Bill Gustafson, who is credited with starting the personal financial planning program at Texas Tech and advancing the industry nationwide, is retiring after 35 years.
Nathan Harness remembered a time he and Texas Tech University professor Bill Gustafson went to Washington, D.C., for a personal finance conference. Harness, a Texas Tech alumnus, was a young professor, while Gustafson was an old hat in the world of personal financial planning. Their relationship hovered along the mentor-protégé/friends spectrum.
The conference had just ended. Gustafson asked Harness if he'd been to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. No, the younger man responded, so Gustafson skipped his flight back to Lubbock and the two went to the museum, stopping at the Gemini re-entry module housed in the lobby. Gustafson, who used to work for an aerospace company, rattled off facts about blast shielding and how astronauts go to the bathroom.
“Behind us there's this sea of people starting to gather,” Harness said. “This tour guide has stopped talking. She's no longer talking about anything in the museum because everyone is listening to Bill tell these stories about this re-entry module. He eventually sees me looking past him and turns around and sees all these people. He just said, ‘OK, everybody gather in,' and kept talking.”
That's just Bill. The personal financial planning professor, who is retiring in December after 35 years at Texas Tech, has never really worried about what's conventional, focusing instead on getting the job done. Through his lengthy career, that outlook led to him playing a significant role in creating the academic side of the personal financial planning (PFP) profession.
“He sees himself through the program,” said Vickie Hampton, chair of the Department of Personal Financial Planning. The two went to graduate school together 40 years ago in Illinois, and she still remembers how much he loved learning and how he irritated their professors by opening doors for them and calling them “ma'am.” “It's the program's success that he is most proud of.”
Creating financial quarterbacks
Gustafson started teaching at Texas Tech in the summer of 1978. He was a family finance professor and picked Texas Tech in part because the day of his interview was a warm, sunny, breezy spring day and Lubbock seemed like a nice place to be.
A few years later Gustafson attended a conference at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, home to what was then the only academic PFP program in the nation. When the Certified Financial Planner Board of Governors created the CFP designation in 1985, he knew this career field was going places.
While he doesn't take credit for starting Texas Tech's program, calling himself a “hovering presence” who shepherded it along, others have no problem pointing out the contribution he made to the industry, largely through his work in creating the program at Texas Tech.
“Clearly the program wouldn't exist without him,” said Hampton, who came to Texas Tech in 1999 at Gustafson's behest. “One of the things about Bill, he's really good at knowing what he's good at and knowing what needs to be added to his skill set by new hires. As he tells it, as the program was getting bigger, he realized the need for organization, and organization is not in his skill set.”
Hampton was far from Gustafson's first recruit. He convinced the Board of Regents to start the program and hire a well-known planner as one of the first professors. He convinced student after student – some who were looking for a major, some who didn't know they were looking for a new major until they met him – to join the financial planning program. The result is a program at the epicenter of personal financial planning education.
“He's a good salesman,” Hampton said. “He may be our best salesman actually. He knows how to sell in a way that's a win-win.”
As the years went by, Texas Tech developed a reputation for producing planners who can address the many facets of financial planning, to be what Gustafson called financial quarterbacks. Personal financial planning is much bigger than creating a budget or investing money. People come in wanting to talk about insurance, taxes, investments, retirement, benefits and estate planning. Dealing with all of those questions created a profession unto itself.
However, PFP is bigger than that. Gustafson said clients would come into a planner's office with non-specific goals and without an easy way to measure progress.
“With a corporation it's easy to see how things are going,” he said. “They measure everything by money or by growth. But when it comes to families and individuals, seldom do those folks state their family goals in the metrics of dollars.”
For instance, clients frequently tell a planner they want their children to have a good education. The planner must ferret out what a good education means – what type of college, how many degrees, what tuition is likely to be 10 or 15 years from now.
“What financial planners are trying to do is turn those qualitative terms into quantitative terms and then make a plan to make sure when that time occurs there's adequate funding,” he said.
There's that angle. Planners also have a different set of problems, such as getting people to stop bad financial behaviors or get couples into the same frame of mind about money. Texas Tech-educated planners are typically known for having the skills to motivate people, thanks to a more diverse curriculum that includes classes like counseling skills, a skill many planners don't learn until they're on the job.
It sounds like an amalgamation of financial counseling, marital counseling and being a life coach, yet Gustafson drew people in with his passion and the opportunity this career provided to help people.
“Bill could sell ice to Alaskans,” Harness said. “He has a gift for conveying truly what financial planning is.”
The exponential growth of financial planning
Texas Tech was one of the original 20 universities to create a PFP program and the first to create a doctoral degree, which happened in the early 2000s. The bachelor's and master's degrees allowed Texas Tech graduates to raise the program's stature in the industry. The doctorate allowed graduates to fan out throughout the country, becoming a part of or in many cases starting PFP programs in universities in more than a dozen states.
It's quite the family tree.
Gustafson had even more involvement in starting programs in other universities in Texas, including lobbying faculty members, alumni and other stakeholders, recruiting students, securing grants and persuading higher-ups that yes, this program will be successful. One such program was at Prairie View A&M, a historically black university in Prairie View.
Another was at Texas A&M. Bill Carter, an Aggie alumnus and financial planner in Dallas, worked with Gustafson to get the program, which Harness now runs, started. Carter remembered calling Gustafson to discuss it.
“His first remarks were, ‘I think that's great,'” Carter said. Gustafson offered to fly down immediately and help Carter. Carter had to slow him down – and keep slowing him down when Gustafson called every six months or so with the same question and offer: How's that thing going at A&M? Let's get down there and talk to them.
Gustafson was there throughout much of the process, including when they pitched it to A&M administrators.
“He went around talking to everybody about what a great idea he thought it was and how much he wanted to see the program,” Carter said. “That helped, because that was coming from another academic.”
Gustafson still has a connection to the program at Texas A&M. Harness calls him every week or two to ask questions about programming, recruiting, placement for graduates and the politics of getting a program off the ground. He is one of many graduates with Gustafson's cell phone number programmed into their phones.
“He's been there, done that,” he said. “My story's not unique. There are dozens of program directors across the country that really owe their ability to get their program off the ground to Texas Tech, and boiling that down, to Bill Gustafson and Vickie Hampton.”
As hard as that part of the job is, it's one of Gustafson's favorite parts.
“Seeing them succeed is huge for me in a personal sense,” he said. “Seeing them go to universities that people know the names of around the country, seeing them go and make an impact and know I had a little bit to do with it and Texas Tech had a lot to do with it, that means a lot. That does.”
Of course, he's the only one who calls his contribution little.
“There's nobody who's had a greater impact on the profession than Bill Gustafson,” Carter said. “Nobody.”
Finding the one
Harness started his master's degree in finance. He knew the kind of jobs that would be available to him and where to find them. Personal financial planning, even in the 2000s, was more of a risk. Most colleges and universities didn't have a PFP program.
Harness wasn't the only finance student Gustafson hooked. Caleb Brown, now a recruiter for the personal financial planning industry, was a junior finance major who was paying for school by working at a home improvement store when Gustafson walked in one Saturday looking for some flooring.
Before long the conversation moved from tile to schooling. Gustafson told Brown about the PFP program; he thought it sounded interesting. Gustafson invited Brown to sit in on the introductory class the following Monday and then run up to his office if he had any questions.
“I started thinking to myself, even if I don't do this as a career, this is important for me to understand for my own situation,” Brown said.
With more than half the credits he needed to graduate, he switched majors. He liked the personal attention available in this smaller, niche program. He liked how passionate Gustafson was. He also liked that this guy who wore jeans and cowboy boots and said exactly what he thought was the head of this program.
“The guy just barely met me and I felt like he'd already taken a personal interest in me, my career and my life,” he said.
That interest in people motivated Gustafson. Just in the last couple of months he's gotten emails from former students thanking him for what he's done for them. One wrote to say Gustafson was one of only two people outside of her parents who had a significant influence on her life. At a recent conference, a college student approached him to ask if Gustafson remembered his girlfriend's father, who'd been in his class a few decades ago. He did.
“Those kinds of things are what you really remember, and then you'll be at some place – in my case, usually a bar – and somebody will walk up to you,” he said. “It's usually somebody with graying hair leading a couple of kids, and they say, ‘I had you for personal finance in the ‘80s. I really enjoyed your class.'”
He does that because he knows the effect a professors can have by taking an interest in students. More than four decades ago he was the student who faculty members encouraged, and he attributes much of his success to that.
Gustafson rarely hesitates when he speaks, but there's a second or two of silence before he talks about life after retirement.
He's not going anywhere, at least not full-time, though he plans to put some miles on his motorcycle. His son and grandchildren live in Lubbock, his friends are all here, he doesn't want to go back to his hometown to be a farmer, and it's almost baseball season so he'll be in the stands with the other Tech Hecklers, a group of baseball fans who have gotten to know each other, gone to each other's houses and watched each other's families grow up while they were cheering for the baseball team.
“I don't think he's going to walk away from any of that,” said Chris Snead, associate vice president for the Texas Tech Alumni Association. “He's still going to be the guy who comes to baseball games and enjoys his life.”
Snead was a freshman when he started watching baseball with “Dr. Gus.” He knew Gustafson as a baseball dad; not until the late 1990s, when Snead started his job at the alumni association and Gustafson's son, Mike, moved back and they all watched baseball together again did he learn how much Gustafson did on campus.
In fact, when he found out Gustafson was retiring, he told his daughter, a college freshman not majoring in PFP, to take his class. He wanted her to be able to say she'd had a class with Dr. Gus.
“Everything about him was almost larger than life,” Snead said. “The larger-than-life cowboy hat, the larger-than-life cowboy boots, the motorcycle, the Corvette, the truck that he built from everything. His house is a museum of projects.”
Gustafson still has plenty of projects on campus, retired or not. Hampton already has an office for him, where he can work on the archives for the history of financial planning, and he's scheduled for a number of recruiting trips in the spring. He is adamant he will not be up here every day. He doesn't say anything when every other day is mentioned.
He'll also remain a powerhouse in the personal financial planning community and the face of Texas Tech to many planners. Brown, the finance major won over by Gustafson's enthusiasm, sees it every day. He helps firms throughout the country find the right candidate, and when he tells people he went to Texas Tech, Gustafson almost always comes up.
“They'd say, ‘That's the guy with the boots!” he said.
“The boots” are red and black snakeskin cowboy boots with a Double T on the front and “Riding for the brand” on the back. “Riding for the brand” is old cowboy lingo; it's about which ranch a cowboy represents. Gustafson wants his loyalty clear: he is for Texas Tech. He made sure to show the boots off to Carter, his Aggie friend, when he got them.
Though he fends off any suggestion he is somebody worth looking up to, Gustafson can name names of people he looks up to: Chancellor Robert Duncan, Alumni Association CEO Bill Dean, Honors College professor Jim Brink and Southwest Collections archivist Monte Monroe – all of whom rival his long-term connection to Texas Tech.
“You get a chance to work with them to do certain things, to see them around and know we're all still riding for the brand,” Gustafson said. “If I was going to tell you folks who you want to be like, it's the guys like Dr. Dean who have given themselves to an enterprise in a very positive way. I hope in some ways I've done that.”