From the June 2008 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Emphasizing Quality Over Quantity

Laurie Hasso has changed her way of doing business since 1985, and not just in moving the financial planning firm she owns with her husband, Steve, out of her living room so many years ago. A battle with breast cancer that kept her from her practice from March 2005 until March 2007 led her to re-examine her approach to her clients, resulting in a decision to emphasize quality over quantity.

Hasso and her husband, Stephen Hasso, had built their Latham, New York-based Century Hill Financial Group, a MetLife affiliate, to $40 million in assets under management with 250 clients and the business was reaching critical mass when Hasso was diagnosed.

After she returned, she realized she wanted to focus on helping her clients get the most out of their lives, even if it sometimes meant enjoying themselves in the present by spending some of their cash. Her new perspective on life and its unpredictability means she is able to impart more meaning to the money she manages, she argues. She and her husband decided to take a more service-oriented approach to their business, rather than let it grow wildly. Currently, the practice has $50 million in assets under management and no more than a 200-person client base, of which 50 people get 80% of the attention. "We limit our client base because it's too hard to provide the intimacy and world-class service that our clients deserve," Hasso says. The couple spends a lot of time getting to know their clients personally.

Since Hasso has returned to the practice, she makes sure all the advice delivered is customized, she says, constantly reviewing changing income tax issues, and reviewing all insurance and investments, corporate planning issues, and the cost of employee benefits. Century Hill also aids the client in choosing particular industries or avoiding risks or industries or stocks that don't fit in with the investor's socially conscious profile. There is also a high level of customization in the portfolio, with broad diversification, according to the Hassos.

At the same time, technology has allowed the client to understand better how his or her money is being managed, she says.

The couple began to focus on managed money in separately managed accounts so they could focus on the client relationship. Century Hill now contracts with a separately managed account firm that conducts the due diligence and then buys and sells individual securities, all of which is reported to the client. This results in the clients seeing all their charges spelled out while sometimes paying even less than with a "cookie cutter approach," says Steve Hasso, under which "the fees that were bundled in the product are now easily visible enable."

Century Hill uses an investment policy statement, which Steve says has been very helpful in the current volatile investing climate, because a written plan is helpful "when the sky is falling."

The affiliation with MetLife doesn't limit the firm to only the insurance giant's products, but allows it to "offer what's best for the client," Laurie says. The affiliation also doesn't mean Century Hill is selling volumes of variable annuities indiscriminately. The firm is not using a lot of annuities unless they provide a guaranteed income stream for nonqualified account money in some cases, to get the tax shelter, while fixed annuities, she says are a "wonderful alternative to bonds," in a climate where bond yields are low.

The couple did come through the insurance channel, though, so the firm sells plenty of life insurance and long-term care products. "Insurance companies are good at managing risk, so that is why they fit into our picture," Laurie says.

The husband and wife team also emphasize cash-flow planning with clients, she says. Often, people spend much more money than they think they do, she says. Indeed, some clients are told that they might have to sell off some of their luxury items, she says, since they are depreciating assets bought by selling the "seed corn." That type of "come to Jesus meeting is hard," says Laurie, and makes her feel like the client's parent.

On the other hand, there are those clients who are such good savers that they don't know how to spend their retirement money and "we try to remind them that some decisions are emotional, not financial," Laurie says. She says she is very sensitive to that aspect of retirement--enjoying the benefits of living in the here and now--having herself been sick with cancer. The client may say their money is for future years. But "what if that day doesn't come?" she asks.


Elizabeth D. Festa is a freelance business writer based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached by e-mail at elizabeth.d.festa@comcast.net.
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