Exclusive Interview: Christopher Carosa Explains 2 Ways Hey! What’s My Number? Can Increase the Odds Retirement Savers Will Retire in Comfort
You’ll recognize this month’s interview subject as our own editor. Christopher Carosa is here to talk about his recently published book Hey! What’s My Number? and why it’s generated so much buzz in the mainstream media. Here are three things you probably don’t know about Chris: First, he once was awarded a national prize for his ground-breaking academic research in the field of finance and investing; Second, he wrote a stage play that was performed to sell-out audiences; and, Third, writing and reporting aren’t even his day job. How does he do it? Well, that’s the subject for another time. Right now, learn how his new book might just change the way employees tackle the often difficult issue of saving and, as a result, just may improve the odds they will retire in comfort.
FN: Chris, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you, and congratulations on the publication of your fifth book, Hey! What’s My Number? – How to Improve the Odds You Will Retire in Comfort. Before we get into that, tell us a little about the experiences that led you to where you are today. Were you always interested in writing? When did you begin?
Carosa: Well, and I’m sure some of the readers will chuckle at this, let me start by saying “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Ah, we’re to begin? I believe I wrote my first published piece in first or second grade. And by “published” I mean I was the only student selected to read my story to the other class. It was a “Little Engine That Could” theme titled “Herbie the Helicopter.” Whatever literary talent I might have had was consumed by the physical sciences, first geology, then meteorology, until, finally, I fell in love with astronomy. Playing the stereotypical role of the science geek to the extreme, I rejected all things bookish. In tenth grade, I convinced several students to join me in boycotting a homework assignment that required reading a novel and reviewing it. Our English teacher gave us a choice: Either write a review of someone else’s novel or write our own novel. I was the only one to opt for the latter. I got an “A” on it. But I still detested English class. Though, to be honest, that little bit of rebellion rekindled the long latent writing bug within me. By senior year, I convinced the high school literary magazine to publish my Star Trek parody. (In exchange, I had to agree to serve as treasurer, which meant I was responsible for sales of the magazine. We sold over 700 copies that year – a new record – in part because I personally autographed each copy and promised my classmates the autograph would be worth something because someday I would become famous). So, I always had this writing thing in me. When I completed my senior thesis for my degree in astronomy, I had a lot of money left over in my computer account. With all my other friends still working on their papers, I decided to spend that money writing stories. Not an easy thing to do on a line printer. That’s when I really began writing in earnest.
FN: What made you decide to write about fiduciary issues?
Carosa: Despite my Bachelors in Physics and Astronomy, I pursued a career in finance (it was the 1980s, after all). I kept writing and started a local suburban weekly newspaper (while keeping my day job, completing my MBA in a little over two years, and, oh yeah, courting and marrying my wife). Given this urge to write, it was only a matter of time before it spilled over into the world beyond my suburban neighborhood. Eventually, I sold the newspaper and used that capital as the seed money to start my own RIA. Before starting my firm, I had worked for a multi-billion dollar money manager. There, I was encouraged to explore, design, and implement innovative solutions in a number of areas. And writing was there at the very beginning. Given what my superiors felt was an “expertise” in financial operations – What was I? Twenty-four years old at the time? – They asked me to draft a key provision in a pioneering No-Action Letter. My job was to explain to the SEC the nature and process of electronic settlement. Apparently, it worked, because they approved the no-action letter. My next big break – and my first taste of national exposure – was as the cover story (that another reporter wrote) for an issue of Wall Street Computer Review. They featured my cutting-edge use of artificial intelligence programing to help pick stocks. (Yes, you might call it one of the first Robo-Advisors.) I actually got in trouble for that one because the interview wasn’t approved by the owners of the firm. Still, they bought the reprints and proudly sent it to our clients. Around the same time, I helped create one of the first collapsible mutual fund series – that’s where I learned all the ins and outs of mutual funds. Finally, with all this systems and operational experience, after fashioning an internal custodial record-keeping system, I led the firm’s creation of a trust company. That’s when I was first introduced to the concept of “fiduciary.” I’ve been enamored with it ever since. I wanted to spread the word. And, well, you know the rest of the story.
FN: Many reporters and financial authors seem to have a different background than you do. Do you find the lack of formal training an impediment?
Carosa: Some journalists go to school to learn the trade. I plunged headfirst with the newspaper (which continues to be published to this day). I was publisher, reporter, commentator, and, well, whatever needed to be done to get the paper out. The most important thing I did, however, was headline editing and layout. This is the “look and feel” of any publication that ultimately attracts readership. Good writing is important to get them to keep coming back, but they won’t crack open the page if the headline isn’t enticing and the layout isn’t appealing. In a way, this “trial-by-fire” immersion into journalism taught me what anyone interested in the field needs to know. Better than a single small group of professors critiquing my work for an ephemeral grade, I had an entire community of neighbors giving me feedback, the most important of which was the cold hard cash of their subscription dollars.
FN: How does being a practicing financial professional give you an advantage over career journalists?
Carosa: Being a good reporter means being, on one hand, a good investigator, while, on the other, a great story teller. A good investigator knows how to get to the heart of any question. Being a trained scientist helps a lot here. What helps more is knowing in which closets the skeletons are hidden (and that there are even skeletons to begin with). As a practitioner, I have to deal with the very real problems of professionals and client alike. There’s a nuance there that career journalists will simply never be able to appreciate. But it goes further than that. Even other financial practitioners turned journalists don’t necessarily have this advantage. You see, most of these folks earned their name in the field either through sales or picking stocks. They never dealt with the operations of finance; hence, never really learned how to dig out those eerie skeletons no one wants to admit are there. As far as great story telling goes, well, that’s not journalism, that’s entertainment. And I have my years as a popular AM disc jockey (back in the days when they used to play music on AM) to thank for that.
FN: Tell us about the books you’ve written. How did you come up with your ideas? How have the books been received?
Carosa: Most of those reading this publication will recognize 401k Fiduciary Solutions: Expert Guidance for 401k Plan Sponsors on How to Effectively and Safely Manage Plan Compliance and Investments by Sharing the Fiduciary Burden with Experienced Professionals. I wrote this book to help service providers help 401k plan sponsors. Most of the books out there are written from a very narrow point of view (sometimes even with the objective of selling products, not books.) My book relies on a variety of points of view from industry experts all across the country. This widely acclaimed book came out in 2012 and has been a consistent seller ever since. I’ve provided a link here for those who want to see what other people are saying about the book. Hey! What’s My Number? is my fifth book. Of my other books, two remain in print. 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York, also published in 2012, has become a popular gift to give people with ties to the nation’s first frontier (yes, even before Kentucky). Another book published last year, A Pizza The Action: Everything I Ever Learned About Business I Learned by Working in a Pizza Stand at the Erie County Fair was written for the 175th running of the Erie County Fair in August of 2014. Despite that, it’s not just for Erie County Fair fans, it’s for entrepreneurs, corporate executives and just about anybody who wants to get ahead in business. It’s sort of a “how-to” manual wrapped in a personal memoir.
FN: What inspired you to write you latest book? The title Hey! What’s My Number? is intriguing. How did you come up with it?
Carosa: It tell the full story in the introduction of the book, but, suffice it to say, it was the first question I got during a 2013 presentation I gave to 300 employees. The question was based on a popular commercial airing at the time. A short while later, at another company employee presentation, the HR director came up to me and said, “Chris, that was really good. Have you ever thought about a way to show it to more people?” She was thinking video, which is a lot harder to produce. I was thinking book – and voilà! – Hey! What’s My Number? was born.
FN: Tell us about Hey! What’s My Number? How is it different from your earlier books? What’s been the initial reception?
Carosa: Unlike 401k Fiduciary Solutions, which was really written for a narrow market, Hey! What’s My Number? is crafted with the retirement saver in mind. In other words, the typical audience member in the employee meetings I’m asked to speak at. Besides the subject, there are similarities between the two books. First, they’re both fairly inclusive when it comes to different points of view. Mind you, I don’t let someone I quote mouth off about some diversionary topic that runs counter to the latest research, but I realize there are different ways to interpret said research and I allow for that. The more important parallel, though, is that financial professionals can use both books when working with their clients. The client audience is different – 401k Fiduciary Solutions is geared towards the plan sponsor while Hey! What’s My Number? focuses on the plan participant – but the idea is the same. The initial reception has been fantastic! You can read what some folks are saying here, but, let me tell you, the book is literally selling itself. As soon as word leaked I was writing this book, I’ve had people asking when they could buy it. In fact, due to a glitch at Amazon.com, someone actually bought a proof copy by accident!
FN: How do you see the book helping the average retirement saver? What is the most important retirement readiness issue Hey! What’s My Number? addresses?
Carosa: Here’s the deal, and it’s an important concept I and many other have been writing about recently. The solution to “retirement readiness” is often misunderstood. As I point out in the book, it has little to do with investing. Still, that’s all that people pay attention to. Granted, you can’t make silly investing mistakes (and I devote several chapters that both identify the most common mistakes and how to avoid them). The premise of the book, however, centers on the fact that we already have the answer when it comes to living a comfortable retirement. People have done it, people are doing it, and people and making a plan to do it. It’s all about disciplined saving. For the experienced professional, this is like preaching to the choir. Heck, even the everyday retirement saver may have heard this mantra ad infinitum. What’s different about my book is the approach it uses, from the muscle car metaphor to an entire section that explains how to use a free retirement readiness calculator that totally redefines “the number” Hey! What’s My Number? refers to.
FN: OK, I’ll bite. What’s so special about this Retirement Readiness calculator? I mean, isn’t there about a billion of them out there already? And why is the number you’re writing about so different from the numbers everyone else uses.
Carosa: Do you know the day you’re going to die? Do you know what inflation will be in 30 years? Do you feel comfortable rolling the dice with your retirement? If you’re like most people, the answer is an emphatic “No!” Yet nearly every retirement calculator available requires you to make assumptions no one (even professional advisors) is equipped to make. Worse, these calculators imply a precision that just not possible. Heck, to cover up this lack of precision some of them even trumpet the use of “advanced statistical techniques” (a.k.a. the Monte Carlo Method – trying explaining that to a client when they ask you why investing isn’t like gambling). Like Mark Twain said, there’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.” The calculator I write about, which retirement savers can find on the website LifetimeDreamGuide.com, relies only on real data. No guessing is involved. You put in your current salary, current savings, current contribution rate, and planned retirement date. If you’ve got Social Security, a pension, or any other outside income during retirement, you can put that in, too. Press a button and – bingo! – you’ve got your “Goal-Oriented Target” (“GOT”). For a variety of reasons, many leading financial advisors are using the GOT method to help clients. The GOT totally changed the way retirement savers look at saving for retirement. It’s the one thing that will give them the best chance to increase the odds they will retire in comfort. The GOT accomplishes this in two ways. First, it immediately removes the weight of that seven digit number people would see in that commercial. That’s the number people usually ask for. The size of it discourages most people – I know, I’ve seen it in my meetings. It’s the wrong number to talk about. The GOT, hopefully a single digit percentage number, is much easier for people to swallow – and to understand. Second, by generating a GOT instead of assuming an investment return, you reframe the focus of retirement saves. It is no longer on investments and return assumptions (notice this calculator has neither), but on the required investment return (i.e., GOT) given your current savings situation. The beauty of the calculator this calculator is that you can change your retirement savings rate, retirement date, and even your projected retirement expenses to create multiple scenarios and see how they impact your GOT. Once you’ve know your GOT (and hopefully got it down to a reasonable number), then you can find the investments – either by yourself or with the help of a professional – that are most likely to achieve your GOT.
FN: In what way will financial service providers and 401k plan sponsors be interested in using Hey! What’s My Number? to facilitate their own fiduciary duties?
Carosa: I have to be realistic. Although I wrote the book so do-it-yourselfers can have a field day, most retirement savers are not do-it-yourselfers. These are the folks who will benefit from having a financial coach riding shotgun with them. Dollars to donuts, I bet some enterprising professionals will be figuring out a way to use the book as a prospecting tool. At the very least, as more and more 401k plan sponsors show an interest in helping improve their employee’s retirement readiness and financial literacy, I expect there will be increasing interest in providing a copy of my book as a part of their benefits materials. What’s more, it’s purposefully agnostic when it comes to specific investment styles and disciplines, so plan sponsors won’t be accused of offering investment advice. In addition, retirement savers can seek professional advice from any one of many different viewpoints – passive vs. active? growth vs. value? – it doesn’t matter, they can all be used within the context of the book.
FN: You’re promoting Hey! What’s My Number? in a vastly different manner than you’ve promoted your earlier works. Why have you changed your marketing and what do you hope to achieve from this modification?
Carosa: Unlike any of my other books, I started promoting Hey! What’s My Number? nationally in October. I’ve hit dozens of top 35 markets, mostly through radio interviews. In addition, the book has been featured in at least two recent articles in USA Today. Earlier this month, I taped a segment on New York 1, which is the flagship station of Time Warner Cable. You can keep track of all my public promotional appearances on my author site by clicking this link. Of course, that’s only the traditional portion of the book’s promotional campaign. If you really want of sneak peek of things to come, go to the 50 Hidden Gems website. You’ll see I’ve employed some creative techniques to promote that book. Don’t be surprised if you find the promotional campaign for Hey! What’s My Number? using similar inventive methods.
FN: Can you give us a hint as to what you might be writing about next?
Carosa: I could, but if I did, I’d have to… No, just kidding. If it’s not obvious by now, I tend to write books in pairs – a professional tome and a “fun” volume. On the business side, I’m working on several ideas, including updating my first book (the one that’s out of print) and another expanding on a series of articles I published several years ago. On the fun side, would you believe this year is the 130th anniversary of the invention of the hamburger? I’ll leave it go at that. No, wait! There’s one more tease. So far, all my books have been non-fiction. Some of you who have seen me speak at industry conferences might have heard me say this, but there’s a concept I’m working on for fiction involving our industry. No, it’s not a murder mystery or international intrigue à la Tom Clancy. But, imagine – if you will – this: Sci-Fi meets High Finance. A dystopian thriller that would make George Orwell proud. Maybe I’ll call it 2084.
FN: If a journalist or blogger wanted to review the book or interview you, how would they contact you? Are you available for speaking engagements? How can a reader buy your book?
Carosa: The easiest way is to go to the book’s website http://heywhatsmynumber.com/ and go to the Contact Us tab. That’s both for media and speaking inquiries. You can purchase the book directly from the publisher via the book’s website, from Amazon.com, or order it through your favorite book store.
FN: Is there anything you’d like to add to share with our readers?
I just want to say “thank you” to all the many readers out there who have bought my books and who plan to buy my new books. There’s nothing more gratifying to a writer than to receive the kind words and positive comments that come to me every day. The one thing I can promise is this: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
FN: Chris, we’re sure our readers can’t wait to see what you do next. Thanks for taking the time from your overbooked scheduled to share your thoughts and ideas with our readers. Now, get back to work! You’re already past deadline and you have two interviews lined up before 8am tomorrow!