Managing your firm from afar

Many advisers find they can run practices from anywhere (even at sea)

Mar 7, 2010 @ 12:01 am

By Lisa Shidler

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When Scott Leonard is sailing the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean next year on a three-year trip around the world with his family, he plans to have one hand on the tiller of his 50-foot catamaran and the other on his cell phone, talking to clients about their investments and financial plans.

“We've structured the business so that I'm not always part of the day-to-day operations of the firm,” said Mr. Leonard, whose firm, Trovena LLC, manages $400 million in assets.

“My best skill set is to be the entrepreneur and think about big-picture ideas for the business,” he said. “Sometimes, I'm actually more of a distraction when I'm in the office.”

Mr. Leonard, 42, is among a small but growing number of investment advisers and financial planners who are finding that they don't need to go into the office every day to manage their firms successfully. Some are choosing to take time out to spend with their families, while others want to live away from their practice's headquarters for part of the year.

“This is really growing in popularity,” said Brian Propes, Cambridge Investment Research Inc.'s vice president of practice management.

“You can make this work almost regardless of your situation,” he said. “You just have to continue to meet the clients' expectations.”

Of course, successfully managing a practice while out of the office — and more importantly, continuing to make it grow — is no easy task.

Key clients may feel neglected or concerned about the day-to-day operations at the firm, while advisers may find it difficult to land new prospects via videoconferencing or phone calls. To pull it off, practice-management experts recommend that advisers follow some straightforward rules.

First, advisers should set up clear procedures so that other advisers or office assistants call clients back immediately to answer their questions.

For example, Frank Moore, principal at Vintage Financial Services LLC, said that clients are never aware if they are talking to him at his Ann Arbor, Mich., office or at his lake cottage on Manistee, Mich., where he has spent his summers since 1997.

“When people call and are concerned, the staff doesn't tell them I'm gone for the summer. They get a message to me, and I call them back quickly,” Mr. Moore said.

“It doesn't matter if I'm calling from the beach or my office; I'm just as smart in my bathing suit as I am in a regular suit,” he said.

Practice-management professionals said that advisers who are away from the office must also have a game plan for meeting with new clients, but prospects are likely to be reluctant to wait around until the adviser returns.

For example, Mr. Moore said that when a prospective client has more than $1 million in assets, he drives back to meet with the person face to face. Other advisers choose to screen the clients over the phone or to send a fellow adviser to meet with the prospect in their place.

But Cindee Taradash, a sole practitioner at CVT Financial Planning in Whitefield, N.H., who spends her winters in Tucson, Ariz., said that she has lost prospective clients when she has been away from the office.

“It's harder to find new clients,” said Ms. Taradash, a fee-only adviser who doesn't manage assets.

“They want to meet in person,” she said. “I'm probably not picking up new clients at a rate I would have been otherwise.”

Ms. Taradash said that she has managed to keep all of her present clients, however, by promptly returning e-mails and phone calls while away and by setting up annual meetings with them when she is back in New Hampshire.

Advisers also must prepare office staff members to take on more responsibilities while they are away so that the business runs efficiently, said consultant Mary Dunlap, whose eponymous firm works with about 50 advisers. This can mean anything from meeting with new clients to handling paperwork, customer communications and marketing.

Taking on the extra duties was a huge adjustment for Nancy Nelson's staff of two when she began spending winters in Costa Rica more than a decade ago.

“They looked like deer in the headlights, but they've grown and blossomed and stepped up,” said Ms. Nelson, a partner in her Olympia, Wash., firm, which manages $40 million in assets.

Perhaps most importantly, advisers must trust their employees to manage the business competently and honestly while the former are away, said Helen “Cokie” Berenyi, an adviser and owner of Red Triangle LLC of Charleston, S.C.

She spent six weeks in the resort ski town of Silverton, Colo., in December and January. Ms. Berenyi said that the time away — the first time she had tried it — was a success because she outlined every procedure, including how to handle referrals, in a detailed manual.

As a result, she managed to land all three Charleston-area prospects with whom she spoke while in Colorado. “Those people didn't even know I was out of town,” said Ms. Berenyi, who manages about $20 million in assets.

“It's not that I'm deceiving them,” she said. “We set up a phone conference to determine if it's a good fit, and then we meet in person.”

For his part, Mr. Leonard is calling clients to prepare them for his absence. While he is away, clients will meet with a junior adviser in his Los Angeles office, Eric Toya, who for nearly two years has been present at all of Mr. Leonard's client meetings.

Mr. Leonard said that he will have a computer, phone and Internet access aboard his sailboat.

He said that his clients so far are less concerned about his absence than they are about the hazards of around-the-globe sailing. “They have this impression of you floating in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Mr. Leonard, who will be traveling with his wife and three sons. “People are afraid the pirates are going to get us.”

E-mail Lisa Shidler at lshidler@investmentnews.com.

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