After months of pouring over nominations, Retirement Advisor rolls out the annual Advisor of the Year finalists.
In making our selections, we looked at multiple categories.
Among those are production, community involvement, an ability to connect with clients, a passion for working with seniors and an exemplary compliance and suitability record.
In the following pages, find out this year's final five picks.
You'll also learn about their journeys to the insurance and financial services world and how they grow their business.
Name: William L. Danner
Years in industry: 17
Company: Security First Asset Management
Location: Dublin, Ga.
2013 Total Sales: $10,991,000
Licenses/designations: LUTCF, CSA, NSSA, Series 6, 7, 63 and 65
Before becoming an advisor, William Danner worked in the wholesale and retail home furnishing industry. As an executive VP, one of his responsibilities was managing human resources, including the development of employees' 401(k)s and retirement plans. "I thought, 'Wow, this is kind of fun," he recalls with a laugh. When a change in senior leadership led to a pink slip for Danner and several other employees, "I walked out the door with my severance and started my licensing classes and never looked back. I wonder why I didn't do it before."
In the early 2000s, Danner gravitated toward seminar marketing. "I've built my practice doing two or three mailers a month ever since then," he says. Over time, he has also built up a strong referral base while developing a series of educational events for clients conducted at Learning Centers within the company’s two offices. "Anybody who is in this business knows that the majority of the folks they meet with know little or nothing about money, let alone investing," he says. "Over time, many of them have relied on others to invest their money, and frankly, I believe many of those decisions were made without a full understanding on the recipient's part and probably not a full disclosure or training education on the advisor side. I believe that an informed prospect or client is a better client."
Danner notes that too often, advisors worry about how much money they'll make when they sit down with their clients. "I know people in this business who are one-call closers or two-call closers — this is what I have to offer and you take it or you don't. Whether it's in the best interest of the client or not, who knows? I don't want that path," he says.
Following the 2001-2002 stock market crash, Danner began to focus on helping his clients rebuild their wealth. "The more I worked with seniors, the more I wanted to help educate them on the risks associated with retirement," he says. "I wanted them to know how to plan to thrive and not just survive during their well-earned retirement years."
At the age of 38, his wife was diagnosed with Lupus. Over the next few years, she underwent dialysis and was bedridden for months at a time, before receiving a kidney from her sister. "The emotional stress of her illness was a challenge for our entire family, but the experience has brought lasting love and an appreciation for life, family and faith and has given greater appreciation for the clients that I serve," Danner says.
Danner decided early on to put his family ahead of his career, which "led to tough choices at times. But we've all seen professionals who chose differently, and there's a big price for that."
This family approach carries over to his relationships with clients. Danner works with an elderly widow and her two sons on legacy and generational planning to help protect the family's wealth. "She has been so pleased with our relationship that she will sometimes call me her son. These days, she can no longer drive so I am more than happy to go to her home. I always leave with jars of her homemade preserves to take home to my family. Gratitude comes in many forms."
Name: Greg Hammer
Years in industry: 22
Company: Hammer Financial Group, Inc.
Location: Schererville, Ind.
2013 Total Sales: $25 million
Licenses/designations: Series 6, 63 and 65 securities licenses.
In 2004, shortly after he opened the doors to Hammer Financial Group in the Chicago, Ill. metropolitan area, Greg Hammer met with a senior couple who came to his office for assistance with their financial planning. They were in their early 70s, running out of money and debating whether they should go back to work. After reviewing their financial situation, Hammer came to the realization that it was too late to undo the poor planning and bad advice they had received earlier in their retirement. "When they told me the amount of assets they started retirement with, I was shocked!" he says. "Had they had proper planning, they would have never been put in that position —and that resonated with me. It was then that I decided to focus my business on seniors and those moving into retirement."
Hammer, who graduated from Yale with a degree in Applied Mathematics, describes his practice as "holistic," and stresses the importance of educating clients and prospects, rather than simply talking to them about products. "That's something I've learned," he says. "I was a very transactional person at the beginning of my career. I did a lot of life insurance, but it was never really about planning. It was about, here's your niche, go sell this product to people. Eventually, you'll find people who want to buy this product. But why not make every product available and help them make informed decisions about which is the best fit for them?"
A key pillar of Hammer's practice is tax planning. His company offers $79 tax returns for community members over the age of 50. "I've grown up to the point where I realize you give and then you receive, not the other way around," he says. His jam-packed calendar provides further evidence of this philosophy. He volunteers his time and money with numerous organizations, including Toys for Tots and Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization focused on the conservation of wetlands. "If you don't get involved, then who will?" he asks. "I grew up as a hunter. I hope my kids enjoy it as they grow up. If you just continue to take and not give, [the things you care about will] gradually be phased out."
While at Yale, Hammer played linebacker for four years, including the team's 1990 Ivy League Championship year. His time there taught him another valuable lesson: "If you don't plan and organize and work together, it doesn't matter how good you are. You can create individual statistics, but if you're not in synch on any given play, it leaves a gap. You hear it mentioned all the time in professional sports: Responsibility, responsibility. Just do your job. And it's so true."
The company's tax planning services and the referrals it supplies bring in enough business that Hammer recently went more than five years without paying for any marketing. "It brings great value [to clients] and gives us name recognition out there," Hammer says. "But it's also our opportunity to introduce our other services. If the timing's right or the need's there, I just feel like they'll come to us. And they do."
Name: Jason Michael Jenkins
Years in industry: 15 years
Company: Jenkins Wealth Management Group
Location: Denver, Colorado
2013 Total Sales: $44,000,000
Designations: Series 65, life/health licensed, MBA
Guiding seniors into retirement is not only a career for Jason Michael Jenkins, MBA; it is also a passion. Jenkins, partner and co-founder of Denver, Co.-based Jenkins Wealth Management Group, has a knack for leadership and making an impact on his clientele, 90 percent of whom are seniors. He was drawn to the senior market by the opportunity to re-educate the generation on their ideas of risk, since the economic climate has changed dramatically during their lifetimes.
Jenkins gets to the heart of the many emotional issues surrounding money by asking what he believes are the two most important questions: How much risk can you afford, and how much risk are you willing to take? “Willingness is everything,” Jenkins says, “and there is a big gap trying to connect these two answers.”
While Jenkins enjoys leading seniors into a more comfortable retirement, he doesn’t exactly agree with the notion that an advisor’s role is to prevent the client from running out of money. “That’s not the way to live our lives,” he says. In addition to creating a secure retirement, Jenkins aims to empower his clients to buy nice things for their grandchildren or donate to their church. “Our clients should be in the position to spend with confidence, and to make an impact with confidence.”
And Jenkins makes a big impact of his own. In 2007, Jenkins and his former MBA professor Dr. Senyo Abjibolosoo founded a non-profit school in the Volta region of Ghana, called the Human Factor Leadership Academy, devoted to implementing core principles of compassion and leadership from pre-school to fifth grade. “It’s those human values — love, forgiveness, grace — that are being instilled in these young minds,” he says. “All it takes is one person, one great leader to stand up and be a moral beacon.” He and Abjibolosoo also refurbished a run-down British tobacco factory into the largest library in the area, a region housing 1.2 million people. Jenkins is an avid reader and is passionate about providing educational resources to the public.
The return on his investment? Jenkins says the culture’s fine-tuned awareness of nature and the simpler things in life has impacted the way he processes and views the world. “Imagine sitting around a campfire, under a full moon in the middle of the village with the chief and all the elders,” he says. The chief spent two hours telling a 500-year-old story about a bird and the powerful life lessons it taught the people, which Jenkins recalls as a paradigm-shifting. He now shares those same stories with his two children. This broadened life perspective and shift in awareness, accompanied by his successful battle with a rare form of cancer, lends Jenkins a deep connection to seniors and their strong principles — something he believes creates a solid foundation for the advisor-client relationship.
Name: Jay LaMalfa
Years in industry: 30 years
Company: MACRO Consulting Group
Location: Parsippany, New Jersey
2013 Total Sales: $25,300,000
Designations: CFP®, CLTC
Jay LaMalfa, CFP®, CLTC entered the world of retirement advising by way of auto and homeowner claims. He was asked to come in and interview after handling the claim for a Prudential sales manager, who was impressed by his timeliness and courteous disposition. LaMalfa, partner of Parsippany, N.J.-based MACRO Consulting Group, has carried on for 30 years and has no plans to retire any time soon.
When LaMalfa was born, his father was over 40 and his mother not far behind. As the son of Depression-era parents, he has firsthand knowledge of the mature investor’s needs and concerns associated with retirement — and how things can go wrong. LaMalfa’s mother was diagnosed with polio at the age of three, and because of this disability, she could not qualify for long-term care insurance. Later in life, she needed care, and LaMalfa and his siblings supported her. “My mom was a wonderful person who would literally do anything for you,” he says, “but she felt like she was a burden to people and psychologically. That was difficult for her and the whole family.”
By the time LaMalfa’s father was in his 60s, he was also suffering from health issues. At the time, LaMalfa was 19 years old, but he became the man of the house, helping his mother in every way he could. That experience helped him understand issues faced by seniors at a young age.
In LaMalfa’s opinion, the quality of financial guidance given to his parents was less than adequate. He believes that if they had received proper advice, they could have lived more comfortably and had happier lives in retirement. Unfortunately, by the time he was in business, things were too far gone for him to intervene. “My parents didn’t live into their 90s, which was sad, but also a blessing,” he says, “because they would not have had the financial resources to do so.”
Watching this happen to his parents gave LaMalfa the impetus to serve the senior market; he wanted to help prevent others from enduring what his family went through — both financially and physically. He now strives to marry retirement planning with education about living a healthy lifestyle. “It’s not just about making sure people are financially secure,” he says, “but making sure they can enjoy their life; otherwise, what’s the point?”
He says that while longevity is increasing, there is also more uncertainty surrounding health care laws and Medicare. “It’s more important now than ever to reduce out-of-pocket medical expenses,” he says, “since more expenses are being shifted to the average person.” LaMalfa adds that if you can reduce your chances of many diet- and lifestyle-related diseases—diabetes, heart disease, cancer—then you can more fully enjoy your retirement years and also potentially eliminate thousands of dollars’ worth of medical expenses. LaMalfa and his wife, who is certified by the Physician’s Council on Responsible Medicine, plan to implement even more health education into his practice in the years to come.
Name: Philip Rousseaux
Years in industry: 19 years
Company: Everest Wealth Management
Location: Towson, Maryland
2013 Total Sales: $31,000,000
Designations: ChFC®, CIMA®, RICP®
Philip Rousseaux stumbled into his career as a retirement advisor by happy mistake while studying economics in college. After completing two internships with investment firms based on the advice of a professor, Rousseaux, ChFC®, CIMA®, RICP® fell in love with the entrepreneurial spirit of the industry. Twenty years later, he credits his tenacity for the success of his Towson, Md.-based retirement income planning firm.
Everest Wealth Management was deliberately named after the Earth’s highest mountain, symbolizing everlasting strength and security — an image Rousseaux is passionate about when it comes to his clients’ retirement income. “My core philosophy is to keep money safe,” he says, “setting things up in income-paying investments, securitizing your income and not putting your money at risk.” He believes that fixed indexed annuities are the only investment that can truly ensure that money won’t run out.
Rousseaux says the lessons which shaped him were learned from his modest and hardworking parents. When he told his mother he wanted to attend space camp, she reminded him that he would have to pay for it himself, which he did after shoveling snow, cutting lawns and delivering newspapers. His father was the family’s sole earner for many years as a salesman for a box company. “Talk about a tough sell,” Rousseaux says. Later the company let his father go, but his parents were still able to send their children to private school and pay for their college education. “These are the lessons that really shaped me,” he adds.
Rousseaux believes the responsibility of this industry is to teach retirees that it’s not about how much money you have or what your return was last year; it’s about whether or not your income is secure and whether you outlive your money. And there’s a lot of misinformation out there, he says. If a client was sold a variable annuity before meeting with him for the first time, Rousseaux makes a point to ask, “Are you aware you’re paying fees at 5 percent?” He is amazed that the answer he most often hears is: “My broker never told me that.”
Education is responsible for his firm’s high client-retention rate, he says. The process usually starts either from referrals or his popular radio and TV show, The Money Guys, and is continued throughout meetings in his office. But it’s not just the clients who are enlightened; Rousseaux invests in education for his entire staff, even those in administration. “We spend 10 percent of our company’s profit on continuing education and designations every year,” he says, “so that we stay in the know.”
The firm does more than learn together; they give back to the community together. They sponsor two Make-A-Wish Foundation projects a year and throw an elaborate send-off party for the child, with fun decorations and his or her favorite meal. “I feel it’s important to not only see where the money is going,” he says, “but that I am directly involved — and so is my whole staff. It’s truly touching.”