Nathan Smith had spent his early life in Jerusalem as a child of missionaries. He then moved to the United States when he was 18 years old so that he could attend Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He was a sports management major who dreamed of working in minor league baseball.
But on the night of Feb. 2, 2008, when Smith was a freshman at Union, everything changed.
An F-4 tornado ripped through Jackson, tearing the roof off the residence hall where Smith and many of his classmates lived at Union. The campus sustained about $40 million in damages as many buildings were destroyed. About a dozen students were injured as well.
In the midst of the chaos and destruction, Smith went into action to help those affected.
“I was able to help work with the firefighters to help clear some debris, and the National Guard came soon to bring some order to everything that had happened and to look for survivors,” he recalled.
Smith’s encounter with the National Guard was an “aha” moment for him and redirected his career path.
“It really stood out to me that here was a group of people who served in the military — not just overseas but also in your communities, coming to your aid in a time of need,” he said. “This became a deep calling for me. I was an able person who wanted to help the local community and was willing to serve on the frontlines.”
Smith enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard during his junior year and frequently was called to serve the flood-prone communities along the Ohio River.
“There were many times we would get late night calls for units being called up to move sandbags or clear off an area that was going to flood,” he said.
Today, Smith is a wealth manager at Stivers Financial Services in Knoxville, Tenn., a practice that his father-in-law started nearly 30 years ago. But Smith’s experience with the Guard remains with him.
He had an overseas deployment when his unit was called to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa to provide security for a military base there. But for much of his time in the Kentucky National Guard, he served in the chaplain corps.
“Even though I had to train in shooting and do the physical training, I was attracted to the chaplain corps because it was a way for me to serve my fellow soldiers,” he said. “I counseled the soldiers and led Bible study. I even performed weddings for a couple of my friends who were in the Guard with me.”
A family member makes an offer
During Smith’s time in the Guard, he and his wife, Alicia, had their first child. They decided to move to Knoxville to be closer to her family so that she and the baby would have some support while Smith was away on deployments. As they prepared to move, Smith’s father-in-law offered him the opportunity to join his firm.
“The offer was that I could work at his firm alongside serving in the Guard, and then when I got out, I could go full time with him,” Smith said.
Smith transitioned from the military to working full time with Stivers Financial 11 years ago. He still works with the family firm, and he and his wife now have four children.
“I think there are actually a lot of resources for veterans, but they don’t know where to turn.
So I try to point them in the right direction.” — Nathan Smith
At Stivers Financial, Smith specializes in serving small-business owners, helping them to create benefits packages for their employees.
“A lot of times, these small employers don’t get the same kind of hands-on service from a bigger firm,” he said. “I help them with everything from health insurance, dental and vision to 401(k) accounts or SIMPLE IRA plans.”
Smith’s typical business clients are employers with 20 or fewer workers. He works with many blue-collar employers such as tool and die makers and auto mechanic shops.
He appreciates his small-business clients’ concerns about using benefits to attract workers but doing it in a cost-effective way.
“When dealing with small businesses, there is a great struggle between the employer wanting to save his dollars while having the right set of benefits to attract and retain employees,” he said. “Because otherwise, if the business owner is only looking for the cheapest plan possible, they’re going to get lower-level employees and they won’t stay with their employer long. It’s a balancing act, and I work with business owners to try to minimize their costs while offering the right insurances so they can hold on to the people who serve them.”
Smith’s father-in-law, Brian Stivers, found that it was easier to begin working with clients by offering them help with their benefits. Then, after the business relationship was formed, he could move to working with them on their retirement planning. Now he is working solely with investments and assets under management, leaving Smith to work on the benefits and insurance side of the practice.
“My goal is that in 30 years, I will be focused more on working with people on the money side and helping veterans prepare for retirement,” Smith said.
Serving those who serve
After 11 years in the National Guard and six years in the Army Reserve, it’s no surprise that Smith is called to provide advice for those who serve in the military. But although it seems that the veteran and active military community would be a natural market for him, Smith said that in the early years of his practice he was too busy to seek out that niche.
“But over the last few years, people have reached out to me knowing what I did,” he said. “These were friends of mine, and they were veterans and they would say, ‘I really need help with this. I don’t know where to go.’ So I discovered there’s an unfamiliarity with places veterans can turn to for certain answers. I think there are actually a lot of resources for veterans, but they don’t know where to turn. So I try to point them in the right direction.”
When someone is in the military, so many things are already taken care of for them, Smith said. But after their military service is over, they need help in making many financial decisions on their own.
Smith said many veterans are looking for resources to help them start their own businesses, and many of them also need help with debt reduction.
“So many veterans come out of the military and still act like 18-year-olds and go out and buy the biggest truck and the largest house — and then they have no money,” he said. “I work with them to create a budget and a debt reduction plan. I point them in the right direction to give them the tools and education so that they can afford to pay for things, such as a house, and also plan for retirement.”
Smith’s calling to serve the military and veteran community extends to his volunteer work as well.
Last year, he participated in the Team RWB’s Old Glory Relay in which volunteers walked, ran, pushed and cycled an American flag from the site of the former World Trade Center in New York to Atlanta. He and a friend organized a 5K run to raise funds for the American Amputee Softball Team, which is made up of veterans who lost limbs. The softball team members work with children who have disabilities, helping them to get involved with sports.
He volunteers to help connect veterans with services that can help them with their financial needs, such as applying for VA loans for a home or applying for college benefits under the GI Bill. “There is a network in the veteran community here in Knoxville that we can refer people to and help them out,” he said.
Smith said his work with veterans’ groups led him to work with vets on a professional level. “I never want to push my services. But I’m often shocked at how many people don’t have anyone to work with. So many local advisors have such high minimums and many people think they don’t have enough assets to work with a planner. So my father-in-law and I waive our minimum for military members to try and get them in the door and help them as best as we can.”
Looking to the future of his practice, Smith said he would like to expand more into the life insurance and retirement planning side of the business.
But whatever route his practice takes, he said, serving veterans always will be a part of it.
“Just like when I was in the Guard and worked in the chaplain corps, I still have a passion within my heart to work with veterans and with service members who need help,” he said. “Obviously, I still work with plenty of nonveterans and businesses who need help. But in growing my practice, I want to continue working with veterans more directly.”