Interview With Michael Rodriguez Co-Founder of Berknell Financial Group

Creating a successful business is no easy venture, especially during this period of time when the economy is in a slow recovery. Maintaining a business is not only time consuming, but it's also costly. Many people, in fact, throw their entire life savings and end up bankrupt by pursuing such a huge dream. However, for the ones who fully commit and brave the risks involved, the rewards can often times be fruitful.

Having had the chance to interview two relatively new entrepreneurs, Dasarte Yarnway and Abdul Taylor, a two-person team running a business named Berknell Financial Group based in the District of Columbia, I was able to gain an insight into the difficulties of creating a business as well as the common problems associated with maintaining it.


Michael Rodriguez: Can you tell me what services you provide?

Berknell: By using our RIITE Planning Process, Berknell Financial Group focuses on helping our clients reach their objectives in the areas of retirement planning, investments, insurance, taxes and estate planning. Additionally, we provide financial plans for clients as another service.


MR: What are some of the problems you’ve encountered in the early stages of your business?

B: Great question. The top three problems for our business in the infant stages were brand recognition, client acquisition and accounting and I’ll explain why.  I’ve worked for very reputable brands like Fisher Investments, Edward Jones and HSBC Wealth Management all of these firms are huge brands to their respective markets. In the beginning, Berknell Financial Group was just a red line under Microsoft word and now people associate the name with a product and level of service like any other major brand – that’s something that I’m very proud of. Two, client acquisition. People tend to do business with or patronize things that they are familiar with. I think it goes hand-in-hand with brand recognition. In the first two-quarters of 2016, we amped up our traditional and digital marketing efforts and client events to really ensure that our future clients would feel comfortable doing business with us. Lastly, accounting. As a growing business, every single penny you spend must be accounted for. I made sure that I took the time to make smart purchases and invested time and money in the things that would help us see the greatest return.


MR: Given that your experience and expertise is largely related to finance, what do you believe are some of the largest problems with the U.S. economy today?

B: There are a number of good things happening and some bad things happening in the economy. Some problems include slower economic growth, the importing of the goods and services that we use which used to produce jobs for Americans, low-interest rates, and low wages which mean that people will not spend enough to boost the economy. 


MR: Switching gears, what do you believe are the largest financial impediments to individual Americans? 

B: Financial literacy is the biggest problem for most Americans. Things like taxes, savings methods, and retirement planning are not taught early enough for Americans to take them seriously enough and that is a recipe for failure.

Since inception, Berknell has grown exponentially. We have seen our client accounts increase over 123% since Sept 2015 and we have had a 100% retention rate throughout this time. As we continue to grow, it’s my hope that we can continue to provide an ethical and expert level quality of service and the numbers will take care of itself.


MR: Do you think the country is headed in the right direction economically? Why? Do you think people under Obama are better off than before in terms of finances?

B: Like in the stock market, only time will tell if we are going in the right direction or if the American people have made the right choice. What I can say is that with the current economic outlook of our country, racial tension and international relations our next leaders have a big challenge in front of them. Economically speaking, the stats from Obama's presidency speak for themselves: the unemployment rate was lowered, our country was brought out of recession and many people received healthcare.


MR: There has recently been a movement to support black businesses that started with rapper Killer Mike in America for African Americans to act in their own economic interests via the #bankblack movement that saw black owned and operated banks gaining over three-million-plus dollars in new account openings so far. If this movement continues to grow, what are positive implications it can have for African Americans on the economic front?

B: When other races migrated to the United States they found security in building communities that allowed them to be culturally and economically secure. Some would argue that this action was a “self-segregation” but others would say that this has generational benefits. I think if this persists, African Americans have an opportunity to create a generational wealth ripple effect. The effect could help with the sustainment of black businesses, schools, hospitals, banks and ventures that will only be passed down to our children like many communities and ethnic groups in the United States.

MR: For people suffering from high debt, what would your advice be to them? Does your company help with debt management?

B: Stop wasting money. There are a few quotes that one of my investment idols live by. The first, “if you buy things you don’t need, soon you’ll have to sell things that you do need” and second, “one shouldn’t save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving.” In our company's financial planning department, many of the high debt cases are from individuals or families who have simply failed to live by these quotes. It’s really a challenging but rewarding feeling to help them realize this and fix their situations.


MR: For people looking to begin investing money in the market, where should they begin looking? Why?

B: Our motto is Advice With You In Mind™. For us that motto means fees in your favor, disciplined investing, a fiduciary responsibility and solutions-based advice. If they can find an advisor that they trust, who is able to provide advice with their best interest in mind that will help them along the way, they should start there. Why you ask? I love to use the WebMD vs. The Doctor as an example. In the digital age, looking up symptoms when we feel ill is the first thing that many people turn to only to end up feeling worst in the process. Eventually, if the symptoms persist, we visit the doctor because only then can we get the peace of mind that we are looking for because we TRUST that this person knows what they are doing. The same goes for this field.


MR: “Saving” has been a large issue in the country for a while, what factors have contributed to this? How does your company assist people who are in this situation?

B: There are too many reasons to list, but the main reasons are paycheck stagnation and discipline. The cost of living has risen exponentially over the last two decades but people aren’t getting paid a lot more. This makes it hard for the average family to save anything at all. But, even when people have money to save, their short-sightedness and lack of discipline can get the best of them.


MR: What are great ways to improve your credit? It seems as though many people don’t understand the concept of “credit” as much as they should, so what would you say to them?

Credit is not free money. When handled properly, credit can certainly help achieve some financial goals, especially purchasing a home. I would advise them to live within their means and plan. The earlier you start being financial responsible, the better off you’ll be. 


MR: What are your tips for increasing a person’s earning potential? In other words, for people who face stagnant wages, what should they do to ensure income mobility?

B: There is a plethora of ways to increasing earnings potential. Education and expertise is the most common way. Investments that can create a passive income would be next and monetizing interests or talents would be number three.


MR: Have you faced any difficulties in the industry because of your ethnicity?

B: Before landing my first job and even as a rose up the ladder, people did not take me seriously. I received a number of rejection letters from institutions who now send monthly emails with personal letters for employment. I am grateful for that experience and without it, I doubt that Berknell Financial Group would even exist. There’s no way to prove that I did not get hired or a prospect did not work with me because of ethnicity, but for those who choose to see past ethnicity and even age, they’ll be guaranteed to have a financial advisor with integrity, a process and an unparalleled client experience.


MR: If you had an opportunity to handle your investment for any celebrity who would it be and what advice would you give them?

B: That’s a tough one. Probably Oprah.


MR: Who are your industry role models?

B: Warren Buffet and John Rogers of Ariel Investments.


MR: What advice would you give to people wishing to enter the financial services sector? 

B: Do not overestimate what you can what you can do in a year and do not underestimate what you can do in two decades. If you stick to it, it’ll stick to you.


MR:  What does success mean to you? 

B: Success to me is simply the opportunity to exercise my God given talents. That’s all; every day that I have an opportunity, I’m already a living, breathing success.

If there is one lesson or valuable piece of knowledge that could be taken from this interview, it is that you should always remain persistent and motivated in your life goals whatever they may be. At every stage in life, we will be faced with an unlimited amount of challenges that will undeniably define who we are. While some choose to take the easy road and ignore them, others march right towards them, knowing that greatness and success doesn’t originate from apathy and complacency.