Nobody ever said it was supposed to be easy, but nobody ever said it was going to go quite so bad, so fast. Just about everything that could go wrong had gone wrong in William Howard’s planning practice. By 1994, not one, but both, of Howard’s business partners had died, one of cancer, one of a heart attack. As if that weren’t traumatic enough, the staff of his Memphis planning firm then started abandoning ship, handing in their resignations in order to go back to school, teach, or launch their own businesses. By the end of that fateful year, all seven of Howard’s employees had hit the road.
At that point, your average person might have thrown up his hands and hit the road as well, leaving entrepreneurship to those with hardier souls and better karma. Howard decided he wasn’t going to be average.
The morning after the death of his second partner, Andrew Wray, Howard called all of Wray’s clients to reassure them that the firm would forge ahead. As the staff dwindled, he realized he’d actually been overstaffed. Each employee resignation ratcheted down his overhead and reduced his management responsibilities, which in turn reduced the pressure on Howard to bring in the bacon. He made the most of the situation, taking the opportunity to teach himself how to manage a single-owner firm, and taking his time selecting the members of his new staff.
One of the firm’s saving graces was its structure, a legacy left to him in part by Wray. The two men had hammered out a number of systems that provided a framework for the business. Filing systems, personnel policies, job descriptions, how-to manuals for recurring tasks–all those things were in place by the time of Wray’s death. The process a new client would go through had been formalized; the standard client form letters had been composed. The firm hadn’t always been so organized– “When we started out in 1985, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” says Howard with a laugh–but the newly disciplined approach made all the difference. “I’m very blessed that I was able to continue on with the business,” says Howard, 45, in a soothing voice that reflects his Mississippi roots. “It’s been successful, I think, because of the work that happened in the years before Andrew’s death. We spent time away from clients and away from trying to get new clients, and were really focused on getting procedures in place and having a good discipline for the business.”
The other saving grace was Howard’s decision to direct his energies toward a specific clientele: doctors. Howard had targeted the physician market since his earliest days as a disability insurance salesman for John Hancock. His office had been right near a medical center in Memphis, and he figured that if he could get the residents and interns on board when they were young, he could build a client base of physicians to last throughout his career. There was only one problem. “When you’re an insurance agent, your answer for every problem is an insurance policy,” says Howard. “And there’s only so much insurance a person needs.” Frustrated by his inability to serve his clients’ range of needs, he had turned to financial planning, becoming the third partner in a planning firm in 1985.
Suddenly a single practitioner 10 years later, Howard knew he had to work as efficiently as possible, targeting a niche market so that knowledge pertaining to one client could be used to benefit the rest. Doctors were the perfect answer. “Physicians have a lot of the same needs,” says Howard. “That was good, because it allowed me to leverage my time.”
|William Howard & Co. Financial Advisors|
William Howard & Co.
6410 Poplar Avenue, Suite 330
Memphis, Tennessee 38119
Year practice began: 1983
Joined the firm: 1985
Number of planners/staff in office:
2 planners, 6 staff members, 1 intern
Number of clients of the firm: 125
Number of clients of his own: 100
Compensation method: Fee-only
Average fee for a comprehensive
financial plan: $3,500 and up
Fee for managing assets: Sliding scale from 1.5% of $500,000, 1% of $1 million, 0.8% of $2 million or more
Hourly rate: $150/hour
Client demographics: Physicians in the Memphis metropolitan area. Also business owners, widows, retirees, and corporate executives
Education: BA in insurance, University of Mississippi
Previous incarnations: Disability income insurance salesman
Professional designations: ChFC, CFP
Outside interests: Running marathons, lifting weights, spending time with family
Quotable quote: “When you’ve got a pain, you know you’re sick, there’s no doubting it, whereas you can be sick financially but not know it. Sometimes it takes a while for people to really realize they need you.”
Prescription for Success
There was no magic formula for establishing himself as an expert on physicians’ financial fitness, although the printed word did, and does, play an important role. “We were just very focused,” he says of his marketing efforts, “and we did all of the things that unsuccessful people don’t want to do.” Howard wrote letters to reporters for medical trade publications as well as the local and national press, offering to serve as an expert source to be quoted in stories. When nobody called, he kept on sending them. “If they don’t call you the first time you send them a letter, you don’t quit sending them the letters or take them off your mailing list–you keep at it,” he says. “Eventually, people call.” And whenever a reporter would quote him in a story, he’d make copies of it and send it out to his entire mailing list of clients and prospects. Over the years, Howard was quoted in everything from the American Medical News and Ophthalmology Times to The Wall Street Journal and the Memphis Business Journal.
Howard got his name in print in other ways, such as by purchasing ads in the publications of medical membership associations. “We try to keep our name in front of our clients,” he says, “whether it’s through a medical publication or through a national publication they might read.”
He also began getting bylines in strategic places, including American Medical News, Physician’s Management, and the Memphis and Shelby County Medical Society newsletter. “I’d read an article back in the early 1990s that said that successful financial planners wrote articles, so I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to find somebody to write an article for,’” he says. “I asked the medical society if I could write an article for them, and they said, ‘We’ll give you a chance. Let’s see how you do with three.’” That was the good news, but it was also the bad news. “I’d never written before! It just wore me out, writing these articles!” says Howard, laughing. Still, he wrote one article a month for four years, then wrote one per quarter when the newsletter cut back its publication schedule. His next writing venture is to write a regular column for Physician’s Money Digest, and he still writes every article that bears his name himself. “It would be nice to have someone write the articles for me, though,” he says. “Believe me!”
Fortunately for Howard, writing the newsletter series had an unexpected perk. Several years after he began writing for the medical society, the society invited him to set up seminars for its members–effectively giving him several hours of uninterrupted, direct access to the very people he wanted to reach. Talk about target marketing. The firm still does seminars for physician groups, sometimes as a one-shot presentation, sometimes as a two-night series. Attendance ranges from 15 to 30, but Howard prefers the smaller groups. “It makes it easier for the physicians to ask questions and gives all of us a chance to get to know each other,” he says. For a firm that relies heavily on referrals, getting to know each other is half the battle.
Curing Financial Ills
You might expect doctors who can cure the sick to brush off advice from a lowly financial planner, but Howard says he’s found no such thing among his clients.