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Park City • In the beginning was the word, written down in droves of books, magazines and fact sheets for anyone aspiring to riches to read.
Then along came Carl Richards.
You may know the Park City financial planner if you're a fan of Bucks, The New York Times blog that helps readers puzzle out the mysteries of personal finance and make the most from their money.
Richards' sketch-filled blog posts appear each Monday in the Times' online business section and often in the Best of Bucks feature that runs in the newspaper on Saturdays. The posts draw large numbers of comments and are consistently picked up by the section's home page, the most valuable piece of real estate with the biggest viewership.
"He is one of the strongest thinkers on how people handle money that I have ever run across," said Ron Lieber, who edits the Bucks blog (http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com) and writes the newspaper's Your Money column.
With each blog, the 38-year-old Richards sets his hand to some matter that fits under the umbrella of money management. What sets him apart, though, from a Suze Orman or a Dave Ramsey is the tack he takes. Instead of offering narrow, prescriptive recommendations for some action, Richards strives to change the way people think about finances.
His method is two-fold. Each post is 400 opinionated words about a financial concept, accentuated with a simple but sophisticated drawing that helps people form a mental image of his message. The blog is a pulpit from which he has garnered priceless publicity for his ideas.
"One of the hardest things to do when you are attempting to put financial concepts into plain English is to help people visualize it. The thing about Carl's drawings is they are so clear," Lieber said.
"Another thing that is very hard to do in the world of personal finance is to make it funny, or at least fun. More often than not, Carl's sketches cause you to chuckle, in addition to making you think really hard."
Unlikely beginning • Richards' path to the pinnacle of newspapers is a modern Horatio Alger story of pure luck. Uncertain about what to study in the mid-1990s, he was an undeclared major at the University of Utah and laboring for a landscaping company. (He later earned a finance degree from the U.)
"My wife decided that digging ditches wasn't a long-term career, so she had been looking in the Want Ads for me and found this job that we thought I could do," Richards recalls.
The ad was placed by Fidelity Investments, the Boston-based mutual fund giant that had opened an office and call center in Salt Lake City in 1986. Fidelity's name, though, didn't signal much to Richards. He wasn't sure what a mutual fund was. It didn't matter anyway. A sinewy 6-foot-tall, 160-pounder, he was applying to be a watchman.
"When I went to the interview, I was expecting a security job, like a bouncer," he said. "It turns out it was securities, not security."
Richards is a deft speaker, which helped him trounce all of the other candidates, except one. At the end, though, the interviewer chose the other applicant.
"We were sitting next to each other," Richards said. "And the guy looked at me and said, 'I don't want it.'
"That's how I ended up in this industry."
He stayed with Fidelity for a year, answering calls from clients who had questions about their accounts or were asking for stock quotes or placing trade orders. When he wasn't on the phone, Richards was training to be a broker.
Prudential Securities was his next employer, and from there Richards went to Merrill Lynch, where he worked until 2004, when he established his own firm, Clearwater Wealth Management. Last year, because his clients were now scattered across the U.S., and to avoid any chance of a copyright infringement suit, Richards changed the name to Prasada Capital Management. The firm has about 40 individual and institutional clients to whom he is fiercely loyal.
Conventional trappings of wealth don't tell Richards' story, but his unconventional approach to explaining wealth concepts help define him.
By modern standards, especially those of Park City, his home is modest. Large windows frame the Wasatch Mountains a few miles away, but it is not a million-dollar view. A family man with four children, he carves out time to ski and pedal a mountain bike, although the bike is only a single-speed and he keeps only one pair of skis instead of the eight he used to think were necessary to excel at the sport.
Market observer • This Zen-like quest for simplicity and focus traces to the time when Richards was still a Fidelity neophyte. Around the time Netscape set the markets on fire with the first public offering of its stock, he noticed something so interesting that he decided to make finance his career.
"I remember actually saying, 'There is sort of [a] 'secrets of the wealthy.' What are these people doing that's different from somebody who isn't?' It's not a judgement of bad or good. It's just that they were doing something different, and I was intrigued," he said.
The difference was behavior, he concluded. Wealthy investors bought and held. Everyone else seemed to churn their accounts, buying or selling as the markets bounced around or to chase the latest hot investment. Sometimes they struck it rich; mostly their returns were mediocre.
Richards developed a drawing to illustrate this common-sense observation of personal finance. Called the behavior gap, the picture makes clear that the average investor underperforms the average investment. The search for the best investment leads most people to buy high and sell low over and over. By contrast, investments held for long stretches produce higher returns.
The concept is so simple that all Richards needs is a bar napkin and a Sharpie to demonstrate it. As a wealth manager, he has drawn the behavior gap and other financial notions for clients hundreds of times. It is a rare person who doesn't get it when they see something in black and white.
"What is so genius about [the drawings] is they almost always cause you to recognize something in yourself that might not be quite right a failure of thinking, or an emotional weakness or a tendency to defer difficult decisions," Lieber said.
"He pokes fun at those things, on one hand. But they are also a reminder of the fact that these things don't go away. The humor, in some ways, is almost confrontational, but not in an off-putting way," Lieber said.
Richards has been drawing pictures and writing for Lieber for more than a year. Richards came to Lieber's attention in 2009, when he wrote complimenting the Times editor for one of his columns on financial planning.
"I don't know if I would call Ron a friend of the planning industry, but he's an advocate of good planning. It was apparent in the column that it was written critical of the industry, but in a way trying to encourage the industry," Richards said.
"So I remember reading it and thinking, 'Wow, he's really trying to push us toward being better, so I emailed him and said that was a great column.' "
The two traded emails for awhile, and occasionally Richards would attach one of his sketches. When someone else messaged Lieber about Richards, Lieber looked closer at the pictures and liked what he saw.
What lies ahead • In October 2009, Lieber asked Richards to be part of an experiment in which Richards would answer personal finance questions from Times readers. When that went well, the two agreed Richards would blog for the paper. Each post would include a drawing that got at the behavioral concepts in finance.
"I think there's a real humility to his work," Lieber said. "He has an understanding of the kind of emotional foibles that can set us adrift, that comes from the fact that he wasn't raised with a silver spoon ... I think that helps him."
The first sketch appeared in February 2010. Richards' life hasn't been the same since. The Parsons New School of Design in New York asked him to submit drawings for a workshop and show that explored the use of illustrations to explain financial concepts.
Staged in October at the New School's gallery next to the historic Forbes building on Fifth Avenue, the show included exhibitors included other exhibitors such as Minh Uong, the Times' art director, as well as artists whose works have appeared in The Economist, Canadian Business and The Wall Street Journal.
"These were real artists," Richards said. "But then they had me lead the workshop on why do we need to come up with a new language to communicate some of these issues because people aren't understanding them."
Earlier this month, Richards got a phone call from Courtney Young, an editor at Portfolio, the business book unit of the Penguin Group publishing house. She asked him about a possible book deal.
"I found his material very compelling, and it was crying to be a book. I think he has a really fresh take on not just financial planning, but in the way people should be thinking about money in their lives," Young said. Two weeks later, they reached a deal.
The book of essays and drawings will be released in January. The publishing schedule is "aggressive," but she thinks Richards is up to the challenge.
"I think the timing is right for this book. I think it will resonate with readers, and we want to get it out there," she said.
Richards is trying to fathom all that's happened to him in the past two years and what lies ahead, including a travel show of his work and that of other artists and, possibly, a retail endeavor, because his signed prints are selling for more than $100 apiece.
Most of his life has been unexpected and unscripted, though, a fact he readily concedes. Despite being a planner, he's never planned his career.
"It's been one really neat surprise after another."
Who is Carl Richards?
Known for • Blogging for The New York Times.
Occupation • Owner, Prasada Capital Management
Residence • Lives in Park City
Age • 38
Education • Finance degree, University of Utah