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The Skills a 1960s Counterintelligence Agent Used to Thrive as an Advisor

Tailing a lieutenant colonel who’d mysteriously visited the Russian Embassy and sweeping for audio bugs in Germany – this was Richard “Dick” Wendin’s life before finance.

Financial advisors with military experience — a small but growing demographic — often say the armed forces prepared them well for the financial services field. Richard “Dick” Wendin, an investment advisor with Heber Fuger Wendin (HFW), a fee-only financial advisor and investment counsel firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., fully agrees.

What sets him apart from most veterans in the industry is that he served as a counterintelligence agent — and that he joined the U.S. Army when John F. Kennedy was president.

Wendin, 80, a member of Yale’s Class of 1962, started out as a Private E-1 when he joined the Army in January 1963 because the Pentagon lost his application for Officer Candidate School. After many months of training at Fort Knox (where he received $78 a month and “three hots and a cot,” he says, referring to his meals and accommodations), he inquired about joining counterintelligence.

Following counterintelligence training at Fort Holabird in Maryland, Wendin travelled by boat to Europe and was stationed for more than two years as a counterintelligence agent west of the Rhine River in Germany.

He didn’t receive spy training or psychological training that might make its way into a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie. But a number of skills Wendin did learn in counterintelligence — including how to interview people, protect classified information, get along with others and earn people’s trust — have made him a better advisor, he says.

“You learned in a hurry in the Army — whether to strip a rifle or do an interview,” says Wendin, who now works part time.

Wendin joined Detroit Bank & Trust (now Comerica) shortly after taking a discharge from the Army in 1966 and has been at HFW, which his father co-founded in 1934, since 1982. He says it’s difficult to separate what he picked up in counterintelligence from what he has done in his financial career.

“That’s like trying to unscramble the egg,” he tells RIA Intel. “It’s part of my background and how I know how to walk and talk with people.”

When Wendin and his counterintelligence classmates were learning how to conduct interviews, the instructors and their wives did a lot of role-playing with them. The trainees were also shown a photo of a stranger and then required to spot that individual on the street, follow him, and write a report about his whereabouts. 

“That doesn’t sound too hard, but believe me, it is,” says Wendin. “The guy had to walk around the block about three times before we figured out that had to be him.” 

After a U.S. lieutenant colonel was seen entering the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, Wendin’s office was assigned to follow him around for at least a week and then interview him. It turned out this officer was at the embassy on legitimate business, inquiring about his wife’s family that was from a part of Finland that Russia had taken over, says Wendin, “but we wanted to make sure he wasn’t meeting someone in a back alley.”

Another time, Wendin received a call from a U.S. major after a part of a lock for a special weapon went missing. The major reached out to him because “I went out of my way to get to know them,” says Wendin. After 200 people passed a lie detector test, Wendin helped figure out that a soldier had forgotten to check the contents of a truck, which included the lock, before driving it to a trash heap. Buying booze and cigarettes for the displaced persons who hung out at the heap helped, adds Wendin, who was aided by a German translator. 

Wendin also figured out that a young man pacing near his office had been sent by East Germany to photograph military installations. Although the spy planned to defect rather than fulfill his mission, Wendin was required to turn him in to West German authorities. 

Wendin spent his college summers in various banking roles, which eased his transition to that environment after his Army service. But he says it was his counterintelligence experience that made him very comfortable and confident interviewing people much older than himself, including executives with major car manufacturers. 

“I had no problem at all talking to them,” he said. As a young man, he also had client meetings with the bishop of the Detroit Archdiocese.

Wendin’s counterintelligence experience trained him to gather information and be shrewd when interviewing subjects. For example, a “throw-off witness” (a person a witness mentions) might say, “That son of a gun left town without paying me $100,” he says.

So it’s not surprising that a landscaper who was bilking one of Wendin’s widowed clients couldn’t put one past the former counterintelligence agent. Upon discovering that his client had received an astronomical bill for service on a day that it had “rained cats and dogs,” says Wendin, “I called up the landscaper and said ‘The game is up.’” 

But having clearance in the financial world, as in the Army, doesn’t mean you can walk into “any top-secret place,” he says. “If you don’t need to know, you don’t get to see it.”

Dick Wendin in 2019 (Courtesy photo)

Dick Wendin in 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Being in the Army also made Wendin realize he prefers working in smaller organizations where he can directly speak with the top brass instead of having to go through multiple channels. A team of ten runs HFW, which has a big focus on fixed income and manages more than $4 billion in assets. 

Wendin recalls visiting the home of a wealthy recluse who owned a stake in a troubled company and had rebuffed earlier communication efforts. Wendin walked past stacks of old newspapers on the mansion’s porch yet felt fully prepared and comfortable to speak with the client given that he had encountered many different personalities during his Army years. “You learn to live with them and you’re not surprised,” he says.

“He was charming,” Wendin says of the client, who listened to him but had other plans. “He said, ‘I will never sell a piece of that company until I die.’” Fortunately, the company eventually righted itself years later, said Wendin.

Spending time in counterintelligence has also taught Wendin to be cautious and prudent. For example, some tools that look good on paper, or from an academic perspective, don’t work well in practice, he says, while others may be effective but irrelevant to clients. "Make sure it’s not just a bright shiny new toy to play with.” 

Wendin has encouraged clients who’ve sold their businesses to decompress and see what happens rather than rush into a major decision shortly after the sale. He’s currently trying to help a retired client, who he refers to as “the younger brother I never had,” to not make some of the mistakes he has. One of Wendin’s biggest pieces of advice is that “no one has success timing the market on a consistent basis.”

He remembers having to sweep the conference room at Army headquarters in Germany for audio bugs. When asked if he ever had to do this while working in banking or financial planning, he snapped, “If we did, I’m sure as hell not going to tell you about it!” 

Wendin, who still belongs to the National Counter Intelligence Corps Association (NCICA), strongly urges advisors to communicate and stay in touch with clients. 

“I suppose you can say the wrong thing at the wrong time with someone and blow it,” he says, “but so far, so good.”