Like a sharp journalist inducing a subject to open up in an interview or a doctor taking a patient's medical history, Eric Hutchinson knows how to ask the right questions. With his proprietary Retirement Discovery Process, the president of Hutchinson Financial probes for answers that help to best serve his focus retirement planning clientele.
"I had found that if I asked certain questions in a certain sequence, I began to get much more in-depth answers that let me understand what was motivating clients about their future and what was really important to them about money. It changed the whole character of what I was able to do for them," notes Hutchinson, 57, from his Little Rock, Ark., office.
In the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, this Registered Investment Advisor is going against the grain. Last July he landed his single largest piece of business ever: a whopping $38 million retirement plan account.
"A pretty exciting day -- particularly in these times" is the way the unassuming Hutchinson, who has specialized in retirement planning for 20-plus years, describes the achievement.
HUTCHINSON FINANCIAL; LITTLE ROCK, ARK., AND TEXARKANA, TEXAS;
AUM: $100 MILLION-PLUS.
ON MATTERS FINANCIAL:
"Money isn't complicated. It's not rocket science. It's doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time."
While many other practices, and firms in general, are contracting, Hutchinson, voted by Arkansas Business magazine readers best in financial and personal investment services, is indeed expanding. Landing that big new account -- a construction company with more than 1,000 employees in four states -- has sent him into a major recruiting mode. To his current four advisors, he plans to add eight more by year's end, doubling his total staff in the process.
Serving 100 individual and small business retirement plan clients, Hutchinson, who also maintains an office in Texarkana, Texas, manages assets of more than $100 million, which are custodied at Charles Schwab and FOLIOfn.
Not only has he lost not a single client in the downturn, he's gained several. In fact, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was swinging so erratically last fall, he had phone calls from clients asking how he was doing. "It was wonderful!" he says.
Hutchinson started as a Shearson broker, 1985-88, and began focusing on retirement right away, when, even back then, he took a financial planning approach.
"Frequently, clients were preparing for retirement. So I thought, 'Well, if this is what's on most folks' minds, I'll concentrate on that'," he recalls. Eventually, he developed and trademarked his structured Retirement Discovery Process, which helps reveal what makes clients tick.
Afterward, "I find that if we methodically address every aspect of their financial life," he says, "we eventually get to a place where the client feels: 'My house is in order. I can relax now. I have peace of mind.'"
Twenty-year client Marita Williams, 77, of Texarkana, Ark., says: "I'm absolutely financially worry-free." The Williamses hired Hutchinson when Marita's husband retired. Four years ago, upon his death, the advisor became "particularly helpful," she says. "He's always made me feel that he has my best interest at heart. He has a tremendous amount of integrity. I just think he's top-notch."
Previously serving 401(k) plans mainly as an extension of individual-client relationships, Hutchinson is now pursuing the business directly.
He already had the retirement accounts of some key officers and managed money for the construction company whose big retirement plan he just snagged.
The firm had been dissatisfied with the level of service its former advisor was providing. Homing in on the account, Hutchinson outshone that advisor, and others, partly by conducting employee group education and individual counseling.
"Having that opportunity to demonstrate our capabilities in a different way was instrumental in helping us land the business," says Hutchinson, a certified financial planner and chartered life underwriter.
His firm will provide both investment services, and education and counseling, to all employees at each of the client's four locations.
To that end, Hutchinson is seeking advisors with at least three years' experience and who preferably have the CFP designation. "That's my favorite," he notes.
Also: "I look for someone who is genuinely committed to serving. It's not just about how much money they can make. It's about, 'What can I do to serve?'"
Before entering financial services, the Tacoma, Wash.-born and Circe, Ark.-bred Hutchinson enjoyed a marketing and sales career, kicked off after studying marketing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But as early as his mid-20s, he'd also taken a keen interest in finance. His father's death initiated it.
The elder Hutchinson was an engineer who designed electrical systems for missile silos, but he'd done nothing to plan for his family's long-term financial needs.
"When he died, my mother was clueless about finances, and there certainly wasn't enough there to take care of her --- not even enough life insurance," Hutchinson says. "I was very angry that my father hadn't prepared."
So he began to do some serious reading about investing. A decade later, when he was ready for a career change, he chose financial services. "I knew that's where my passion was," he says.
Joining Shearson in Little Rock, Hutchinson soon learned that he "loved the business of helping people figure out how to handle their own affairs so they didn't have to go through what I saw my mother go through," he says.
After three-and-a-half years, he left the brokerage to open an R.I.A. with one assistant and another advisor. Over the next years, he built the firm -- concentrating on retirement planning from the start -- to 22 employees and $350 million in assets.
Then, in January 2006, Hutchinson was blindsided: 11 of his 15 advisors left to form their own firm -- and took $280 million in assets with them.
"It was a shock -- but very much a well planned coup," he says. "It was quite contentious: a number of things they did had ethical and legal questions."
But Hutchinson opted not to sue because, he says, that would only distract him from working with clients.
To protect himself going forward, however, he hired a specialist attorney who has redone all contracts and other documentation for his practice.
"Who knows what I might face in the future -- but I probably won't have that particular set of circumstances again," he says.
Given today's financial difficulties, Hutchinson's retirement planning clients are managing their own risk better, as well.
"They're much more risk-averse and aware of the importance of having a balanced portfolio with enough set aside to fund cash needs for quite a while regardless of what the markets do," he says. "They want protection so that their lives won't change."
Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.