From the October 2010 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

October 1, 2010

The Reinvented Advisor

John Ludwig was a wholesaler. Then he decided to revamp his career.

John Ludwig
Owner, LHDretirement; Indianapolis
FUN FACT: As a sophomore at Iowa State University, where he majored in agriculture business finance, Ludwig moonlighted as a registered rep for a brokerage firm.

As a wholesaler for 19 years, John Ludwig pitched retirement plans to hundreds of financial advisors across four states. Today, he does much the same thing -- only now he's the advisor.

In an unusual mid-career U-turn, Ludwig gave up wholesaling to start from scratch an advisory firm that specializes in retirement plans. He wishes he had done it sooner. And no wonder: In just five years, the 45-year-old Ludwig has gone from zero to $195 million in assets under management.

"I had a midlife crisis. What it boiled down to is I wanted to own something. You don't own it when you're a wholesaler," says Ludwig, whose Indianapolis-based firm LHDretirement is associated with Raymond James Financial Services. "But it's always, always, been about retirement plans."

Ludwig's intention when he began selling retirement plans for American United Life Insurance in the mid-1980s was to give it three years. As it turned out, his nearly two-decade run, culminating with a regional director's position with ING Aetna Financial Services, served as an unexpected warm-up for a second career as a financial advisor.

Today, three-quarters of Ludwig's revenue comes from retirement plans in both the for-profit and not-for-profit space. Industry niches include dental practices, banking and construction. The average plan ranges from $3 million to $5 million. As an advisor working with more than a dozen vendors, Ludwig helps pick and manage the funds -- as well as keeps the plans compliant.

Not surprisingly, the rest of Ludwig's clients are individuals -- primarily business owners. "My entire practice runs off of retirement plans," he says. His wholesaling contacts haven't hurt either.

As the human-relations manager for a roofing company and then a liquid transportation firm, Christine Jeschke worked with Ludwig first as a wholesaler, then an advisor. She liked what she saw.

"When he became an advisor, the general topic was the same but this time he wasn't speaking for a corporation. I knew he was always looking for my company's and my employees' best interest," she says. "This just sealed it."

Ludwig also has a talent for explaining the nuances of a retirement plan to everyone from warehouse workers to boardroom executives. "I had to deal with all levels of staffing -- that's a huge asset," says Jeschke. "He could, in a heartbeat, tailor the conversation to apply to everyone."

Jeschke, now an individual client of Ludwig's, turned to him after another advisory relationship went bad. "I had to ask myself: What am I doing? I trust him with a $10 million 401(k) plan," she says. "Why wouldn't I have him help me?"

What goes around really does come around. As with Jeschke, advisors Ludwig once called on continue to call him up today.

"I was their partner and support system and they understand I'm still tied in to what I used to do," he says. "They'll call and ask what vendors I'm using, what's new in the marketplace." Several advisors, as part of their exit strategy, have also handed off clients to Ludwig that he initially worked with as a wholesaler.

A few years back, Ludwig, then an ING wholesaler, was meeting with LHD Benefits when one of the principals asked: "Have you ever thought about doing this?"

Ludwig had thought about it a lot.

After years of travel, he was road weary and wanted to spend more time at home with his wife, Laura, and three kids. "I'd stay at the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants. The hotel would know when it was my birthday. The wait staff knew what I was going to order before I did. It gets tiring," he says. "And my job satisfaction ended when a plan was sold."

LHD Benefits, meanwhile, had never had a retirement arm. With Ludwig, it found one.

Ludwig started as a solo practitioner -- and didn't take a paycheck for five months. Today, he has an office assistant and two client service managers. He's about to hire a fourth person. His biggest challenge at the moment: staying focused on sales.

"As you add employees and services, it's easy to get distracted. It's important to delegate and keep the sales carrot in front of you," he says. To stay sharp, Ludwig meets periodically with peer groups of CPAs and other retirement plan advisors.

With regulatory change a constant in the retirement plan arena, Ludwig makes a point of staying ahead of the curve and bringing what he's learned back to clients and prospects. "I like it when there's a lot of change. Change creates opportunities. You can be the answer person," he notes.

Calling his business a work in progress, Ludwig has set a high bar for himself. His goal now: to double the number of assets he manages over the next two years.

"It can be scary; every payday, it's even scarier. But it's also very rewarding. We have clients that thank you a lot for what you do and really appreciate that you do a good job. You get to see that," he adds. "When you're a wholesaler, you don't."

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