What with the potential for your old high school flame to show up on the arm of Mr. Universe and the school bully to stuff you in a locker just one more time, reunions are not the kinds of things that make most people tap-dance with anticipation. And yet people do show up, brimming with curiosity. Did “Most Likely to Succeed” fulfill her potential? Did “Most Musical” make it to Carnegie Hall? Is the “Class Couple” still together, and do they really have 13 kids? Does “Most Creative” really subsist on wasabi peas and live in a yurt?
Curiosity is alive and well at Investment Advisor, and six years after running a profile of Arkansas planner Cynthia Conger, we decided to look her up. How had her firm, the Arkansas Financial Group, weathered the cruel markets of recent years? Had she expanded into new markets? Did her professional partnership with planner Rick Adkins survive, and did they take on new partners? What had she learned? Did she now feel that she’d “arrived”?
As it turned out, some things hadn’t changed. For starters, she’s still based in Little Rock, her partnership with Adkins is still intact, and doctors are still an important part of the firm’s clientele. She’s still fee-only, still has an office of about a half a dozen people … and still says she wouldn’t trade her chosen line of work for anything.
Yet despite the passage of time, this experienced planner–who has appeared multiple times on the “Best 250 Advisors in the Nation” list of (the now defunct) Worth magazine, has served in a variety of leadership roles with the IAFP and other professional organizations, and has run a successful practice since 1985–doesn’t give the impression of someone who believes she has all her ducks in a row and can put her feet up to watch the profits pour in. True, revenues have increased five times over since 1997. But new challenges have arisen, employees (and the attendant personnel issues) have come and gone, the market has faltered and only started to revive. And the challenges of maintaining a partnership haven’t gone away, either; in fact, they’ve gotten more complicated, since she’s not only had to nurture the partnership with Adkins, but also devise plans to facilitate her own eventual retirement by taking on new partners. “I still have many of the same headaches I had years ago,” she says with a rueful laugh. “It’s just that now there are more zeroes attached to them!” Conger, like many planners, has discovered the challenging truth about running a practice: Just when you think you’ve “arrived” and perfected the ideal firm, the landscape shifts, and perfection moves just a little bit further down the road.
One of the most challenging issues Conger faces is her ever-changing business partnership. Conger and Adkins first met when she applied for a job as a CPA/planner at his office, a Connecticut Mutual insurance agency. Conger, then 33, was hardly impressed with her baby-faced employer-to-be, then a very young-looking 29. “He looked like a kid, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I can’t possibly work for this little boy!’” laughs Conger. But their views on financial planning meshed so well that she took the job; when Connecticut Mutual closed the office a year later, the two decided to open a financial planning firm.
They must have done something right: At ages 54 and 50, they’re still together. Part of their secret is having complementary personalities; another part, they say, is working as a team. “We figured out very early that it was better for us to have a division of duties within the company rather than a division of clients, because otherwise nothing would get done,” she says. “He’s a great starter, and I’m a great finisher, so that works out really well for us.” In general, Conger handles the financial planning and taxes, while Adkins’s purview is clients’ investment portfolios.
Yet it’s not entirely smooth sailing. Business partnerships are like marriages, says Conger, and while “we don’t have all the fun things about a marriage, we do have all the stresses.” And just as married couples feel the stress of new additions to their families, Conger and Adkins are feeling the stress of new additions to their firm. They now have a junior partner, CPA and CFP Kristina Bolhouse, who is a 1% owner of the firm, and Conger says she fully expects another new hire, recently certified CFP John Kelley, to eventually become a partner as well. Conger speaks highly of both young planners, who handle a significant portion of the firm’s workload and will likely own up to 5% of the firm each before the senior partners begin to step down. “But I wasn’t really aware of how much it would change the dynamics of the partnership to take on an additional partner–and it really does,” she says. “Rick and I are still equal partners, but the dynamics of power have changed. We’re still finding our way in this new three-way partnership.”
The new partners are part of the plan to prepare for the senior partners’ retirement; Conger, for her part, plans to significantly reduce her workload in about 10 years, and Bolhouse is her chosen successor. Yet Conger has learned that real life can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. For instance, after a year at the firm, Bolhouse had to move to Michigan to care for her ailing father. During his illness, Bolhouse got married to a man from Michigan; when her father passed away, her new husband wasn’t keen on moving south–at least not yet. Today, Bolhouse telecommutes, and she visits the Little Rock office every three weeks for three jam-packed days. Within five years, she’ll have to move back to Little Rock to begin taking over the day-to-day management of the firm. “I’m really ready to give that up–being the one that makes sure the rent gets paid and payroll gets met every two weeks, and decides how much we’re going to spend on technology,” says Conger.
Other personnel additions have been even less predictable: One new hire chucked her position to move to Florida and start a cosmetics business; another handed in his resignation letter in order to become a teacher. Those exits turned out to be blessings in disguise, since the senior partners had hired enough staff to handle the 20%-25% growth rates they’d experienced in the late ’90s–staff that couldn’t be sustained in the rocky markets of the early 2000s. But such unexpected departures are still nerve-wracking for a business owner who needs to make long-term strategic decisions. “It takes me three years to train a planner, so I’m always having to think in terms of where we’ll be in three years,” says Conger. As she’s discovered, a great deal can change in only a few years.