Colleen Knopinski plans to celebrate her 50th birthday in a rather unusual place: Standing atop the snow-capped peak of Tanzania’s majestic Mount Kilimanjaro, gazing out at lions, giraffes, zebras, and rhinoceroses dotting the misty plains of the Serengeti.
It’s a far cry from the typical birthday-cake and black-balloon celebration–the only “roasting” on the agenda will involve meat or marshmallows–but Knopinski, 48, isn’t just dreaming about it, she’s training for it, lacing up her hiking boots and summiting as many of the “fourteeners” (14,000-foot mountains) as possible in the nearby Rockies. Her birthday climb will take four to five days, and ascend more than 19,000 feet into the African sky.
Attaining the summit will require several steps: determining what resources are needed to make the climb, finding the appropriate professionals to guide her, and planning ahead for the unexpected. Fortunately, those are all skills she’s honed in another setting, as she helps the clients of Lighthouse Financial LLC (the planning firm that she and business partner Lynn Gingrich run in Boulder, Colorado) achieve their financial goals. Even the best planning can’t erase all risks–clients can lose their jobs or have unexpected expenses, hikers may be sickened by the altitude or get eaten by lions–but preparation, she says, is the best predictor of success.
Guides Along the Way
By climbing Africa’s tallest mountain, Knopinski will be taking the advice she often doles out to clients: Don’t wait until you’re retired to do everything you want to do. And just as she’ll be researching tour companies to make sure she has the right guides by her side during the climb, she helps her clients assemble a team of professionals to assist them in achieving their retirement goals. “It’s very centralized: We guide our clients in working with their attorneys and accountants. It’s almost like a family office, but at a much lower net-worth level,” she says. The firm’s 116 clients, who include business executives, professionals, and members of the tech industry, have between $500,000 and $10 million in assets. The firm strives to build relationships with the best accountants and attorneys it can find, but no money changes hands: “We’re not going to choose an attorney to refer our clients to because he happens to refer clients back; we choose an attorney because he’ll do the best work for the client,” she says. “In some cases, it becomes a reciprocal relationship; in others, it doesn’t.” Indeed, one attorney whom Knopinski respects greatly and works with often almost never refers clients her way; others provide many more referrals to Knopinski than they receive.
Interestingly, Knopinski’s firm takes the idea of leading a client’s financial team one step further than most by assembling a database of other resources that clients might need. If a client raves about his interior designer, landscaper, or even his plumber, the praised person’s name goes in the database. Then, when another client wants to redo her kitchen, add flowers around her pool, or has leaky pipes in the basement, voil?, out comes the list. “It’s not that we portray ourselves as the go-to person to find you an interior designer,” says Knopinski, “but should that come up, we have a network connection to someone that we have confidence in.”
As members of the clients’ team, Knopinski and her partner also play specific roles in clients’ success: While Gingrich concentrates on getting the word out about their services to prospective clients and handling the firm’s long-range planning, Knopinski concentrates on the technical aspects of financial planning, managing client portfolios, and writing the financial plans.
As for the firm’s staff, Knopinski and Gingrich make it a point to recruit specific types of people for specific work, in order to keep the firm humming like a well-oiled machine. While many planners rather subjectively look for “a numbers person” or “an outgoing person” for certain positions, Knopinski and Gingrich administer personality tests, also known as psychometric tests, to all prospective employees. It’s all part of an effort to recruit the best team to serve the client. “If you have people doing things that come naturally to them and are their areas of gifting and their passion, they’re not only more productive, they’re happier,” she says. “We’ve very overtly and explicitly worked on this as a company, and it’s worked really well.”
The firm uses the Caliper test (www.caliperonline.com) to measure traits such as gregariousness and introvertedness/extrovertedness, and uses the Kolbe test (www.kolbe.com) to determine the type of work the employee gravitates toward: launching new projects (“quickstarters”), conducting detailed research (“fact-finders”), creating physical products (“implementors”), or maintaining systems once they’re in place (the “follow-through” factor). Everyone in the firm knows the others’ Kolbe scores, and they each wear name badges listing their top traits when they attend quarterly strategic planning meetings. “If you know what the other person’s strengths are, it really helps you work well with them,” says Knopinski. “For instance, I like creating new things. I have high research and ‘quickstart’ capabilities, but I don’t have much follow-through: if you sit me there to maintain a system day after day, I’ll go nuts. But we have other people who have a high follow-through capability and no ‘quickstart’ at all, so I know that if I create a system and give them a lot of support up front, I can then walk away and know they’ll do a great job maintaining it.”