarried friend, he may have to pay significant gift taxes to the IRS if it is determined that his financial support for his partner during their relationship was the equivalent of a gift, subject to 40% tax. This is a real situation – today – for same-sex couples who lived as a married couple, but were unable to marry due to the laws of the time, and one that simply would not be applicable for married opposite-sex couples. Fortunately, because of our experience in dealing with issues such as this, the BBH wealth planning team is successfully working with the client’s attorney to come up with a solution.
There are plenty of other real world, unique LGBTQ planning issues involving children, via adoption or surrogacy, where the child can only legally have one parent. The financial and estate planning issues can be far more complex for LGBTQ clients, whether married or not, and particularly if they do not have children as the logical heirs of their estate. Therefore, I think it is important to work with professionals who bring great expertise with these issues. I am glad that this expertise resides at BBH.
BBH: Jeff, thank you for your time and insights.