On September 22, 2003, I left my office for the day, with a full schedule charted out for the next few weeks, including client meetings and quarterly performance reports. Then the unexpected happened. Near the end of my standard five-mile mountain biking ride, my bike lurched into a hidden ditch. My body sailed over the handlebars and I catapulted into the ground headfirst. I was able to get up and walk around, but I quickly realized that I would not be able to make my next appointment–coaching my son’s soccer practice. Instead, I needed to get to an emergency room. Later that evening, I had a halo screwed into my head: I had a broken neck, and my doctors said I could be immobilized for up to 12 weeks.
As planners, we encourage, even demand, that prospective clients agree to put their financial houses in order before we will consider taking them on. So why are advisors such poor planners themselves? Why do so few of us take our own medicine?
I thought I was well prepared for any eventuality, but things didn’t work out exactly as planned, and I came to realize that there were additional steps I should have taken to prepare. My personal experience should be a wake-up call to you, my fellow planners, for in the twinkling of an eye, your life–professional and personal–could change, and not for the better. Maybe my experiences–my missteps and successes when faced with a life-altering and nearly life-ending event–can help you be prepared. Here’s my story.
I’ve been in the financial planning business for more than 17 years and am a successful sole practitioner in Farmington, Connecticut. During my career, I have been flexible enough, and lucky enough, not only to adapt to the times, but also to change my practice so that it better suits me and my clients. I began to achieve success when I realized that I didn’t need to imitate the “star” producers that insurance companies or investment firms held up as role models. I committed myself to educating my clients and serving them in the way I would want to be served.
Although I didn’t feel compelled to imitate anyone else’s style, I did need to gain some business sense. I learned an important lesson when I heard someone argue early in my career that if a planner could not leave his or her business for an extended period of time without it falling apart, then that planner had not done a proper job. Otherwise, not only will the planner (and his clients) have trouble now, he or she will fail to build a thing of value that can be sold or transferred when he or she is ready to leave the business. To heed this advice, I needed to have a business that could sail smoothly whether I was at the helm or not. Though I was busy servicing clients, bringing in new clients, and constantly looking to guide the business in the right direction, I was confident I had accomplished this basic business goal. That confidence was tested by that September day and its aftermath.
After the Fall
Once I had digested the thoughts of my close brush with paralysis or death, and started to consider how this injury would affect myself and my family, I thought about my responsibilities at work. My assistant would at least have to clear my calendar of appointments during the remainder of the week, but I thought I would be able to convince the doctors that I could get back to work the following week. Well, things did not turn out as I had planned. My assistant wound up clearing my schedule not only for that week, but for the next six weeks as well.
As I lay in the hospital and then at home dealing with my new companion–pain–I realized my first challenge would be myself. I have always been a hard-driving, do-it-myself kind of guy, and now I would need to rely on others. I would need to lean on my support system at home and in my community, in addition to my colleagues at work. My family would have its own burdens. My wife, Anne, would be fully responsible for our sons Matthew, Thomas, and Samuel–aged 8, 5, and 9 months–an immobilized husband, all the household duties, and entertaining well-wishers. Fortunately, she was up to the task, aided by a tremendous outpouring of support from friends and neighbors.
How I Had Prepared
With my home life under control, I focused on my business. I understood that my livelihood, might suffer a setback. I assessed the situation, and discovered that I had these five advantages:
1. A very capable and reliable assistant. Yes, it took me some time and difficulty to find her, including hiring and letting go others who were not right for the position, but that effort was to pay great dividends.
2. Very capable back-office support from both my securities OSJ and the insurance brokerage firms I work with.
3. A tremendous amount of support from colleagues, ranging from those that I had shared office space with in the past, to friends that I had made serving on the board of my local Financial Planning Association chapter. These colleagues offered to meet with clients and prospects if I wished, which helped make me and my clients feel more secure.
4. An outsourced money management approach–I use outside managers to handle the investments of my larger accounts–and a reliance on mutual funds for the majority of my client holdings. Using these money management approaches allows me to be confident that there is a full-time investment management team making the day-to-day investment decisions while I run my practice or, in this case, sit at home nursing a broken neck. By getting to know a limited number of funds and investment managers, I can concentrate on my clients instead of trying to become a fund guru.
5. A refusal to do market timing or to constantly make asset allocation changes to the accounts I personally manage, along with a shared commitment with my clients to asset allocation and diversification, and to taking a long-term approach to investing.
I had worked hard to make our office run efficiently and to build and maintain good relationships with our most important clients. We have a written system for handling new business, and we use a client management system to serve our existing accounts thoroughly. Each plan is individually developed and then summarized, and has easy-to-follow steps written in plain language. That allows me, the client, or even another planner to keep the plan on track. We also use a scanning system for all paper files, which saves office space and time by providing easier access to the files. It also allows me to view and modify files from remote locations. Certain client statements and performance reports are available over the Web, and my broker/dealer, Jefferson Pilot Securities, scans all securities applications for immediate retrieval.
This assessment put me at ease, because these policies and procedures and people that I had worked so hard to put into place would help my business survive my physical absence from the office. Although the injury had immobilized my body, it had left my mind intact–with the aid of painkillers and a good attitude.
I was actually telephoning clients the day after the accident. Then, with the help of a friend who provides professional computer system services, my home computer was hooked into my office desktop a short time later. With my assistant, we were able to keep the practice going, particularly by running meetings, sharing information, and performing tasks over the phone, by e-mail, and through the Web. I was able to set up a link to my office using PC Anywhere, tied up the phone line to communicate with clients, my assistant and various vendors, and got a fast cable Internet connection for my home. Thus working at home was practically the same as being in the office. I spared my clients the pain of teleconferencing or coming to my home for meetings, due to my unsightly appearance. Meanwhile, the managers were managing the investments, my back office managed the paperwork, and my assistant and I managed the client relationships.
Within seven weeks, I made it back to my office and started to see clients again. I came to realize that I am lucky to be in a business where, given the right kind of office support, I could run my practice from remote locations and for long stretches of absence. I also realized there were some planning steps I hadn’t taken:
o Writing a formal business succession plan, spelling out what my plans are in case of my death, my disability or my retirement (early or otherwise).
o Increasing my disability insurance to cover at least my fixed expenses at home.
o Continuously upgrading my business systems to run more efficiently. This includes my computer and telephone systems with the help of an outside systems consultant. I can also continue to attend practice management workshops and am considering hiring a business consultant to make my practice more efficient.
We need to prepare for the many challenges that life brings. To meet them, we need the help of others, and should be willing to help others in turn. I will never be able to repay all the kindnesses and support that people gave to me and my family in our time of need, but I will try to help when I see a friend or colleague in need.
Imagine leaving your office at the end of today, and then not being able to return to that office for two weeks, a month, six months, a year. What would happen to your business? What do you need to change now so that your business and your clients would not suffer? Once you are prepared, you not only make your practice more valuable to others, you also deliver peace of mind for yourself and your clients.
Tony DiSorbo is the founder of DiSorbo Advisory Service and DAS Associates in Farmington, Connecticut, providing financial planning, investment, and insurance services to individual and corporate clients. He can be reached at email@example.com.