Adviser military backgrounds can earn veteran clients' trust

Military service provides unique financial challenges, and advisers with military backgrounds offer extra expertise.

Dec 15, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By Sarah O'Brien

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When Russell Robertson retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel in 2007, he chose to turn his longtime passion for investing into a profession that would help fellow military retirees.

“I was an engineer [in the Army], so I did some interviews with engineering firms, but I realized I was more excited when I talked with investment firms,” said Mr. Robertson, 53, who works for WealthCrest Financial Services in Springfield, Va.

“Frankly, I could have earned more money doing something else,” he said. “But for me, it was a decision based on what I have fun doing and am good at.”

So after 26 years of military service, Mr. Robertson turned his attention toward earning a certified financial planner designation.

BONDING OVER BACKGROUNDS

Like Mr. Robertson, many of his clients are retired from the military. And like him, most of them launched second careers after giving a farewell salute to service. It's no wonder, considering that the average retirement age for enlisted personnel is 43, and 47 for officers, according to a 2012 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Age is only one factor that distinguishes Mr. Robertson's clients from their retired private-sector counterparts.

Military retirement plans can be confusing. Several different plans are in play, and which one retirees are enrolled in depends on when they entered the military: before 1980, between 1980 and 1986 or after 1986.

They are all similar in that 20 years of service rewards a retiree with a pension based on a percentage of basic pay. But that's where the similarities end and confusion can start, because each plan determines pension amounts differently.

Mr. Robertson's fellow adviser at WealthCrest, Patrick Beagle — the owner and president of the firm — also retired from the military. Mr. Beagle spent most of his service as a naval aviator for the Marines. Their combined histories and specialized financial knowledge give clients a level of comfort that not all advisers can provide.

“We're familiar with their retirement plans and can talk their language,” Mr. Robertson said.

FEDERAL EMPLOYEES

For some of Mr. Robertson's ex-military clients, their second career paths led them to federal agencies as civilian workers. Other clients call Uncle Sam their boss but never served in the military. Mr. Robertson estimates that 95% of his clients are federal employees, many of whom are ex-service members.

Many of his clients landed with him after attending financial literacy or pre-retirement seminars he and Mr. Beagle hold at federal agencies.

“Some government agencies do a better job than others at educating employees about their retirement funds,” said Mr. Robertson, who has held seminars at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, among other agencies.

Like the military's retirement benefits, plans for federal workers differ from those in the private sector. Depending on when an employee began working for the government, he or she could be enrolled in one of two plans.

And for retired military personnel, their options for holding both military pensions and the civilian plan include, in simple terms, moving some military retirement benefits into the federal system, which includes a thrift savings plan — the government's version of a 401(k) account.

Serving multiple clients facing these decisions provides the firm with consistent refreshment of federal employee financial options and fortifies its expertise in advising this market.

EARLY INTEREST IN INVESTING

A personal-finance course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point sparked Mr. Robertson's early interest in investing. As a cadet, he was intrigued during classroom discussions about the stock market, dollar cost averaging, building allocations and the role that social psychology plays in the market's performance, among other topics.

The class “taught me not to be afraid of the stock market,” Mr. Robertson said. “The professor gave me the confidence to start investing.”

As a young adult in the 1980s who tracked his investments using graph paper and a pencil, he did not guess that almost three decades later, his hobby would evolve into a new career.

And he takes to heart the responsibility to truly serve his clients.

“I've been to [industry] briefings where the conversation has been about how to talk federal employees out of being in a thrift savings plan and instead being in an [individual retirement account] because we can make money off that,” Mr. Robertson said. “I just shake my head. It might sound quaint, but we [military personnel] serve for a higher purpose: In doing financial planning, I'm not motivated by how much money I can make but by how much I can do to help people.”

Don Hurlbert and his wife, Barb, were unhappy with how their investment portfolio was being managed when they met financial adviser Russell Robertson several years ago.

“After Barb was impressed with a seminar [Mr. Robertson] and his firm held, we met with him,” said Mr. Hurlbert, a senior science photographer for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “One thing that appealed to us was that we were going to get more-personalized care and better eyes on our portfolio than we were getting with a big company.”

Also important? Mr. Robertson's 26 years of service in the U.S. Army. Both Mr. Robertson, a certified financial planner with WealthCrest Financial Services, and its owner, Patrick Beagle, retired from the military.

“Something the military instills in people is that you need to take care of the people under you,” Mr. Hurlbert said. “I'm retired from the [service], and so are they. So I trust that.”

Mr. Hurlbert, 59, served as a combat photographer for the Army for almost 25 years until he retired as a first sergeant.

He has worked for the Smithsonian for 15 years; his wife has worked there for 23 years as a museum specialist in the anthropology department. She is categorized as a non-government employee, which means the husband and wife participate in different retirement plans about which not all advisers are familiar.

Mr. Robertson's knowledge about “both the military retirement system and our current retirement systems has been quite a bonus for us,” Mr. Hurlbert said. “He knows how to take all of it into account.”

Mr. Hurlbert's Army experience included doing surveillance documentation and reconnaissance used for intelligence or decision making in the military's upper ranks. While his position now involves overseeing a photo department that serves the National Museum of Natural History, a job that can mean being in the lab and taking microscopic photos for scientists or heading out into the field on an archeological dig, he never forgets where he started and is grateful for what Mr. Robertson has done to help his nest egg grow.

“For a kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Montana, expecting to be a millionaire wasn't something I even considered,” he said. It's only in working with a competent financial planner that he's been able to attain the unattainable.

Sarah O'Brien is a freelance writer in Hampstead, Md.

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