When Liz Davidson told friends 15 years ago that she was quitting her job running a hedge fund, they thought she was misguided.

Then Davidson revealed her new career plan, and they thought she was really nuts.

She launched a company that gives financial guidance to average Americans through their jobs. Employers hire Financial Finesse Inc. to provide group workshops and one-on-one counseling to workers on topics such as debt management, college savings and elder care.

It was a noble goal but a long shot.

Most employers offered only bare-bones advice on 401(k) plans, much of it online to limit expenses. It was unclear whether companies would pay for broader education, especially more costly personalized guidance from financial planners.

"Everyone thought I was insane," Davidson said. "People didn't understand the business because there was nothing really like it. How could there be demand for a business that people didn't really understand?"

Today, the El Segundo company has more than 500 clients around the country, including Aetna, Nestle and the NFL Players Assn. Financial Finesse is profitable and has experienced its best growth in the last three years, Davidson said.

Having employers pay for planning services is still a fairly new concept, with only a few companies in the field. But experts say the workplace-based model has the potential to improve the sometimes dreary finances of regular Americans.

"It may be the one best mechanism for reaching the mass market in an efficient way, the most effective way," said Sheryl Garrett, head of a national network of fee-based planners.

Davidson's company has benefited from the concern among some companies that employee financial troubles could detract from the corporate bottom line.

Financial stress can lead to absenteeism or increased medical costs. And employers don't want workers with inadequate retirement savings to stay on the job solely for a paycheck.

"Everyone knows the person in the office who's financially stressed," said Annette Grabow, retirement benefits manager at M.A. Mortenson Co., a Minneapolis construction company. "They're on the phone half the day, with either family members or debt collectors, trying to straighten out and fix [their finances], and they're not productive."

The growth of Financial Finesse is a tacit acknowledgment of the deep gaps in Americans' financial literacy.

Repeated studies have shown that many people lack even a rudimentary understanding of personal finance and investing. Vast numbers of Americans are mired in debt or have meager retirement savings.

Various financial-services companies over the years have tried to bite off pieces of the advice business, typically with limited ambition and success.

Plenty of advisors fawn over wealthy people. But it's hard for middle-class and even upper-middle-class people to find knowledgeable and trustworthy assistance.

One study found that middle-income people often distrust financial advisors and don't even realize that they should seek help.

Many advisors who hold themselves out as financial experts have spotty training and undisclosed conflicts of interest, critics say. Some brokers, for example, recommend investments that pay them high commissions rather than what's best for clients.

Consumers who look hard enough can find skilled and objective financial advice, but it doesn't come cheaply. Depending on the services, financial planners can charge several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Many consumers are unwilling or unable to shell that out.