Antoinette Mullins took what she calls a “strange” path to financial advice.

As a young student in her native South Africa, Mullins travelled the country with a youth group running camps in schools and churches, counselling troubled kids and developing leadership. “Our role was really just being good role models,” she says.

The experience led to a degree in youthwork and a certificate in crisis debriefing and trauma counselling, both from the University of South Africa.

“In South Africa there’s a lot of trauma related violence, and I wanted to connect with people on a deeper level and find out how to help them,” she recalls.

After travelling in the UK and landing in Australia – “I fell in love with it, Sydney was warm and green and amazing” – Mullins considered two new and very different career paths: publishing and financial advice.

“The role that I chose in advice was lower paying and required longer hours, but I knew that was the right call,” she says. “Within a year or two became a financial adviser myself.”

Mullins spent 14 formative years with an Apogee licensed advice firm before switching into a self-licensed practice, but it wasn’t long before she decided to go it alone.

Mullins started her own advice business, Beyond Today, with the help of friend and fellow adviser Tanya Oddo.

“I’ve known Tanya since the early Apogee days,” Mullins says. “When I started Beyond Today she was a fabulous help because she’d started her business, Steps Financial, seven years before.”

A little over a year later the two decided to hang their shingle together, with Mullins merging her business into Steps Financial.

“Tanya has a strong paraplanning background, she’s very technical and her focus is on strategy and modelling, while my strengths lie with investment portfolios and relationships,” she says. “I reckon we’re an amazing team.””

A better adviser

Mullins reflects on her path to advice and says she has few regrets. She may have left counselling behind, but the adviser believes her ability to connect with people when they are most vulnerable is a critical strength in her advice proposition.

“Part of me always felt like my degree was wasted because I’m not a youth worker and I’m actually not that crazy about teenagers,” she says. “I quickly learnt my degree and experience made me a better adviser because I could listen and connect with people on a deeper level.”

A planner’s interpersonal skills are crucial in helping give clients the surety they’re looking for, she says.

“You’re there to try to understand someone’s financial goals and work out a strategy, but above all you’re just two people trying to have a conversation,” she says.

“If someone tells you their life story and you plan a financial strategy for them it’s going to be wasted if you don’t understand their feelings around that story. You need to understand the feelings and underlying values, otherwise the plan is on rocky foundations.”

Conquering the world

Steps Financial runs a largely fee-for-service advice model and gets a steady stream of new clients from a referral network of accountants, solicitors and brokers. “That’s the only way we bring clients in,” she says. “It’s mostly just accountants we love working with.”

The business specialises in working with women, which is something Mullins is passionate about. The adviser says she was raised by her mother, who had an “incredible” work ethic but, like many women of her generation, was never taught how to manage money or plan for retirement.

“I saw her work hard until she retired at 74 and I know that if she had seen a planner earlier in life she wouldn’t have needed to,” Mullins says.

The business doesn’t exclude men, she notes. Like most practices, the Steps Financial books are filled with couples. It’s just that with their clientele, the women tend to be the organisers in the relationship.

“It’s just something we fell into,” she says. “I’ve got lots of male clients as well but I’ve found that with couples it’s usually the female that takes the project management role.”

A focus on women’s financial health has a side benefit for Mullins – it sets a strong precedent for the other important people in her life.

“I focus on helping women to try to make a difference, and so that my two girls will be better prepared to live in – and conquer! – the world,” she says.

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