Ronda Zegarelli is the first to admit she’s a latecomer to investing.
“I did not grow up with the concept,” she said. “I was a horrible saver.”
But Zegarelli, president of Acrobatique Creative Ltd., wastes no time in stressing the importance of getting her finances in order over the past seven years.
She had built a savings account substantial enough to enable her to launch her new marketing company in February — after Giant Ideas, Pittsburgh’s sixth-biggest advertising agency and her employer of nearly three years, folded — without dipping into her portfolio. Zegarelli sprung for computers, printers, printing fees, corporation start-up fees and an official launch party event last month.
“I am happy to say that I have almost paid off my initial start-up fees since our company started up,” Zegarelli said. “We are working virtually right now and it has kept our fees nimble and, consequently, we can pass off the efficiency to our clients. I have money set aside for an office-space lease and when the timing and location is right, we will find the right location for our business.”
Zegarelli, who started Acrobatique with six co-workers at Giant Ideas to serve a few of that agency’s clients, knows the importance of keeping costs in check. Giant Ideas was hobbled by client cutbacks during the recession and never recovered; it had also taken on the expense of new, larger offices. Zegarelli has focused on practical solutions.
“I am fortunate to have a conference room available to use on the first floor of my condo building, so it has worked out well for us in the interim,” she said. “When I was at my former company, our office expenses were so high that in lean times, it was a challenge to stay profitable. So the decision was made that we would make sure that we concentrated on our client’s needs as the primary goal. Physical office space was secondary. The success of our business will not be the time that we spend in a large office conference room.”
Zegarelli is no stranger to difficult circumstances. Her husband, Rodney Underwood, passed away in 2009, a week before she began working at Giant Ideas. Underwood came to Pittsburgh in 1999 as a creative director at what is now Brunner Inc. before turning tech entrepreneur. He and Zegarelli married in 2005. She specialized in integrated marketing at Clear Channel and CBS Radio. Underwood took the financial lead for the couple, but also helped develop her interest in investing. Underwood believed in a diversified portfolio and assembled a mix of stock and bond funds with the direction of his financial adviser, Victor Moreno, a Westlake, Tex.-based investment adviser with Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC.
“I was very much influenced by his (Underwood’s) financial philosophy,” Zegarelli said. “He was also a big proponent of purchasing real estate in his community, especially in areas where he envisioned economic development.”
Rounding out her five largest investments is a second downtown condo, apart from her residence.
“I’m not a sophisticated investor, but I wanted to make sure any funds I received from the passing of my husband would be invested in areas that he believed in, such as real estate and the advertising business,” she said.
Zegarelli continues to work with Moreno.
“I look for his guidance so I am involved with approval, but I trust his recommendations,” she said. “He is out of town, so I do not meet with him but I do talk with him approximately every six months as a check-in.”
Longer-term, she intends to be “much more actively involved in the choices and the distribution mix” within her portfolio.
Malcolm Polley, managing director and chief investment officer at S&T Wealth Management, doesn’t work with Zegarelli, but he praised her preparation to handle a situation instead of raiding her portfolio.
“That’s very practical to have enough in savings or a liquid investment that would allow her to get by for a period of time,” Polley said. “As much as I hate rules of thumb, the general one is to have enough money saved to cover six to 12 months worth of expenses. That she’s been able to found a start-up with cash is a great thing.”