From the September 2006 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

September 1, 2006

Turning Point

Hollywood scribes call them "plot points" -- pivotal events that change the course of the main character's life and, hence, drive the movie's story.

A stroke Bob Nusbaum suffered at age 31, paralyzing the right side of his body, was traumatic but not, as you'd imagine, a big plot point. After two months, he was back at his Merrill Lynch corporate finance job -- business as usual.

Rather, the high-impact event that would mark Nusbaum's turning point came five years later: September 11, 2001.

The terrorist attacks "absolutely changed my life 180 degrees," says the principal of Middle America Planning, a fee-only financial and life planning RIA in suburban Pittsburgh. "My stroke wasn't nearly as bad as 9/11."

On that day, Nusbaum, now 41, was a senior financial analyst with Merrill Lynch Investment Managers in New York City, overseeing the firm's mutual fund business. With the wirehouse for 13 years, he felt so-so about his job but treasured Manhattan living.

Fourteen months after 9/11, he would chuck the corporate world and open his own financial planning practice to help middle-income individuals invest for their future. A year later, he split The Big Apple for Pennsylvania. Nusbaum's decision to become a CFP came almost as fast as his judgment call after the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

At 8:45 a.m., he was seated at his desk on the 31st floor of Merrill headquarters in the World Financial Center, then connected by air bridge to the WTC. Only an hour earlier, after emerging from the "E" subway line's "World Trade Center" stop, Nusbaum had walked through the North Tower and across the bridge to Merrill.

Now the incredibly loud explosion of the plane's slamming into that Tower sent horrified employees in Nusbaum's complex to peer out the windows. But this cop's son knew it was no time to stick around wondering what happened. Moments before, Nusbaum's boss had seen the plane fly past his private office window. It was so close that he could clearly read the carrier's name, "United."

Says Nusbaum: "Something in my background told me to get the heck out. An airplane had just hit real close by. I'm on the 31st floor. I knew it wasn't a good place to be." Further, the stroke five years before had left him with a limp. Nusbaum was unable to walk quickly; it would have been difficult, at best, to make it down 31 flights.

It took only two minutes from the time the plane hit for Nusbaum to catch a nearly-empty elevator and make it outdoors to safety. The scene there, he says, was "surreal." "You could see a plane print on the North Tower -- a big round thing and two things that were the wings. But you just couldn't make any sense out of what had happened."

As a teen, Nusbaum, born and reared in Matawan, N.J., says he was obsessed with business. "I was born to be a CFP. I took care of my own retirement [investing] between the ages of 22 and 40."

Now with wife Kathryn -- Middle America's managing director -- he's turned hobby into livelihood. Had it not been for 9/11, though, the planner would likely still be churning out corporate forecasts and budgets.

In 1988, after picking up a B.A. in business from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he began at Merrill as a customer service rep in money market operations. While working his way up through the firm, he earned an M.B.A. in finance from Fairleigh Dickinson.

Much later, on Sept. 11, Nusbaum, standing in front of his office building and looking skyward, remembers seeing "a tremendous ball of fire." A second plane had hit the South Tower. The ensuing chaos "reminded me of the running of the bulls. But instead of bulls, there were taxicabs charging down Vesey Street and people running all around them -- running away. All hell had broken loose. I was in shock."

Unable to run and scared of being trampled, Nusbaum began the trek home to 55th Street and First Avenue -- many miles north and on the other side of town.

"I looked back and saw couples jumping off the South Tower. It was sickening. Women in the street were screaming. I'll never forget those screams. I couldn't watch anymore. But I knew every time they screamed, someone else was jumping off," he says. "A guy had a radio. They said the Pentagon had been hit too. I was even more scared. I looked up at the Empire State Building: 'Is that next?'"

Walking along the Hudson River bike path, Nusbaum then took a roundabout route through Central Park to cautiously avoid passing through Midtown with its many skyscrapers.

Six hours after starting out, Nusbaum, dehydrated from the long walk and still in shock, arrived home. "As I got closer, the only thing I could think about was seeing my [three-month-old] daughter," he says.

After 9/11, Nusbaum's business unit was relocated to Princeton, N.J. For a couple of months, he unhappily made the five-hour daily commute, advising his new boss: "'This isn't working.' So I got downsized, but," he says, "it was fairly mutual." For a while, he worked part-time job for the Financial Planning Association helping 9/11 victims' families.

"I had watched people jump off the roof of the World Trade Center. It turned my head around. I didn't want to be in a job I didn't love."

After completing New York University's CFP program in only two semesters, he discovered the Garrett Planning Network, whose members charge by the hour and target middle income individuals. A perfect fit.

To be sure, Sept. 11 had triggered a domino effect in the RIA's life. "I'd probably still be working at Merrill if 9/11 hadn't happened," he says.

The Nusbaums and their two daughters relocated to Pittsburgh following New York City's massive 2003 blackout. "It was another signal that we needed to get out," notes the CFP.

Now he's enjoying a serene, family-oriented life in the suburbs. "It's like stepping back into the '50s."

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Middle America Planning

Robert Nusbaum, CFP, founder-president, Middle America Planning, fee-only planners; Pittsburgh; member, Garrett Planning Network; compensation: $150/hr.

Why he doesn't seek high-net-worth clients: "I don't want to help people try to get around estate taxes on their $10 million portfolios."

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