8 Tips from an Executive that Retired at 51


Bruce Miller had a stellar 30-year career at the Bank of New York Mellon, rising from college intern to one of the youngest Managing Directors in the bank's history at age 31, before retiring at age 51 as an Executive Vice President and member of the Operating and Credit committees.  We sat down with him to talk about the career and financial planning strategies that made him successful and allowed him to retire early.  Here's a few of his top career and financial planning hacks: 

1) Distinguish yourself by taking measured risks.  As a 28-year old group head of Midwest corporate lending, and with the bank on the outside looking in on any sort of lending relationship with one of the most sought-after corporations at the time, McDonald's, Bruce raised eyebrows internally as he took ten days off from work to enroll in Hamburger University, the McDonald's training program for franchise owners.  During the training he gained intimate knowledge of the company's supply chain, internal processes, and culture.  At the cocktail party on the last day of training, Bruce approached the CEO of McDonald's, revealed that he wasn't a franchise owner but a banker, and vowed to be a key player in solving some of McDonald's financing issues.  Having learned in the training sessions that funding expansion in South Korea was an issue, Miller worked feverishly overnight with his underwriters to delicately redirect capital from a South Korean based client and then presented the CEO of McDonald's a commitment letter for $30 million of South Korean Won the next day.  Miller's initiative and creativity paid off; from that point on he was a rising star within the company and on the CEO's and Board of Directors' radar. 

Planning for early retirement

2) Find mentors, but more importantly, find a sponsor.  As Miller explains, a mentor is someone that will take the time to teach you things, but a sponsor is someone that will use political capital to help further your career through promotions, exposure and opportunities.  A sponsor is significantly more valuable than a mentor.  "Corporate America isn't necessarily a meritocracy sometimes, you need someone looking out for your interests," says Miller.  Actively seeking out mentors and sponsors throughout his career was key to Miller's success.

3) Have a vision for your career.  Throughout his career Miller resisted lucrative offers to leave the bank, because his vision for his career included staying at the bank in New York City long-term.  "You're always worth more to the outside companies than internally," but despite the offers of higher pay from other companies, most of the offers didn't work for Miller's career plan long-term.  While Miller recognizes that in today's business environment, long-term loyalty to one company may not be the best career strategy for many people, he does recommend critically evaluating all of your career options over three to five-year intervals.

4) Save, invest and live below your means.  Miller followed many of the basic principles of a sound financial planning strategy.  "I learned early on the value of compounding... I was a waiter in College in the Catskills... and saw that money saved can grow quickly."  He avoided credit card debt, maxed contributions to his retirement plans and lived below his means generally.  "Instead of expensive suits ...  I had four suits from Syms (the discount outlet clothing company) and bought nice ties."

5) Have a plan for risky investments.  Miller resisted the pitfalls of risky investments:  "if you're going to have speculative investments...  have a sell strategy...  and a play budget for risky investments."  Like many others, Miller had allocations to the hot stocks of the day in the late 1990's:  internet infrastructure stocks like CMGI and Metromedia Fiber.  Since he had a risk budget that he didn't exceed, Miller doesn't have many financial regrets.

Bruce Miller Retirement

6) Stay invested.  Miller has seen quite a few market cycles and one of the keys to his success has been staying invested, even during down markets and heightened volatility.  "Everyone I know who sold their investments in 2008 during the financial crisis is in a bad financial position today."  Miller indicates that "one of the benefits of a financial planner...  is taking the emotion out of investing" to help avoid selling in a panic." 

7) Be yourself.  Early in his career, Miller tried hard to alter his personality to fit in with the the corporate culture, and attempted to schmooze his colleagues and potential clients.  A high-energy, extrovert by nature, he achieved much more success when he cared less about what others thought and less about fitting in.

8) Have a vision for your retirement.  Miller emphasizes that it's not only important to have a financial plan to get you through retirement, but it's also important to plan what retirement is actually going to look like day-to-day.  For many people, their job is a big part of their personal identity and one of their primary social networks, and it’s not easy to abruptly transition directly from a career as a high pressure executive into retirement overnight.  Lucky for Miller, he's happy living his new retirement journey working on several projects, exploring his hobbies, and traveling frequently.

David Wilson, CFP®, CFA, CDFA®, CCFC is a New York City-based CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Practitioner & Wealth Advisor at Watts Capital.  He can be reached at dwilson@planningtowealth.com.