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Making an impact through financial and life planning

Thomas C. Presley of CI Brightworth Private Wealth

By Bridget McCrea

One of the key moments in Thomas C. Presley’s life came when he was a fairly new wealth planner just beginning to work with clients and formulate his career plans. “I met a gentleman who had a large sum of money and very good investment returns,” says Presley, president of wealth management and partner at CI Brightworth Private Wealth in Atlanta, “but who wasn’t very happy.”

That’s because while that man was working hard and investing for the future, he missed seeing his kids grow up, participating in their activities, and just enjoying life in general. As the years progressed, he became more and more disenchanted with his decisions and was yearning for better balance in his life.

“He was numerically rich, but personally poor and sad about his life,” says Presley. “When he retired, he realized that he had nothing in common with his wife and no friends who weren’t co-workers.”

The man’s story stuck with Presley and helped him shape his philosophy both as a person and as an advisor. “It really taught me that optimal financial decisions are important, but that optimal life decisions may be even more so.”

On the same side with clients

Presley started out in public accounting, working for a regional accounting firm’s corporate tax department. Wanting to have a more direct impact on clients’ lives than he was achieving as a tax preparer, Presley switched to wealth management and joined CI Brightworth Private Wealth in 2011.

“I wanted the opportunity to directly help individuals and families achieve more of their life goals,” says Presley, “and achieve them sooner through a comprehensive financial strategy.”

Asked why he selected the fee-only route, Presley says he wanted to always know that he was serving as a fiduciary and providing objective financial advice to his clients.

“I had friends who’d been put in a position of selling their parents, aunts, uncles, and friends all sorts of things that they may or may not have truly needed; I didn’t want that pressure,” says Presley. “I wanted to be certain I was in the same corner and on the same side of the table as the people that I was helping at all times.”

Without any regrets

CI Brightworth Private Wealth has 90 employees, 2,000-plus clients, and about $5 billion in AUM. Early on, the firm focused primarily on serving the needs of executives and professionals who worked for The Coca-Cola Company. That evolved over time as the company began serving corporate professionals and executives from Fortune 500 companies nationwide.

Subsequently, the firm added business owners as a target. “We’ve developed services for business owners,” Presley explains. “Our whole balance sheet approach focuses not only on the personal or business side, but on both sides collectively, with the goal of helping clients maximize their eventual exit on their terms and without any regrets.”

In 2017, CI Brightworth Private Wealth acquired McGill Advisors, which provides wealth counsel and investment planning to the dental industry. So now the company’s client base includes corporate executives, business owners, and dentists.

Retirement planning is a common thread across all three areas. “We focus on what it means to retire well, something we’re all trying to get to someday,” says Presley, “and on making sure our clients do that not only financially well, but also personally well.”

CI Brightworth Private Wealth also assists high-net-worth clients, athletes, and business owners who have high incomes and who are rapidly accumulating resources. For these clients, the firm implements financial plans designed to help the next generation of clients quickly increase their wealth and achieve their personal and financial goals.

Growing as a partnership

The firm was founded as Brightworth Private Wealth in 1997 and then rebranded to Brightworth in 2005, when its ownership expanded to include four first-generation partners. Two years later, it began selling ownership to the next generation of advisors and high-caliber operations talent.

In 2021, Brightworth’s owners sold a majority stake in the firm to CI Financial, and in 2022 Brightworth’s owners fully transitioned over to becoming shareholders of CI Private Wealth.

The firm is now forming CI Private Wealth, which Presley says will be “one of the largest wealth management partnerships in the U.S.” More than 20 partner firms acquired by CI Financial are converging to form this new entity. Once that happens, CI Brightworth Private Wealth will be able to work with an even broader base of ultra-high-net-worth clients, athletes, and business owners.

Presley says forming the new entity has been both exciting and challenging, but the process has so far gone smoothly. “We’re excited about what these additional services and resources will mean for our clients and our team members,” he says, “but as with any type of merger or acquisition, there are certainly growing pains as we become one combined firm.”

Diversity counts

Knowing that leadership in the financial services profession has a reputation for being less diverse than other business sectors, Presley says diversity is “very important” to CI Brightworth Private Wealth, whose 20% female partner base is increasing. Its advisor and wealth planner base is also 20%+ female and increasing. “We’re especially proud of the number of female partners, advisors, and wealth planners that we already have onboard,” says Presley.

He expects those percentages to continue to rise in the coming years. “We’re working closely with a few colleges that have leading financial planning programs, to make sure we’re continuing to add the best and the brightest and expand our diversity,” he says. “Broader perspective and experiences can only help us all.”

Making a difference

A NAPFA member since 2016, Presley finds the organization’s content and continuing education opportunities very helpful. Being a NAPFA member also helps him to set himself apart from other professionals in the field and has also helped him generate new business. “My membership in NAPFA has led to several prospects who are now clients of our firm,” says Presley, who works with many Fortune 500 executives who are trying to navigate their complex compensation packages, benefit packages, and equity awards.

Presley also works with clients whose incomes are increasing and who are beginning to rapidly accumulate assets. “I don’t think a robo-advisor is the answer for these types of clients, who need and want help sooner rather than later,” says Presley. “If we can partner with someone sooner in their life and career, we can make an even bigger difference and help them achieve their goals—both financial and life—even faster.”


Useful tools of the trade

As he looks around at the financial planning profession, Thomas C. Presley says it’s getting harder and harder to stand out as both an individual advisor and as a company operating in the sector. He says CI Brightworth Private Wealth overcomes this hurdle by focusing more specifically on a few areas where it has the most and deepest expertise: working with business owners who are looking to transition their companies within a few years, dental and orthodontic practices, and corporate executives working at a handful of specific companies. 

“That’s been far more effective for us than trying to be everything to all people,” says Presley. 

To reach and engage its target clients, CI Brightworth Private Wealth has been using more digital tools, such as podcasts, email newsletters, blogs, and short videos describing certain aspects of the financial planning process. Some of the company’s podcasts and blogs include “Should You Own Your Employer’s Stock?” and “After Selling Your Practice, Here are Your Top 3 Financial Priorities.” 

Like most organizations, CI Brightworth Private Wealth has also been using more technology to run its growing practice. Zoom was a mainstay during the depths of the global pandemic, for example. 

The company also uses assessment tools for recruiting and hiring, and to make sure it’s identifying individuals who have the right combination of technical expertise and relational empathy. “To truly be a good advisor, you need to have both of those skill sets,” says Presley, “and a lot of people tend to heavily lean one way or the other.” 

One of the new additions to CI Brightworth Private Wealth’s tech toolbox is StockOpter, an equity compensation risk analysis and tax planning platform. “StockOpter visually displays and calculates the potential impacts, depending on when you exercise a stock option or equity award,” says Presley. “That’s been very useful for our team.”


CI Brightworth Private Wealth, at a glance

Location: Atlanta


Year founded: 1997

Number of staff: 90 

Number of clients: 2,000-plus

Amount of money managed: $5 billion 

Description of typical clients: Corporate executives of Fortune 500 companies, business owners, and dentists. 

Typical client needs: A trusted advisor to help achieve their personal and financial goals.

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Piece of advice to fellow NAPFA members: “I work to understand where people may be coming from. Every morning I try to read the news from two or three different sources. Maybe a little BBC to get a world perspective, and maybe a little CNN and Fox News to get a little bit of a political leaning on what I’m reading, just to make sure I’m not in an echo chamber and that I understand where my clients may be coming from.”