Emery Sheer may never have fulfilled the dream of the operatic career he pursued as a student. But that hasn't kept the Florida CPA and financial advisor from attracting a fan club---with some well-known celebrities among its members. And thanks in part to his wife, Jill--a principal violinist with the Fort Lauderdale-based Symphony of the Americas--as well as a client roster that includes musicians, artists and movie stars, Sheer has been able to "keep involved [in the arts] without being in it."
"My clients all come from referrals," he adds with undisguised pleasure. "I seem to have a very good fan club out there that tells people how I work."
Sheer studied music education and opera performance at Boston University's Graduate School of Music, but jokes that he abandoned the dream of an onstage career when he "decided I wanted to eat." Now, as a partner in Berenfeld, Spritzer, Shechter & Sheer, an accounting and advisory firm with offices in Coral Gables, Ft. Lauderdale and Sunrise, he concentrates on making his clients' dreams come true.
Among them are Dwayne Johnson--better known as "The Rock." As The Rock's business manager, Sheer provides all the tax structuring and financial planning for the popular wrestler-turned-actor's contracts and also set up and oversees the work of the Rock Foundation.
At summer's end, Sheer was scouting venues in Los Angeles and Miami for the post premiere benefit parties for The Rock's latest film, "The Gridiron Gang." Based on a true story, the sports-as-rehab movie ended its first week as number one at the box office. The after-parties also served as debuts for the foundation, whose goal is to place The Rock's Toy Chest in children's hospitals nationwide.
"He has a team that consists of me, his agent and an entertainment attorney," Sheer explains, "but I am the financial quarterback." That's Sheer's customary role working with the actors, musicians, directors and athletes who seek out his expertise. "With celebrity clients, I get more involved with their lives--real estate purchases, wills, trusts, asset protection--areas that other clients may not need," he explains.
"Emery has developed into one of my family's most trusted advisors," says The Rock's wife, Dany--also a client, and a wealth manager with her own business. "In addition to managing our tax situation and bookkeeping, he is indispensable in all aspects of our business development."
In The Rock's case, that sometimes involves calling a timeout.
"I need to rope him in quite often," says Sheer. A few months ago, The Rock organized a private screening of "The Gridiron Gang" for some underprivileged kids in Los Angeles. In his mission statement, he said he "wanted to bring smiles to children who have very little to smile about."
"I had to explain to him that that was too broad a mission statement for the IRS," Sheer recalls. The Rock, he adds, is "a very soft touch...probably because he was a kid in need himself."
Sheer is also involved with launching The Beacon Experience, a project of Dany Johnson's that will follow a class of inner-city children from elementary school through high school, providing scholarships to colleges or trade schools for those who stay the course. Sheer has already found computers for everyone in the project's first class.
He may be a softie when it comes to philanthropy, but Sheer takes the hard line when it comes to handling celebrity clients--particularly the rookie professional ball players, the superstars who get drafted straight out of high school. "It's 'I want that new Bentley and the Mercedes and the red Ferrari, too!'
"But who's watching their investments?" Sheer asks. "With those kids, it's the agent, and that's the wrong person. In 20 years, the agent will be gone, on to another player. For me, that kid needs to be a client for life, and he will be, if he allows himself to accept my advice.
"Celebrities' careers usually go in cycles," Sheer continues. "At one point, I basically go on record that my advice is life insurance now and putting some money into a safe pension plan and funding it probably even into year 35. I'm not proposing that I'm an athlete's agent, but I am a business manager. And I've had very good success with people realizing the amounts I'm trying to put away," he adds. "I tell them, 'I'm doing the right thing, and you've got to do what I advise.'"
On the other hand, one of the nice things about working with multi-million-dollar earners like so many figures in sports and the arts, is the ability to invest creatively. "So many people are disenchanted with the stock market, yet that's where their IRAs and 401(k)s are invested. People want more control, and there's no control over the markets," he adds. "You have to have a balanced portfolio, and in these times that means including alternative investments--real estate, private equity. There's a lot of private equity out there, and it works if the investor understands it."
Sheer's quest for private equity opportunities has led him in many directions, among them a potential new TV reality show and a program that uploads movies from California film studios to satellite for availability on demand. "But these are additional investments for people who want some upside." he cautions. "There is risk to them, but these clients are people who have $50,000 to $100,000 to lose without feeling it. They're not for someone with a $100,000 portfolio."
Sheer, by the way, says he has no set minimum for accepting a new client, but does offer prospects an idea of what his yearly fees will cost. He recently spoke to a young physician who called to have his taxes done, but felt "at this point in his career," Sheer's fee was too high. "I told him, 'When you're ready, call me back,'" Sheer recounts.
The firm--with 14 partners and 130 employees--covers a wide range of business, from individual tax returns to SEC auditing, the latter being one of Sheer's specialties. "But we don't run a paper mill," Sheer asserts. "I have a terrific client base. Except for the stress of tax season, it's a lot of fun!"
Because of his wife's career as a violinist and his own occasional concert performances--he's a baritone--a number of Sheer's clients come from the classical music field. Among them are Joel Levine, conductor of the Oklahoma City Symphony, and Albert Sherman, a New York City Opera director and a friend and client since their grad school days at Boston University. Sheer also includes many successful Miami-area business people and their families among his clients.
South Florida restaurateur Abe Ng credits Sheer with re-energizing his business. Recognizing that Ng's restaurants had plateaued in their market, Sheer threw himself into researching the industry, picking the brains of top industry experts. The result was adding a full sushi menu to Ng's Canton restaurants and revitalizing Ng's Wrapido restaurants by transforming them into Sushi Maki.
"Clich? as it sounds," Ng says, "Emery and his team helped us to grow our business to the next level."
This kind of involvement breeds lasting client relationships. "Just this year, I lost the very first client I ever had--she was 95," Sheer recalls. "It was 1978, she was a recent widow, and I had advertised my practice in a community flyer: 'Taxes prepared in your home or mine.' I always went to her home."
Clearly, client retention has never been his problem. For this, Sheer, who is also a CVA, ABV and holds a series 65 license, credits the philosophy he developed 28 years ago. "An accountant needs to pay his own way, to more than pay for himself. He should be able to show [the client] that he's saved them more than his fees." And he applies that philosophy to smaller clients as well as to multi-million dollar accounts.
"I think of myself as an investor advocate; I look for ways to help every person," he says. "Let's say someone comes to me with a $100,000 portfolio. I certainly can't put her into Broadway shows or single issue stocks. She needs something safe and secure, backed by real estate or mutual funds--although I cringe at that because of the 12b-1 fees," he adds.
But sometimes even with "no-no's," flexibility is necessary. "I share in the consensus that annuities are bad products," he says. "I could get rich off them because the fees are so enormous, but I hate them."
Still, there is a time and a place for everything, it seems. A client with $1.5 million of her own and three children to support came to Sheer recently. In the midst of a divorce, she had previously worked with a fee-based advisor who told her she was spending too much and would have to go on a budget of $35,000 a year.
"Annuities solved the problem," Sheer continues. "We took some of the money and put it into a guaranteed annuity, paying a guaranteed return--a cash flow of $75,000 a year, and she'll have an insurance product that will last her and her kids." The client's previous planners were fee-based, Sheer points out, and could easily have prescribed the same remedy.
"There's a big risk for the client in choosing the right person," Sheer reflects. "You have stock traders and asset-based fee advisors and fee-only planners. And if you're fee-based, there's always the possibility that you'll lose that incentive," he adds.
But as an accountant first, it's not surprising that the major problem Sheer finds in his field is that "a lot of financial advisors don't understand the impact of taxes--which," he emphasizes, "is huge!"
As an example, he tells of one client who was invested in a hedge fund for eight years, with enormous paper gains. "But he's paid out a significant amount in taxes and in the end, broke even," Sheer says. "The hedge funds trade and profit while you get to pay for the taxes. The client would have been better off putting his money in a bank CD!"
Or better off putting his financial fate in the hands of someone as passionate about his profession as Emery Sheer. "I want to be involved in a client's financial life if they'll let me. And if they'll let me," he says, "I will be involved."
Nancy R. Mandell is managing editor of Wealth Manager.