Practice Management

Flu season bugging advisory biz

By Liz Skinner

Jan 20, 2013 @ 12:01 am (Updated 5:16 pm) EST

Jeffrey Cutter doesn't recall ever having been out of work because of an illness in the 12 years since he founded Cutter Financial Group LLC.

That is, until the flu virus that is sweeping the nation kept him home for two days this month.

“It came on like a ton of bricks,” Mr. Cutter said from his Falmouth, Mass., office.

“I am a Type A personality with a triple plus,” he said. “I'm always on, and I couldn't even lift my head up.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that this year's flu season, which ramped up earlier than usual and could go on until March, is the worst outbreak in a decade. Business consultants predict that employers will incur billions of dollars in medical costs and lost productivity, and financial advisers are taking extra precautions to avoid this year's nasty strain.

Around the country, advisers are hosting flu vaccination clinics, loading up their offices with hand sanitizer, sending sick employees home and canceling appointments with clients who report any sign of the sniffles.

"MORE VIRULENT'

“This flu virus has been a little more virulent than most and it's more widespread, so it's hitting people harder,” said Carolyn McClanahan, a physician and financial adviser at Life Planning Partners Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla.

“The most important thing is that if you have an elderly client and someone is sick in the office, do not bring the client in,” she said. “Have a well person go out and see the client.”

U.S. health officials think that the flu, which has killed at least 20 children this flu season, has peaked in some regions of the country, while other areas show cases on the upswing. Massachusetts, where Mr. Cutter lives with his wife and three daughters, has been one of the hardest-hit states.

In addition to business delays from his time out of commission, about 65% of Cutter Financial Group's meetings in the past couple of weeks have had to be rescheduled because of sick clients.

In Boston, where officials de-clared a public health emergency this month and reported that 25% of flu cases were requiring hospitalization, wealth management firm Welch & Forbes LLC is focused on prevention.

“This year, we provided flu shots to all our employees, as we have for the past several years,” president Jay Emmons said. “What's different this year is that we are hosing down the doorknobs with Purell.”

So far, the firm's 52 employees have been flu free.

Near Denver, adviser James Osborne of Bason Asset Management said that he knows a number of advisers and other professionals who have been out of work for a week with this year's flu virus.

Mr. Osborne, who has stayed healthy, has had to reschedule several meetings in recent weeks because his clients have been too ill, causing business delays and lost productivity, he said.

He has been using extra hand sanitizer and trying to steer clear of people when possible to protect himself. That is easier for Mr. Osborne because he is the firm's only employee.

“That's one advantage of being a sole practitioner this year,” he said. “It beats being in a big office where it almost seems guaranteed that the flu is going to go around.”

The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors' office in Arlington Heights, Ill., was hit especially hard by illness this winter. Every one of its 10 staff members has been out with the flu or a cold over the past three or four weeks.

“We went down like soldiers, one right after the other,” said Ellen Turf, NAPFA's chief executive.

In San Ramon, Calif., adviser Michelle Higgins said that the media have “done a very good job of getting us Californians ready for what is headed our way.”

Her office, Maloon Powers Pitre & Higgins LLC, hasn't seen any serious flu cases yet, and its advisers and employees are diligently wiping down their desks and phones — and using hand sanitizer throughout the day, she said.

“I am way too busy dealing with vaccinating against financial infections,” Ms. Higgins said. “I have no time to be down.”

Marjorie Bennett, an adviser with Aegis Capital Management Inc. in Berkeley, Calif., spent a week at home with a fever after she caught the flu while visiting with relatives in New York over the holidays.

She had to cancel all clients meetings that week, and even though she was starting to feel better last week, she went to her doctor for a checkup to make sure that she couldn't spread the virus to an 80-year-old client with whom she had an upcoming meeting.

“This came on fast and furious,” Ms. Bennett said. “It's a nasty bug.”

The flu affects people differently, and no one should return to work until they are free of the major symptoms, such as a regular cough and extreme nasal congestion, Ms. McClanahan said.

“People are infectious when they are oozing snot and actively coughing, and probably for a couple days before that,” she said.

lskinner@investmentnews.com Twitter: @skinnerliz

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