For Keith Cox of Premier Financial Management in Baton Rouge, La. (www.pfmretire.com), education is the key to being a good financial advisor. And even with 26 years of experience in the business, he is still learning--as well as educating clients. In fact, in August 2005 he learned a hard lesson in life planning from Hurricane Katrina. After the hurricane, Cox discovered what it really meant to be a life-planning professional. All of a sudden, Cox and his firm were using their contacts not to help clients save and invest, but to find housing for them, schools for their children and grandchildren, and even to buy recreational vehicles to live in because their homes had been wiped out.
"Hurricane Katrina really helped me to put things in perspective," Cox says. "In my mind, Katrina was truly the rainy day that people save for. We expected that people would need to tap into the accounts they held with us because many of our clients were starting from scratch. But what they needed was a quarterback to help them put their lives back together. After being on the phone with clients during that time, I realized that we were talking very little about income distribution and retirement, but about real life issues that were not so obviously connected to financial planning. That's when I realized that together, my team and I had arrived. We had become resources for life planning--not just financial planning."
In his early years, Cox was sure that he was destined to become a teacher. But while in college, he became interested in financial planning and transferred his passion for educating students in a traditional setting to a passion for educating people about their financial lives. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Tulane University and completing post-graduate studies at Louisiana State University, Cox established Keith Cox Insurance and Financial Services where for twelve years he observed the shifting economic landscape as he served clients. Ultimately, he moved away from insurance into full-service financial planning. He joined the advisory firm of PMA Russell--where he helped clients develop retirement plans--as an interim step before establishing his own firm, Premier Financial, in 1996.
"Everything I do in my business life is centered on educating people about their financial lives," says Cox. "The best way to further that goal was to create my own business where I had the ability to make independent recommendations and help clients make better informed decisions. I established Premier Financial to reflect the changes that were happening in the financial planning industry--and within myself--at the time. I wasn't interested in pushing products and trying to get the biggest commission," Cox says. "Over the last 10 or 15 years, the financial planning industry has gotten progressively more client-centric. The evolution has helped us, as a profession, look at things much differently."
Cox, a CFP and CFS, transitioned to a fee-based structure because he strongly believes that this model reduces conflicts of interest and creates the best environment for serving clients in an objective, consultative manner. "This is not to say that there aren't good advisors who provide professional counsel in a commission-based model, but it's my own personal philosophy to remove any question about who I am working for," says Cox. "My belief is that it's an issue of appearance and total objectivity. I never wanted to be a salesman. I wanted to be an educator who did things with the client in mind. I now feel that I have stronger client relationships because a fee-based model instills confidence in my clients' minds. They know that I am working for and with them."
Cox also believes it's the teacher in him that contributes to making his clients feel he is in their corner. "Many advisors expect their clients to come to them with a baseline of financial knowledge, and that's fine," says Cox. "But for those clients who don't have as much familiarity with financial and investing concepts, I don't mind taking the time to explain things in a way they'll understand. Everyone learns differently, so I try my best to adapt to the way the client learns because this is their money, and they need to understand what I am advising them to do with it."
In fact, you could call Cox a financial education evangelist who takes his passion for educating consumers everywhere he can. He teaches personal finance and retirement planning classes at Louisiana State and is an adjunct instructor at LSU Medical Center. He conducts workshops throughout the community, makes TV appearances and hosts a weekly radio show, "The Premier Financial Hour" on WJBO. The program, which invites Baton Rouge area listeners to air their questions about financial matters, recently celebrated 10 years on the air.
"Everything I do has to pass my own personal litmus test. It must help me reach my goal of educating consumers," says Cox. "When I determined that a radio show would support my mission, I structured it as a call-in show. I didn't want to sit in a studio and preach about financial topics to my listeners. Instead, I want to talk about and explain the things people really want to know about--not what I think they want to know. It's much more fun to go in without an agenda and respond to questions. I never want to go in thinking, 'no matter what people are interested in hearing about, we're going to talk about mutual funds today.'"
All this community visibility has helped Cox generate rapport and build strong relationships with clients. "Because I am constantly out and about doing my radio show, local TV appearances, teaching and hosting seminars, people feel like they already know me when they come in to meet. They come in and say, 'Look, I'm retiring in six months; what are we going to do with my money?' Because I have built up credibility in their minds, they're ready to get right down to business with me and my team."
Cox has also adopted the Buckets of Money system created by long-time financial advisor, author and nationally syndicated radio show host Raymond J. Lucia, and positioned Premier Financial as a "retirement income specialist." (According to Lucia's Web site, www.rjlwm.com, "The typical Buckets of Money portfolio includes a multi-tiered allocation that reduces risk while providing safe, secure income.") Using the trademarked process, Cox believes, gives him a competitive edge in his marketplace.
Cox consistently cites the team he has built as a key factor in his success. Comprised of five advisors--four of whom are CFPs--the team is unlike producer groups where everyone has his or her own clients. The Cox advisory team serves all of the firm's clients. "With about 300 clients and $200 million in assets under management, there's no way I could keep things moving without them. I thank my lucky stars every day that I have such a capable and dedicated staff in the trenches with me," Cox says. "They keep the business humming on a day-to-day basis."
Cox and his team pride themselves on telling clients the truth about their situation instead of what they might want to hear. To support that philosophy, he has established a client acquisition process that is lengthier than that of most his industry colleagues. The firm's new-client intake process typically takes five meetings and includes an interim review, a statement review and a restatement of goals meeting to ensure that all parties are on the same page. This longer process helps Cox and his team more fully understand the client's needs. It also helps the client understand what to expect from Premier Financial. "There was a time years ago when, like most advisors, we tried to rush through the process. But we found out that people weren't as comfortable with that process and didn't understand what we were doing for them."
Cox feels that forming better partnerships leads to longer-lasting client relationships. It all goes back to educating clients about their financial lives. "I love educating people and helping them solve their financial problems. If you love what you do, it's not work. I never go to work," he says. "I just come to the office and help people solve problems."
Marie Swift, a communications consultant, has been studying the best practices of top advisors in the financial services industry for close to 20 years. She is president of Impact Communications, Inc. in Leawood, Kan. (www.impactcommunications.org).