An interview with Tony Barrett

tony barrettThe year was 2009. While the country was grappling with an ongoing financial crisis, Tony Barrett was working as a young advisor in New York City and slowly realizing that the culture of financial conglomerates no longer suited him. That’s when he sets his sights on Raymond James – a move that would define his career for years to come.

In a little over a decade, Tony has risen through the ranks of the firm, going from Mid-Atlantic complex manager to managing director of the Delaware Valley complex. Perhaps most importantly, however, he has helped pave the way for others like him – not just at Raymond James, but throughout the financial industry. From helping found the Raymond James Black Financial Advisors Network to speaking out about the importance of diversity in finance on platforms like and, Tony’s impact has gone far beyond portfolios.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. When I was about 5, my family immigrated to Toronto, Canada, and I spent my entire youth there until I got an opportunity to play football for Colgate University in upstate New York. After college, I got a job offer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and have lived in the U.S. since.

Did you always know you wanted to be in finance?

Growing up, I always had an interest in business. But I also spent a lot of time drawing and painting, which is why I considered becoming an architect. I ultimately let the college I picked determine my career path. I knew I wanted a school with great academics and a competitive football team where I could get playing time. And I ended up at Colgate, which doesn’t have an architecture design school. It was all about economics there, so I got a B.A. in economics and that led me toward the path I’m on now.

What was your career trajectory after graduating?

I was fortunate enough to get a job right after graduating in 1994 as a research analyst at a hedge fund. But I realized early on that was not my thing. So my plans to be an analyst and then become a portfolio manager and run the world went out the window. [laughs] But then something serendipitous happened.

At the time, my routine was to go to the gym early in the morning before work. One day, Chuck – a gentleman I saw there every day – struck up a conversation with me. We ended up talking about how I was an analyst and he asked if I’d ever considered becoming an advisor. I thought of my high school football coach, who had always been a great mentor to me and was a Black financial advisor. So I said, “If I really knew exactly what they did, I might consider it.”

It turned out Chuck was the manager of a Merrill Lynch office a block away from my job. He invited me to lunch to talk about the business, and it sounded way more exciting than anything I was doing. I mean, when I first walked into his office, he was on the phone placing a $250,000 trade. After learning more about it, I joined Merrill’s financial advisor training program. And I’ve been on this side of the business ever since.

Years later, I asked Chuck what made him approach me and how he knew I’d be well suited for the business. He said, “I saw you in the gym every day at 6 a.m., which showed you had a bit of discipline. You obviously went to Colgate because you were always wearing Colgate gear, so I knew you weren’t a dummy. And then when we started talking, I saw you had a good personality. That’s a pretty good formula for success as a financial advisor.”

How did you end up at Raymond James after becoming an advisor?

I was a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch for five years. During that time, I had a number of good mentors who inspired me to pursue a position in management. That’s when I was recruited for Paine Webber’s management development program. Shortly after joining them, they were bought by UBS Wealth Management. I was there for seven years in various management roles and then went back to Merrill as a sales manager in the New York City headquarters. I stayed from 2006 until 2009.

By that point, I realized that the impersonal culture of large conglomerate firms wasn’t a good fit for me. So I started looking at different avenues of the business, including smaller firms where I could feel more comfortable. Once I met with some folks at Raymond James and did a home office visit, I immediately fell in love with the culture. I remember meeting [President and Chief Executive Officer of Raymond James & Associates] Tash Elwyn, who was recruiting me as a division director at the time, and [former CEO and current Chairman Emeritus] Tom James. And I felt these were everyday people who were very serious about doing good things with the firm. It was a stark contrast to the cold conglomerate environment I’d experience elsewhere. That’s what made me jump at the chance to join Raymond James.

After joining Raymond James & Associates in June 2009 as the Mid-Atlantic complex manager and a senior vice president of investments, how did you become involved in launching the Black Financial Advisors Network?

I want to begin by emphasizing that lack of diversity is not simply a Raymond James issue. It’s industrywide. Both at Merrill and UBS, I’d become accustomed to seeing very, very few faces that looked like mine. I had taken that as par for the course in the industry.

But about four years after joining Raymond James, I was running the Washington, D.C., complex and one of the advisors, Káon Nelson, called me saying he was looking for marketing material on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month to send his clients, and that he couldn’t find any. So I called Marketing to ask them about it, and they confirmed they didn’t have any materials on those events. I thought, “How could you not have that?” The short answer was, there was no one who had even raised awareness that this was important. There was no malicious intent. It’s just that, culturally, it wasn’t on their radar.

I called the other advisor and we agreed we needed awareness around these culturally significant events. That led to us having a conversation with Tash, and his response was, “I agree 100%. And I would love for you guys to come up with some ideas on how we address this issue.” That’s what planted the seeds for what would become the Black Financial Advisors Network.

What was the process of going from that conversation with Tash to establishing a network of advisors?

It was a challenge at first. We didn’t keep any data on demographics. We had no idea how many Black advisors were affiliated with the firm. It was just me, two Black advisors from my Washington, D.C., office and one Black branch manager down in Miami.

We weren’t even sure of what our starting point should be, so we began by identifying who was out there.

I joked that I was on a search for Black people. We got on the phone with regional and divisional directors. And the year before our first BFAN Symposium, I went to the national conference Elevate and literally walked around seeing if I could find Black folks to tell them about our network and what we were trying to do. People who knew I was with RJA would see me at these RJFS events and be like, “What are you doing here? Are you switching sides?” I’d say, “I’m looking for Black people. If you see any send them my way.” It’s funny, and it would make some people feel uncomfortable. But then I would explain that we were starting a Black Financial Advisors Network and were trying to identify people who would be interested.

Thinking back on all that BFAN has accomplished since those early days, what makes you feel most proud?

How raising awareness through BFAN has had such a positive impact on the overall culture of our firm. We play a significant role in driving the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion within our organization. Our board of directors – from [Raymond James Chairman and CEO] Paul Reilly and [President of Raymond James Private Client Group] Scott Curtis to Tash – are all on board with our efforts. And they’re very connected with what we do.

We’ve also made significant advancements in our recruiting. We have a very specific focus on diversity recruiting, along with great metrics around what we’re looking for and how to do it. And we’ve been able to build on our success to help develop other employee resource groups.

When BFAN started out, we learned a ton from the Women Financial Advisors Network, which started in 1994. Similarly, when the plans for the Pride Financial Advisors Network started coming together, we spent a lot of time with the folks there. They learned a lot from our experience with BFAN, and that made it easier to get the Pride network up and running because they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Now with BFAN being part of the overall diversity & inclusion efforts with the Advisor Inclusion Networks, the journey continues.

What are some of the biggest challenges BFAN has faced?

When we started, we set goals around what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to hire a lot of people and have a certain amount of Black advisors. We quickly learned that was way harder than we expected. That’s because the problem wasn’t just the structures and systems inside the firm. We were also dealing with industry problems, with systemic issues in education, with Black college graduates who had preconceived notions of our industry and weren’t interested in joining the wealth management field.

Since then, we’ve worked with our HR hiring team and the Advisor Inclusion Networks to come up with realistic metrics so that we’re not just setting arbitrary goals based on numbers that feel good to us. So we’ve been able to establish long-term plans rooted in achievable objectives.

We saw a wave of civil unrest this year highlighting the continued racial injustice afflicting the Black community. How did you navigate these difficult circumstances?

Personally, 2020 was undoubtedly tough. When the protests began, I received calls from people across the firm and industry asking about how to navigate the situation. At the same time, I’m a Black man with two Black sons who was also seeking guidance. I was dealing with the emotional impact of what was happening around us, trying to manage it within my own house while also having the energy to go out and lead.

What are some ways that people can put anti-racism into practice, whether in financial services or beyond?

Anti-racism is important. But I think it’s naive to expect everyone to prioritize it because not everybody has been personally impacted by racism. There are people, like myself, for whom it’s a priority. And we need to continue driving the conversation, building awareness, changing what we can and having people come on board over time. There are other people who think racism has recently exploded around the country. But this has been going on for hundreds of years. Now it’s on camera; now we have data. Still, we can’t always indict people for not taking action – because if their worldview and experiences have been the opposite of ours, they may not even realize how racism remains a problem.

Are there specific challenges you’ve had to overcome as a Black professional?

I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than me, so I can’t say whether I would’ve done better or worse if I weren’t Black. That said, I know Black men don’t get treated the same as others.

So there are certain things I’ve had to do to put myself in the best position for success.

For example, when I was a financial advisor in Richmond, Virginia – which is not the most welcoming place for minorities – I always assumed that I had about two minutes to make a good impression on a prospect, otherwise I had no shot of winning the business.

When I had meetings, I specifically planned out a quick dialogue to build rapport and create a connection because I fully expected they would not want to work with a young Black man. I overprepared for every meeting. I would write a proposal to make sure I could answer every question; I read all of the fine print; I made sure I considered every variable – down to how I dressed. Every day, I was clean shaven with a pressed suit, good tie and spit-shined shoes. And I practiced. I wanted every presentation to be perfect. I knew I couldn’t control any bias they might have, but I could control the quality of my presentation.

I don’t know how many accounts I lost because of my race. I never thought, “That guy didn’t work with me because he’s racist.” That thought never entered my mind because that was not controllable. If I didn’t win an account, I would instead go through everything I did, making sure that I addressed any issues before the next time. It’s a process that made me more prepared than other people in my office, and one that I think helped advance my career.

Looking ahead, what are some ways for financial services to recruit more Black professionals?

At a company level, firms need to do what Raymond James is doing and be deliberate in their recruiting tactics. I’m not just talking about affirmative action programs. If you want the best talent, you’ve got to make your environment welcoming for everyone. You don’t want an entire segment of the population full of ambitious, intelligent people saying, “This business isn’t for me.” Otherwise, you lose that talent forever. That’s why every firm needs to foster an open, inclusive environment for the best people, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. From an industry standpoint, we also need to band together to improve the perception of financial services. For example, companies could have a financial services day at major universities and host summits for diverse folks.

I also think people like me need to be out in our communities and setting good examples. There’s a phrase that’s being used a lot lately – “If you can see it, you can be it.” When I think back to Chuck asking me about becoming an advisor, I remember having no apprehension because my high school coach was Black, and he was an advisor. I thought, “Well, coach Lauren was doing this, so I know I can do it.” That’s why people like me need to be doing mentoring programs and financial literacy programs and having group talks. That’s one thing I encourage all advisors to do – get out there, get in your community. Because there will be young kids who look at you and say, “Hey, I want to be like that guy.”

This piece was featured in BFAN Connection, a biannual newsletter from the Black Financial Advisors Network. View the latest.

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