CEO-PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FINANCIAL NETWORK, Calabasas, CALIF.; AUM: $1.2 billion
HIS FIRM'S FOCUS:
"We bridge the gap between businesses and the people who own them."
Here's the heart of it: Financial advisors are in danger of becoming commodities -- unless they diversify revenue sources and position themselves as true partners with clients. So says independent advisor Brett S. Ellen, Securities America's top producer in 2008 and one of the broker-dealer's two leading advisors for assets under management.
Ellen, co-founder and CEO of American Financial Network, was sharp enough to take his own advice some time ago. Not only does he helm a bustling 27-year practice specializing in both corporate benefit planning and high-net-worth individuals but he has established two national networks to help other advisors step up their game.
"We don't feel we're in competition with them. We want to bring a lot of business to them -- and in return, they want to bring a lot of business to us," says Ellen, 45, from his office in Calabasas, Calif. Managing $1.2 billion in assets, he has been Securities America's No. 1 producer for four years running.
With his Collaborative Services Platform, Ellen and a team of other experts in a host of financial fields train successful FAs in complex tax, compensation and other areas that go with the territory of business owner or corporate executive. Above-average knowledge of these issues can go far to attract new clients and build practices, Ellen says.
"The idea is to become an expert gatherer of information of what's important to a business client. Then our back office and contacts outside the financial planning industry build the model most suitable for that client," says Ellen, whose corporate accounts are both public and private companies.
As members of his collaborative think tank, advisors share consulting fees and product commissions with other CSP experts. A core component of the platform is Ellen's coast-to-coast Financial Solutions Alliance, which boasts professionals in financial, business and legal areas.
Up until this past summer, the five-year-old CSP was open only to Security America advisors; now it's available to FAs affiliated with other broker-dealers too.
But there is much more to the industrious Ellen than business: He is deeply motivated to give back to the community. And this dedicated father of five, ages 9 to 22, doesn't simply talk the talk.
"We were put on this earth to do more than just make money -- to make a difference in the world," he says.
In 2008, the philanthropic Ellen was named Muscular Dystrophy Association Humanitarian of the Year for the Los Angeles area. And eight years ago, he and wife Mandy founded TKO (Turn Kindness On) Helping Hands, a non-profit to spur children to perform volunteer community service. Once a month, for instance, the Ellen kids and others feed the homeless in downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Ellen also teaches children about money and finance on the Internet via his www.kidsfinancecoach.com. (Last July he was clueing them in to the "cool" Rule of 72.)
To be sure, in his practice -- which totals 30, including financial advisor brother Keith -- Ellen "always make[s] an important part of the planning process educating clients' kids, as young as 8, about checking accounts, stocks and bonds," he says. "There's an enormous need for more education so children can know the importance of saving money and what spending, investing and donating mean."
In a new program, Kids to Kids, Ellen and family visit poverty-stricken areas of the world's most beautiful destinations to donate money, food, toys and other supplies to homeless shelters. Last summer, for example, they did more than enjoy the splendor of Bali; they visited the island's orphanages.
"Watching my son Keanu  reach into his wallet and hand $100 of his own money to a birthing center there," Ellen says, "meant more to me by a landslide than I could do business-wise this whole year."
All the advisor's diverse endeavors tie in with one another. And that helps in prospecting and serving clients. "Allowing clients to see the personal side makes them feel that a true person is on their team, as opposed to somebody who's just trying to sell them something."
Vouching for that is 95-year-old Frances Hawkins, an Ellen client for 21 years. "You'll never find a more honest and trustworthy person than Brett," says the Ventura, Calif., resident. "He's made it possible for me to live without ever having to think about my money. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be able to do that."
Oakland, Calif.-born Ellen -- second-eldest of five children -- spent his early years in half a dozen states, depending on where dad Ron's insurance-company employer transferred him.
Studying business at San Diego State University, Ellen aspired to a people-oriented profession that would let him "control [his] own destiny."
He found that career sooner than expected. At 18, he left college to found American Financial Network with his father, who'd met difficulties after going into business with friends.
"My dad did insurance sales, but clients also needed financial planning and wealth management. That's where I came in," says Ellen, who lost no time in acquiring a certified financial planner designation. Dad is now retired.
Today, Ellen's CSP program seems especially well timed. Working with businesses is essential -- "or else," he says, "you're going to fall behind."
Here's the thing: "Executive benefits firms know how to build a benefits plan for a Fortune 100 company better than we could ever imagine. But they can't help with investment advice. So," Ellen says, "we come in and tailor the model to the individuals. We make it come to life."