At least seven different financial advisory firms vie for business in wealthy little Corsicana, Texas -- population 25,000 -- where ample oil profits have made folks prosper for more than a hundred years and world-famous Collin Street Bakery turns out the ultimate in deluxe fruitcakes.
Among the competing advisories, Investment Planning, Inc., sparkles like a rare jewel. Launched in 1947 as cotton-and-grain brokerage William B. Robinson & Company, the family-owned-and-operated independent has a rich history and rock-solid reputation. Today, it caters to third- and fourth-generation clients, many of whom live in far-flung cities.
"They tell me, 'Your parents did a great job for my parents -- or grandparents -- and I want to work with you too.' That speaks well of Mother and Daddy and the business they created," says Beth Chapman, 54, president and owner of the firm, which is affiliated with Commonwealth Financial Services.
Who: Beth Chapman, President, Investment Planning, Inc.; Corsicana, Texas.Value of accounts: $93 million for 477 client households
A secret to her success: "We really know our clients."
Privacy and confidentiality are what IPI's high-net-worth clients crave in this clannish -- some say snobbish -- community, an hour's drive south of Dallas, which in 1900 boasted 500 producing wells, just six years after oil was discovered there by accident.
Corsicana-born Chapman, a forthright woman, has followed her parents' tradition of lavishing clients with special care. "A lot of people with a lot of money don't want everybody knowing it," she says. "I even had one client who insisted on using the back door."
The NASD (now FINRA) lists Billie Love Robinson McFerran, Chapman's 83-year-old mom -- semi-retired and still with IPI -- as the first female licensed broker in Texas, Chapman says. When the Robinsons wanted to open a firm, they sought advice from a distant relative who worked at Merrill Lynch. Billie was then 23.
"He patted me on the head and said I was a cute little thing, but that I didn't know enough about stocks and bonds and commodities," she recalls. "So I went over and took the test." All that was required to pass was "saying I was honest, showing I had a little bit of common sense and proving I was a U.S. citizen."
Today the firm is an all-female enterprise, consisting of registered investment advisor Chapman; Susan Slovak, a financial advisor; Robinson McFerran, registered advisor; and support staffers Melinda Printy and Wanda Robinson, 73, who is Slovak's mom and part-time receptionist. Chapman and Slovak, working as a team, each draw salaries.
IPI is 100 percent female purely by chance. "It's really nice because it obviously attracts women clients," says Chapman, noting also that many men who aren't investment-savvy feel more comfortable consulting with a female than a male advisor. Half the firm's clients are men.
In Corsicana, which counted no fewer than 21 millionaires back in the early 1950s, Chapman and Slovak have something of celebrity status. Once, when Slovak was stopped by a highway patrolman, she was happily let go without a ticket, her name recognized from the daily market reports she and Chapman broadcast on local radio.
The long-time firm, which became a broker-dealer, Investment Planning Associates, in 1953, is today moving from transaction-based to fee-based compensation. The main challenge there, says Chapman, is "letting people know you're worth the fees. A lot of them want something for nothing."
For her part, Mom Billie isn't quite sold on the fee-based route. "I would just rather make a commission when I do well. But I try not to tell Beth what to do."
The team focuses on the big picture by learning as much as it can about clients. And rely they do on IPI for all manner of financial advice. Recently, one woman, who started out with Billie years ago, brought 'round a car salesman for Chapman's stamp of approval before purchasing a Toyota. "I said, 'You can afford to buy it. Enjoy it!'" she recalls.
Says client Van Limerick, 61, of nearby Malakoff, who took early retirement five years ago to care for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair: "Beth is very patient and compassionate. Were it not for her, I don't know if I ever would have been able to manage this. She consolidated my pension and all our investments. It's worked out real well."
Bill and Billie Robinson met while working at the local pilot-training center during World War II. ("He was the auditor. I was chief payroll clerk. I thought I'd get a raise if I was nice to him," cracks Billie.). Twenty-eight years after opening up shop, Bill died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 54. Billie took over.
Fifteen years later, in 1990, Chapman quit training to be a car dealership-comptroller and came aboard. This was three years after brother Bruce had joined the family concern. However, when Billie turned over the business to both siblings in 2000, the two disagreed on the direction the firm would take. Bruce left, whereupon Beth was made sole owner, changing the company name to Investment Planning, Inc. Slovak moved up to licensed securities principal a year after joining in 2000.
It was hardly a snap, though, for Chapman to take the reins. "The financial industry is still kind of a man's world," she says. "Women have to be a class act and prove still that we're smart with numbers and know how to do the best thing for our clients. Guys have a leg up simply because they're men."
As for Billie, she nowadays puts in time mostly hand-holding clients and taking continuing ed courses online.
Also, "I get on the computer and see how much my stocks have gone up and down. I love individual stocks. The oil stocks have saved me," she says. "Some clients ask, 'Should I buy more oils?' I've tried to tell all of them that they should have bought more oils a long time ago. I think that now maybe it's not such a good idea."
Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.