There are many advisory firms that place a premium on continuing education and professional accreditation. Depending on its business model, it’s not uncommon for a firm to have one or more CFPs in the planning department, maybe a CFA heading up the investment team, and if there’s a special orientation toward tax efficiency, there might also be a CPA in the mix. Occasionally one might come across a practice headed by an individual with multiple accreditations and a veritable alphabet soup of initials after his name. But a firm with four partners–each of whom is a certified financial planner (CFP), certified public accountant (CPA), certified investment management analyst (CIMA), and a personal financial specialist (PFS)–has rare bragging rights indeed. Brightworth Private Wealth Counsel, the Atlanta-area firm that began life in 1997 as Polstra & Dardaman, can make just that claim. The firm also counts three additional CFPs on its planning staff, one of whom is also a chartered life underwriter, denoting her specialization in insurance and estate planning. The head of the investment team is Brightworth’s eighth CFP; he also is a CFA. “One of the things we like to do is provide cutting edge advice to our clients. To do that, we have to be what we call lifelong learners,” explains firm founder and chairman Dave Polstra. “We have a passion for learning and for always aspiring to be better.”
“We place a lot of value here on continuing education and learning,” adds co-founder Chris Dardaman, who acts both as CEO and CIO for the firm. In addition to his already impressive roster of credentials, last summer he was part of the first alternative investment certificate class conducted by the Investment Management Consultants Association (IMCA) at the Wharton School.
In addition to the founders, Brightworth has two other partners–Alan Gotthardt and Ray Padr?n. All four started their careers as CPAs with large accounting firms but were attracted to the advisory profession by both its entrepreneurial aspect and the high level of interpersonal contact with clients.
Polstra is the senior member of the group, having started in the audit and tax departments of a Big Eight CPA firm where he found he had a passion for working in individual tax returns, in the late ’70s. In 1980, after two years as a CPA he joined a financial planning study group with other young professionals from different arms of the financial services industry. When he ultimately decided to leave the accounting firm to become a financial planner, the managing partner of the tax department warned him against the move, advising that he’d never make it. Feeling slightly daunted, Polstra joined a firm in the Atlanta suburbs that he describes as “mainly independent contractor-type reps.” He says it gave him great experience and excellent training, but following the enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, he felt that the business was about to change and that a commission-oriented business would not be the way of the future.
In 1992 Chris Dardaman also joined that firm and, with Polstra helping to mentor the younger planner, they began working together on retirement workshops and other projects. The two found their skills extremely complementary. Dardaman is a natural networker and his people skills, combined with Polstra’s flair for public speaking, made them an excellent team. In 1997 the pair struck out on their own and to build a service- and client-oriented business that would be fee-based. For lack of a better suggestion at the time, they named it after themselves. As is the case with many fledgling firms, it took a little bit of time for Polstra & Dardaman to get their business model running the way they had envisioned. Initially “fee-only” applied just to the investment portion of the business, but by the end of 1999, they had dropped their insurance licenses. Shortly thereafter they became members of NAPFA and today they are completely fee-only with no other compensation, including any kind of soft dollars.
The same year they started the business, Polstra and Dardaman were joined by Alan Gotthardt, who though only in his mid-20s was already a senior manager in Ernst & Young’s tax department working with high-net-worth clients. Polstra credits Gotthardt with providing the firm’s strategic direction and design. In the same vein he describes Dardaman as the firm’s visionary. “He’s our idea guy. He is always asking the question, ‘Why do we do things this way? How can we do it better?’”
The fourth partner in Brightworth, Ray Padr?n, joined two years ago from Deloitte & Touche in Atlanta. “Ray is our execution guy,” says Polstra. “He has an HR heart, he can develop teams, and he has a technology-oriented mind, so he heads up our IT as well. He’s our chief operating officer and what he does is take the ideas and strategies that Chris and Alan come up with and he builds them into systems and processes.
“It’s almost like there’s this jigsaw puzzle that fits together the way your hand would fit in a perfect glove, taking the key attributes of each of my partners and putting it together into a unique team,” he continues. Of his own role in the company, Polstra says he spends a great deal of time working on the development of the planning staff. He’s also often the public face of the firm speaking to professional groups on wealth management and IRA distribution planning.
But for all the partners, the big driver is still client contact. “Each one of us has clients that we’re responsible for and then each of us has specific duties in managing the firm,” Polstra explains. “But we’ve also got four planners in our planning department–three of them have MBAs in planning or finance and the other is working on his MBA. That’s the group that does most of the planning work and then prepares reports and strategies for us to go over with our clients. We leverage our time by having very skilled, highly competent planners that are in a role to serve the client.”
Once an Accountant . . .
Although all of Brightworth’s partners are CPAs, they no longer function as accountants in preparing tax returns, but an awareness of the tax situation is always present. “I’ll give you an example of how our tax expertise would come in,” offers Polstra. “For an executive that’s thinking about retiring in a few years, we lay out a roadmap for them on how to deal with the tax implications on their non-qualified stock options or their deferred comp plans. We help them figure out the most tax-efficient way to get from working to retiring without Uncle Sam taking a big chunk of their cash.”
They may be accountants, but the partners at Brightworth are cognizant of the fact that their clients’ lives encompass much more than finances. One of the firm’s goals is to provide comprehensive life planning, not just investment advice.