Ron Carson’s Pursuit of Significance

Illustration by Patrick Leger

Illustration by Patrick Leger

He’s achieved success through his wealth management firm — but he remains on a mission to improve himself and the world.

Ron Carson once nearly had his head blown off by a shotgun blast, and more recently spent a night alone on a mountain exposed to such extreme elements that he faded in and out of consciousness. When he was cognizant of his predicament, he thought he would perish before morning — this was no glamping trip gone slightly wrong.

In a life more dynamic than most, Carson was driven to success by circumstances and an obsessive focus on growing his eponymous business, an independent wealth management firm which today has $20 billion in assets. Recently, however, his closest friends and family have seen a noticeable change in Carson that many would never have expected. But if you unpack and piece together Carson’s life story you find plentiful clues that have long pointed to his becoming the person he is today.

More than a decade ago, Aaron Schaben was scheduled for a job interview with the founder and CEO of Carson Group. Schaben had never met Carson, so he went online to learn what he could about the man and the company, which at the time was one of the largest independent RIAs in the U.S.

Google informed Schaben that Carson had authored books on how financial advisors could improve their businesses, so he ordered and read them in preparation for the interview. Among other things, he gathered that punctuality and looking the part of a financial advisor were important. Advisors, it seemed, should wear suits and ties and be clean-shaven.

On a Friday that happened to be his birthday, Schaben showed up 15 minutes early for the 5 p.m. interview — Carson, wearing board shorts and joined by his Yorkie-poo, arrived 15 minutes late but was eager to meet and apologized.

“I did so much research on who I thought he was,” Schaben said. “For him to show up that way was awesome because it completely shifted his persona to who he really is. It took all the guards down.”

Still, Schaben didn’t find the right moment, or courage, to tell Carson the dog peed on his shoe during the interview. (He told Carson months later and they laugh about it today.)

Schaben got the job, climbed the company ranks, and is now president of Omaha-based Carson Group. The company, and Carson himself, have changed Schaben’s life.

“I told myself to give it a month to just watch [Carson],” Schaben said. “And if he lives his life the way that he wrote his books, and he does the things he recommends — like the six most, the vital one, the blueprinting, the values, [and] all those things — then I was all in.”

A few weeks into his employment at Carson Group, Schaben, who said he was about 70 pounds overweight at the time, went to the office of his fit CEO.

“I’ve read your books. I’ve watched you. Now, I’m going to ask you for help. I know I’m not where I want to be. I want to get my health under control. What would you recommend I do?” Schaben asked his boss.

Carson spent 20 minutes answering Schaben’s questions “in a helping way, like a guide” and recommended a trainer who helped Schaben and his wife lose a collective 100 pounds in five months. “He’s not somebody to force anything on you,” Schaben said about Carson. “But if you want to help yourself, and he sees a drive and a desire in you to do it, no one will help you more.”

Carson, 57, has motivated thousands of advisors and others like Schaben to improve personally and professionally through his company, coaching business, books and annual conferences, and he seems to never lack motivation himself.

But in recent years, colleagues and family have noticed a change in Carson. The Type-A person described as “mercurial” has achieved success, relaxed a little, and is knowingly navigating a new phase of life.

Ron Carson grew up in an impoverished home near Dayton, Ohio with parents who were not present enough to be good ones, he said.

His mother, Rose, suffered from bipolar disorder and loss; her first husband died in a car accident and their 10-year-old son died of a heart defect the same year. Later, she was working as a waitress when she met Carson’s father, also named Ron, who was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In his off time, he made extra money selling pots, pans and vacuum cleaners. They fell in love, married, and had Carson and his sister, Ronda.

When Carson was 9, the family moved to Tekamah, Nebraska, north of Omaha, to work on a small family farm.

“My sister and I had very little parenting. My mom, when she was manic, would be up for days straight. And when she was depressed, she could be in the hospital or in bed, for a week. She was rarely around and available,” Carson said. “My dad was a workaholic and heavy drinker. Looking back now, it was a crazy environment to grow up in.”

He and his sister marvel that they survived. “I had so many near-death experiences growing up,” Carson said.

When Carson was about 3 or 4, he wandered out of the house to a nearby highway and started throwing rocks at cars. “I didn’t even know you shouldn’t do that,” Carson said. He remembers the state police picked him up and asked where his mom was. When they brought him home, Rose didn’t even know he’d been outside.

A few months later, Carson was at his grandmother’s house, playing with a cousin when he heard an explosion. Carson turned to see a huge hole blown in the wall a foot from his head. His cousin had triggered a 12-gauge shotgun hidden under his grandmother’s bed.

Another time, Rose took Carson and one of his friends to a lake. Carson, who couldn’t swim, slipped through a rubber pool tube and nearly drowned. “I remember pushing off the bottom [of the lake] and waving trying to get someone’s attention, and then I remember waking up. I was on the beach — a lifeguard had saved my life and I threw up a bunch of water,” Carson said. “My mom was oblivious to it. I told her I almost drowned. She said, ‘Oh, I’m sure you didn’t.’”

From age 10 onward, Carson and Ronda were driving cars and moving farm equipment from field to field; work dangerous for experienced adults. When he was 16, his parents let him borrow the family’s old Lincoln Continental. He and a friend wanted to go skiing, so they picked up a case of beer and drank their way to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The weather was so bad, the 10-hour drive took 17 hours.

“We were lucky we made it,” Carson said.

Everybody drank beer in their small town, Carson recalled. The same friend was killed in an alcohol-related car accident a few years later — one of six kids in Carson’s graduating class who died in DUI-related accidents.

Although Rose was often inattentive, she was also Carson’s biggest cheerleader. “She always said, ‘Ronnie you can accomplish anything, you can do anything, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.’ So, there wasn’t lot of parenting, but my mother supplied a tremendous amount of motivation,” Carson said.

While living in Ohio, Carson used soda and other things from the house to start his own concession stand. It gave him the bug of entrepreneurship that his mother supported as best she could. In Nebraska, he and his mom had a paper route, and when Carson started a nightcrawler business, Rose would sell bait to night fishermen on his behalf.

To his father, Carson was more of a laborer than a business partner. Carson and Ronda had chores to do in the morning and his father would pull him out of school to work during planting and harvest seasons. “I was always terrified of my dad. It was a tough childhood,” he said.

Hired help never stayed at the farm long. “They would quit after a year or less because my dad didn’t believe in lunch breaks. You bring it and you go until you can’t go anymore. And he didn’t care about your family obligations, or if you had a kid’s birthday to go to,” Carson said. “When the weather was good, he really expected everybody to go.”

Rose died in 2015. Since then, Carson’s father has met someone else and become a “much gentler” version of himself.

“He’s still a hard worker, way too involved in our farming operation, but I think he’s actually relaxed enough that he can enjoy life,” Carson said. “I never wanted to become him, but I was well on my way to being a taskmaster — to pushing people too hard.”

In the early 1980s, as an agriculture boom ended and interest rates rose, many farmers, including Carson’s parents, went broke. Carson’s father told him and Ronda he couldn’t support them anymore.

It was a catalyst for Carson, who was in high school at the time. He was tired of working on the farm, fixing everything himself, and scrubbing grease he could never remove from under his nails and on his hands. He was tired of being poor.

Shortly after, Carson was sitting in the library during a study hall and opened an issue of Money magazine. He saw a list of the best professions, and at the top was Certified Financial Planner. “I thought I’d do that because I could wear a suit.”

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Carson was a below-average student until middle school when his height and athletic build caught the eye of Michael Hunt, his teacher and the head football coach. Hunt recruited Carson to play, but with the clear expectation that performance on the field be matched in the classroom.

“He lit a fire in me, and from then on I got straight A’s, all the way through school,” Carson said. He still considers Hunt one of the most influential people in his life.

Carson’s on-field performance drew notice from multiple colleges, and he ultimately chose to play for the University of Nebraska. As a freshman, he was a brawny 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, and a starting defensive end but plagued by injuries. “I wish I would have never played because my shoulders are messed up [and] my knees are terrible,” Carson said. A medical redshirt would have extended his eligibility but he decided to retire from football (and both his knees need to be replaced).

Instead, Carson focused on the success he was already having cold-calling farmers and selling them insurance.

Jason Comes, an advisor at Carson Group, has known Carson since elementary school and was his roommate freshman year of college. He remembers Carson always trying to figure out ways to make money. He even dressed as Santa Claus for many years, Comes said. To help pay for school, Carson joined the National Guard, which trained in the summers and required six years of service.

But Carson was always working to become successful at finance. “We would be having fun and Ron was already cold-calling and making appointments and getting into the business,” Comes said about their freshman year at college.

Comes said Carson would endlessly listen to tapes of Hilary Hinton “Zig” Ziglar, a salesman and motivational speaker, and Tom Hopkins, another “builder of sales champions.” After a couple months, Carson got his securities license to sell mutual funds and began working toward becoming a CFP. Carson never finished his degree at the University of Nebraska and started building an advisory business full-time.

“It’s amazing how [often] he finds that next thing. And he’s just as passionate about it as he once was about whatever is in the rear-view mirror now,” Comes said.

Carson’s business success did not happen overnight. He was a lone advisor for almost 10 years before he brought on a partner, Todd Feltz, and hired his first employee in 1989. Eventually, they hired a handful of advisors, but it wasn’t going as smooth as Carson hoped. There wasn’t enough consistency. “Carson” was on the sign over the door but the client experience was different depending on the person they were talking to.

Around the same time, Carson attended a conference in Hawaii where LPL Financial introduced a new advisor platform that would enable advisors to charge clients an asset-based fee rather than commissions. Some other attendees thought it was a stupid idea. Carson went back to his hotel room to talk with his wife, Jeanie. “They just rolled out this program that’s going to be huge. We get to sit on the same side of the table as the client,” Carson told her.

Carson’s company joined the new LPL program and began managing assets for clients.

“I remember having a big party. I had grown to three people on my team, and we hit $25 million in advisory assets and we thought we’d really arrived,” Carson said.

Feltz and others eventually parted ways with the company. (Feltz is still an advisor in Nebraska and Carson said they remain friends). Meanwhile, Carson went on to be one of LPL Financial’s most successful and high-profile wealth managers.

In 2010, Carson realized he couldn’t grow his business any further without it becoming unmanageable. “I was doing what I could to keep wearing all the hats and I realized it was going to be really difficult to grow because there wasn’t enough time in the day to do more,” Carson said.

Comes, who has worked with Carson for three decades, said there have been phases where Carson would arrive at the office hours before others and leave late in the evening.

In 2011, Carson Group established its own RIA and broker-dealer, enabling its founder to begin hiring more employees, delegating some responsibilities, and investing in the business.

Today, Carson Group has $20 billion in assets under management and is one of the largest independent firms in the country. It supports 120 partner firms that collectively work with more than 40,000 families, up from 50 firms and 15,000 families just five years ago.

Last summer, the company opened a new 200,000-square-foot headquarters in Omaha. A month later, Bain Capital, the $130 billion private equity firm, invested in Carson Group, valuing what it called “one of the fastest-growing financial technology and services firms in the country” at $1 billion. (Bain Capital purchased the stake from Long Ridge Equity Partners, which led a minority investment in the company in 2016.)

The success of the company has also happened alongside an evolution of its leader, something colleagues, family, and Carson himself recognize.

“I can tell you, in the early days, through the 90s and 2000s, he was a Type-A [personality],” Comes said of Carson. “If it wasn’t done perfectly, you knew it. And you caught his wrath because he was a perfectionist and always has been a perfectionist.”

Jon Foster, president and CEO at Angeles Wealth Management, a Los Angeles-based RIA with more than $900 million in assets, worked closely with the founder at Carson Group from 2009 to 2011. Foster said Carson was “mercurial” and Type A “with a capital A.” But Foster enjoyed his time at the company and admired Carson for his work ethic and sense of humor.

“He’s a pretty good dead pan. He can play the bluff for quite a long time and get a chuckle out of you,” Foster said. (Carson, several people said, is a known practical jokester.)

Jamie Hopkins, managing partner of Wealth Solutions at Carson Group, has worked at the company for three years and witnessed a change in its CEO. Hopkins, who has befriended Carson and spends time with him outside of work, said Carson has become better at handling the stress of making decisions and is a more sincere listener.

Carson agrees. His childhood caused him to carry stress about money. Only after a high level of success did he feel free of that.

“I was an asshole. I didn’t treat people poorly, there was a business agenda — and only a business agenda — about everything I did,” Carson said. “But today, I enjoy the softer side of life, the relationship side of life, the people side of life. I am loving helping the people that are in our life today.”

Last year, Carson told Mark Moses, his personal executive coach of 11 years, that he wanted to retake a DiSC test, a popular personality and behavioral assessment that he took in 2010. He thought his profile might have changed. Moses doubted that. DiSC scores don’t significantly change, he said. Yet Carson’s had. The executive’s dominance score fell dramatically and his influence score rose.

“Ron’s an anomaly,” Moses said. He grouped Carson with a short list of others he has coached who can think big — even if others “think they’re a little wacky” — and who are willing to do what it takes to build something great.

In addition to therapy, which Carson said everyone can benefit from, other things have driven his metamorphosis, including attending Burning Man four years ago. “All of humanity could benefit from attending [Burning Man]. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.” Soon after, Carson wanted to check another “fourteener” off his list. There are 96 mountains of at least 14,000 feet in the U.S., and “peak baggers” like Carson make it a goal to summit as many as they can.

Carson hired a guide to help navigate the part of the Sierra Nevada range he decided to traverse. Once underway, Carson quickly tired and began experiencing altitude sickness. The guide said Carson needed to head back. A worsening condition could be serious, given how inaccessible they were. “Once we got into the snow field, I started falling, I got wet, and then I just couldn’t make it,” Carson said.

The guide left Carson at 8 p.m. to get them sleeping bags and said he would be back before midnight. When the next day began Carson was still alone.

“I’ve never been so cold, shivering. I was going in and out of consciousness. I was sick, and I was freezing, and I was wet, and it’s altitude, and I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Carson said. Fearing the worst, he made a video for his wife and three children and saved it to his phone. The guide arrived shortly after.

But even that close call with death doesn’t top the list of things that have changed Carson, according to his wife.

“He’s a lot calmer than he used to be, and he takes time away and spends more time doing some of the things that he loves,” Jeanie said. “But I think what has changed him the most is having grandchildren.”

Having achieved success and freed himself of financial fear lingering from decades ago, Carson is now in pursuit of significance. He wants to have a lasting impact on those he cares about, on financial services, and the world.

He’s passionate about getting clean water and food to people in need, and he and Jeanie plan to expand Dreamweaver, the charity they founded. Dreamweaver is dedicated to fulfilling the lifelong dreams of impoverished seniors who are terminally ill.

Carson remains dedicated to self-improvement. He still writes six goals for the next day before he goes to bed, and his “vital one” to accomplish. They are all tied to his blueprint, a detailed roadmap to his long-term goals — no matter how lofty.

He’s still an exercise fanatic, according to colleagues, and commonly signs into business calls while riding his Peloton bike. “I think if you said, ‘Ron we’ve figured out the secret to life and can live forever’ he would say yes to it,” Hopkins said, perhaps only half-joking.

Would Carson Group have become as successful if its founder changed sooner? Carson didn’t know at first. Maybe his focus on success was required.

On the other hand, he said, “I feel like I’m 10 times more impactful today than I was then because I’m more collaborative,” he said. “I actually listen to what people have to say. I used to sit in the room and feel like I had to have all the answers. Even when someone else was talking, I was always thinking about what I was going to say. I wasn’t listening to what they were saying. I think all the great information I missed probably would have helped the company more than whatever I was doing at the time.”

Michael Thrasher (@Mike_Thrasher) is a reporter at RIA Intel based in New York City.

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