Charles Zhang’s first financial services client was his Western Michigan University economics professor, who thought Zhang was “smart and honest.” Courtesy Charles Zhang
After almost three decades living in the United States and running a wealth management practice, Charles Zhang said his treasure isn’t in the millions he’s made — it’s in the people who trust him.
Zhang, born and raised in Shanghai, came to the U.S. on a graduate assistantship to Western Michigan University in 1989, when he was 22.
His parents, both teachers, were poor. He saw the U.S. as a place of opportunity where he could get “the best graduate school education” anywhere in the world and a shot at a top-tier job.
Having been through the rigorous math education for which China is famous, Zhang earned a perfect score on his entry examination to college in Shanghai. He always liked math and science, he said.
After earning a master’s degree in economics from WMU, where he met his wife, Lynn Chen-Zhang, he deliberated over his next move.
“I had two choices,” he said. “I had good grades and a good GRE score. I had to think, ‘Am I going to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor, or am I going to do the hard work and become a financial planner?’
“I liked the term financial advisor. So, I said, ‘If I like it, I will stick with it. If not, I will go back to school and get my Ph.D.’”
Zhang stuck with it.
He landed a job as a financial planner at American Express Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo in 1991. In 1992, he became a franchisee with the same company, and by 1996, he was ranked the No. 1 financial planner companywide, out of more than 12,000 advisors.
It wasn’t easy starting out in a place where he had no connections, Zhang said. His uncle and grandmother had come to the States in 1945, before the Chinese Revolution of 1949 cut diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China for decades.
But his relatives settled in the Chicago area. Kalamazoo was a different world.
“When I first started at American Express, my Division West president told me I should go to New York or Chicago,” Zhang said. “‘You won’t succeed here in Kalamazoo. You don’t have a big market for you,’ meaning Asian people. I proved him wrong.”
Not having any personal connections in the community meant he had to start small.
“I’m young. I don’t have a wealthy family member here. I have to start with the hardest of clients,” he said. “I started by approaching my economics professor. I started with him, and my professor became my client. He trusted me and thought I was smart and honest.”
Part of his initial difficulty was that most financial advisors do not start their careers fresh out of college, even graduate school.
“(Advisors) are normally in their 30s or 40s, like if you work for a bank for several years,” he said. “You have a network. People think, ‘You’re good with math; I’ll listen to you.’ When you’re 23, 24 years old, who listens to you?”
Putting in 80 to 100 hours a week for years, Zhang eventually had so many clients in his American Express franchise that he could not handle them all.
In 2007, American Express Financial Services split into two separate financial service entities: American Express and Ameriprise. Zhang grew dissatisfied with the product sales mindset that had been adopted, so in 2008, he started his own firm, Portage-based Zhang Financial.
By 2011, his firm switched to a fee-only model, giving up the commission and “kickbacks” companies offer fee-based and commission advisors to tout their products. He said it was a hard adjustment, but it signaled the beginning of a new level of trust between the firm’s advisors and clients.
“We had negative income growth for a period of time when we decided to do fee-only. Who would say they want to cut that? (It was) a painful transition, but we are so glad we did it.
“You need to have long-term vision if you believe that’s the right thing to do.”
The firm now has offices in Portage, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Troy and Naples, Florida.
Eventually, Zhang realized he was constantly working, both in the firm and via earning an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, an M.S. in financial services from The Institute of Business and Finance, and a string of industry designations — certified financial planner, chartered financial consultant and chartered life underwriter.
“We bought our first home, and three years later, we sold it,” he said. “The real estate agent said to us, ‘Has anyone used this?’ We told him we only used the bedroom. We didn’t cook. We were never home.
“It was (work), every weekend and all week long.”
Zhang said he laments those lost years.
“My boys said, ‘You don’t understand; every dinner you would talk about business.’ I really regret that and wish I would have talked about sports or school with them. We talk business all the time.”
Although he no longer spends 80 hours a week in the office, Zhang said he still thinks about the firm and his clients at least 80 hours a week.
“Last night, I was thinking about it at 2 in the morning,” he said. “I have 1,300 families as clients, and I know all of their portfolios. I know how much money they have with us, and I know their asset allocation mix.
“You (work harder than other) people and keep your promise, you do the best job and you become successful.”
For Zhang, the work is deeply gratifying.
“I feel very fortunate,” he said. “I feel a bigger responsibility for those 1,200, 1,300 families here in West Michigan who trust me with their life savings. If your parents are 60, 70 years old, a million dollars is their life savings. What if the market goes down and you lose more than half? The person has to trust in you.
“The reason we have a great reputation is because we treasure that. I treasure that people trust me.”
This spring, Barron’s ranked Zhang’s firm as the No. 1 financial advisor in Michigan.
Zhang said a common stereotype about Asians sometimes comes up in his industry, even though there are only two or three Asians among the Top 100 financial advisors in the nation.
“Once in a while, I hear people say I might have an advantage because people think Asians are good with math and numbers,” he said. “But I think the key is who you are and how hard you work.
“I don’t think my clients choose me because I’m Asian or not Asian. They choose me because I’m a trustworthy advisor.”
Zhang and Lynn Chen-Zhang, who is his co-managing partner and COO, have chosen to share their wealth with the community in the form of donating millions.
“You always will find a person more wealthy or successful than you. That’s not my bottom line,” he said.
“But having more money means I can benefit the community. We give to the arts, music, school, the Kalamazoo Humane Society. Money is helpful. We give to hundreds of charities, from small ones, a few hundred bucks, to the big ones, millions.”
Even with his name on institutes and buildings and in symphony programs, Zhang said he wants people to remember him mainly for his character.
“No one will remember me, only my clients will if I do right by them.”