Posted by Barrons | February 21, 2022
Abacus Wealth Partners may be the only advisory firm in the country with an unabashed Buddhist orientation.
Co-founders Spencer Sherman and Brent Kessel are practicing Buddhists, and Sherman leads a daily 9 a.m. meditation session that anyone in the firm can join. There’s a dedicated room in the firm’s Santa Monica, Calif., offices for yoga and meditation. The firm advertises in Buddhist publications, and Sherman teaches at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. One of his recent blog posts was titled “5 Mindfulness Practices That Change How We Relate to Money.”
Sherman’s epiphany came in his mid-20s, two years after he earned his MBA from Wharton. A huge fire broke out in the Philadelphia building where his employer, the brokerage firm Janney Montgomery Scott, had its offices. The building was still smoldering, but Sherman convinced a fire marshal to let him back in so he could retrieve his computer and belongings. Following a firefighter with a flashlight, Sherman waded in knee-deep dirty water through darkness, smoke, and ashes to get to his office.
“I had this recognition afterwards that I had risked my life, risked electrocution, to get to things that were worthless,” Spencer says. He left his job, started his own advisory firm, and began “a rigorous meditation practice” to come to terms with why money and material possessions had such a strong grip on him.
Kessel’s turn away from conventional money management was rooted in the inequities he saw growing up in apartheid-era South Africa. He began investing for social and environmental impact in his 20s and founded Abacus Wealth Management to align client values with financial advice in 1996.
Kessel met Sherman in 1999 at a workshop in Hawaii led by George Kinder, a financial planning pioneer and a co-founder of the Nazrudin Project, an informal group of planners and therapists who got together to explore holistic ways of dealing with money and its emotional attachments.
Kessel and Sherman bonded and merged their firms in 2004 to form Abacus Wealth Partners as a way to incorporate Buddhist teachings such as impermanence, mindfulness, equanimity, and interdependence into financial advice.
Abacus may be spiritually oriented, but it is also materially thriving. As a certified for-profit B Corp, the RIA balances profit and purpose by meeting high standards of social performance, transparency, and accountability. It specializes in impact investing and has nearly $4 billion in assets under management and over 70 employees in six offices in California and Philadelphia.
This month the firm marked a new chapter, transitioning leadership to two women in their 30s, Neela Hummel and Mary Beth Storjohann, now Abacus’ co-CEOs.
Sherman and Kessel remain active as advisors and co-founders. They recently sat down with Barron’s Advisor for a wide-ranging conversation.
How did your interest in Buddhism begin?
Spencer Sherman: I’m a little embarrassed to say that it came from a kind of materialist desire. I got my SAT results [in high school], and they weren’t what I wanted. I wandered into the library and there was a book there about how to improve your brain power. The book actually didn’t use the word meditation, but it was trying to put you into alpha wave brain states, using focusing practices.
It worked. My scores drastically improved after doing those practices for about three months. So I saw the benefits. When I got to college there was a course in how different cultures reach higher states of being. There was a daily homework assignment, which was to meditate for 30 minutes a day. That was my introduction to practice.
Brent Kessel: My mom was a yoga teacher so I got exposed to the Hindu side of meditation through her from a young age. She would call it floating on the pink clouds as I laid on my back. The real adult dive into Buddhism began in 2004 for me. I knew that my ambition and drive were creating suffering for me and that there had to be something more. I was in this profession that analyzes finances and helps to provide financial clarity and a sense of financial security. And yet death is certain and we can’t take it with us.
There’s a real paradoxical wisdom to holding both of those truths, that in the relative world we do need money for things, yet we should never lose sight of the truth that money cannot provide any kind of ultimate security or permanence. I heard several teachers at a conference in 2004 and started doing two or three silent meditation retreats a year with one. I also began a daily sitting practice contemplating how I balance those two parts of my life.