Donna Rio

The fee-based financial planner, investment advisor, insurance agent, and tax preparer believes there is more than one right way to make a plan.

One year ago, Donna Rio experienced firsthand how the global financial turmoil was playing out in people’s lives. Her clients kept calling her, anxious about retirement plans up in smoke and college savings in shambles. They wanted her to tell them if they should sell.

Some financial planners and brokers may have wanted to hide during those months, when uncertainty was widespread and answers were few. Friends and colleagues say Rio did mostly what she does best — listening, talking, and debating, sometimes for hours to the same client. “If you feel you can’t sleep at night, you have to let me know,” she said she told her clients who were thinking of pulling out of the market. “Most people who called really just wanted to talk.”

For more than twenty years, Rio has paired her financial sense and experience with a sensitivity to what her clients are experiencing. Her clients include self-employed people trying to launch businesses, artists without two cents to rub together, women with inherited wealth who are unsure how to manage their money, and young and old living with serious illnesses and trying to make good financial decisions.

Rio is a certified financial planner and investment advisor, registered with Protected Investors of America, a San Francisco broker and dealer established in 1934. She also is an enrolled agent and tax preparer. She has built her business by listening to what people say they need and considering the resources they have. Her business is mostly fee-based, so she doesn’t have an incentive to sell investments to clients. And indeed, she said she doesn’t believe there is one right way to make a financial plan. She sees her role as partly that of an educator, helping people learn how to handle their own finances.

“If you didn’t have a clue what any of it means, she’s the right person to go to,” said Carol Aguada-Hallberg, a business partner. “If you don’t know what to do, you can say draw me a map, and she would.”

Yet Rio won’t shy away from telling her clients when some of their habits may need to be changed. “If they are spending a lot, that becomes apparent quickly,” she said.

Her services have evolved with her clientele, currently a roster of about 160 people. Artists with whom she once traded services for art are now selling their work and facing issues about how to manage money after years of not having any. Clients she once consulted about their eventual retirement are now elderly and dealing with issues involving estate planning and long-term care. In fact, so many of her clients have expressed an interest in long-term care that she and Aguada-Hallberg, an enrolled agent working in her tax business, are starting a new business related to long-term care, disability, and life insurance.

Rio grew up in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, and came to California to pursue a career as a systems analyst. She received her MBA from Berkeley in 1985 and worked at Motorola in the leasing department. “I thought, after a year of that, rather than using this knowledge on equipment I would use it to help people,” she recalled. In 1987, she earned her financial planning certificate and enrolled agent’s license and launched her financial planning and tax businesses.

She has built her client base through referrals and from giving workshops on financial issues in places such as local hospitals and to women’s groups. In the 1990s, she operated a nonprofit that provided financial planning advice to people with health issues such AIDS, cancer, and multiple sclerosis. Albany business consultant Linda Walker refers clients to Rio, especially the elderly. “I referred a woman to her who is now well over 100,” Walker said. “For that woman, Donna is one of the few people in the world she trusts.”

For small proprietors, from artists to consultants, Rio offers the following advice:

1. Get long-term disability insurance. “You are still here on the planet. You still need to pay bills. It’s important to protect the income stream.”

2. Purchase health insurance. “You need to be wise about where you put your money. This is more important than life insurance.”

3. Save something, even $50 a month. “I believe everyone should be doing something systematically. Accumulating wealth has not to do with the best investment but consistent savings.”

San Francisco artist and librarian Kate Connell and her husband, Oscar Melara, an artist and bus driver, go to Donna Rio for help with their taxes. “We trust her to educate us about what the parameters are,” Connell said.

Rio also has built a reputation for her expertise in socially responsible investing, which is now more commonly called “sustainable investing.” But she says she doesn’t push it on her clients, and moves on whenever they aren’t interested. For those who are, there is usually much to discuss. “There’s a few things people agree on,” she said. “Philip Morris, most would say no. But some people will invest in a drug company, some won’t. And if one invests in mutual funds, it may be more difficult to satisfy their socially responsible parameters.”

Stress is definitely a factor in Rio’s profession, particularly during years like the last one. She has a Vizsla, or Hungarian pointer, named Emily whom she takes to the hills or the Piedmont parks. She plays badminton with the Golden Gate Badminton club and on Saturdays drives to Clayton to attend a fitness bootcamp started last year during the economic meltdown as a way to raise money for breast cancer. “It was a great thing to do when people were uncertain and upset.” She likes to meet friends weekly at the Drunken Fish on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.

This year, Rio says there are more tax complications than she can remember, with numerous new tax credits for buying a home or energy-saving autos and home improvement products. It’s the time of year when her mind works overtime, no matter what is happening with the stock market. “I can think about tax returns at 3 a.m.,” she said.

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