Don Alderman, a Wachovia Securities director of investments, will be hanging ten on a three-week surfing safari in Canada this August. He’d also probably like to hang a sign from his neck, “Do Not Disturb!”
Will the lead partner in a team of three constantly check cell phone messages during his wave-catching holiday? “No way!” he says.
Will Rick Stout’s partners routinely call him at the Philadelphia B&B where he’s staying with Mrs. Stout for a week’s R&R this June? Don’t bet on it. “Our team tries to let downtime be downtime,” insists the RBC Dain Rauscher financial consultant, based in Hartford, Conn.
And what about Susan L. Kendall? Will the independent, affiliated with Commonwealth Financial Network, have her head in her laptop while holidaying at a Croatian villa on the Mediterranean in late summer? Absolutely not. “I completely turn off [business] when I’m on vacation. My husband says that’s one of the best features of traveling with me!” says the principal of Kendall Financial Services, in Pacific Grove, Calif., happily.
But come vacation-time, none of these advisors will be ignoring their booming practices. Far from it. Reposing, relaxing and recharging in the sun, they’ll rely on procedures they’ve put in place to ensure their clients back home are superbly looked after.
But what of the vacationing FA who prefers to keep in constant contact with the office? For example, Merrill Lynch wealth management advisor Stanley Heilbronn, based in New York City, who’s booked a 10-day vacation in Italy. This month, the Heilbronns fly to Rome and Venice where they will hike and feast on delicious Italian cuisine. Last year, on a bike trip through Spain, the advisor checked for office messages at every break.
Heilbronn’s partners — sons Greg and Andrew — hold down the fort when he’s away. However, “I’m never incommunicado. The nature of my practice is almost a 24/7 operation. I use my BlackBerry extensively when I’m traveling to see all my e-mail. I check in by phone at least once a day to get updated. I’m sure my staff will say it’s significantly more than once a day!” chuckles Heilbronn, whose team manages assets of $1.2 billion for high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients.
The team approach, though, makes it pretty easy for FAs to grab a breather. Notes lead advisor Alderman, who has two partners in his Charleston, S.C., practice: “We don’t feel we’re being negligent in any way by taking time off: There are two other advisors in the office to look out for things when each of us is gone.”
Like Alderman, Stout leaves with his partners a dossier on pending items — such as transfers in process — and advises applicable clients the dates he’ll be gone. Portfolio reviews are re-scheduled for either before or after vacation. All this is coordinated with the team’s sales assistant.
“There’s good familiarity among clients and the three partners, so any issues can be easily addressed when they come up,” Stout says.
OK, but what if you’re a solo practitioner? No partner. Can’t be in two places at once, right? But you can be well organized and maintain a “Travel Manual” detailing systems to be implemented prior to leaving. You can even post on your website vacation dates, and hotel names and phone numbers. That way, clients can contact you if need be.
That’s how independent Susan Kendall prepares for her, usually European, holidays. “We in the industry are, after all, in the planning business. So we should plan everything out. Then you can leave and not worry about what’s going on behind you,” says the CFP and CPA who last year was away 120 days — seven weeks of that vacation. She depends on high technology, a slew of procedures and crackerjack assistant Ginger to keep things going without a hitch.
Only once did a client call Kendall while she was on holiday. It was four years ago and a true emergency: Woozy and confused, the post-surgery patient had written a $70,000 check on the wrong bank. It bounced and was now wreaking havoc with an investment. Frantic, the client phoned Kendall, who was relaxing in England’s Cotswold Hills. “I guess she didn’t expect me to return her message,” recalls Kendall. “But I told her what to do. Next I called my [then-] broker-dealer and asked them to contact her to make sure she did everything right.”
Training Clients Not to be Nervous
Running a fee-based practice and doing little, if any, trading facilitates summer get-aways, too. “The market’s going one way or the other won’t translate into a flurry of phone calls or panic e-mails. It’s basically maintaining the portfolio and relationships,” notes Stout, whose team specializes in managed money.
Clients, of course, go on holiday, too; and before most of Heilbronn’s leave, they advise the advisor of where they’ll be via an e-mailed or faxed itinerary. “I was just talking to a client who notified me that he’s going to Paris and London in May and where to reach him,” says the advisor. “That’s the way our practice has grown. We’re always available — and our clients are, too. They want us to know where they can be reached.”
As much as Heilbronn loves to stay in touch, he welcomes quiet time during plane trips. “It’s sort of peaceful. I can get all my reading done. I’m not interrupted,” says the FA, who tries to fly during non-market hours.
Such tranquility, however, was shattered on September 11, 2001, as he was coming home to New York after a Venice vacation. En route over the English Channel, Heilbronn’s plane was suddenly returned to Italy. Terrorists had just attacked the World Trade Center. He would remain in Venice another six days.
“I set up my office in the hotel,” recalls the advisor, who always travels with a complete client directory, both electronic and hard copy. “I contacted my clients to make sure they were OK and let them know that I couldn’t get back but that my sons and staff were OK, and available.”
Typically, Rick Stout is “85 percent turned off” business matters while vacationing. “I try to take a bit of a news holiday” from the market. But he can’t resist calling the office and checking e-mail once or twice a week “to make sure things are all right. The fear that something’s going on and we need to help is kind of embedded in advisors’ DNA.”
Does that include handholding jumpy clients? “If a client needs to talk to me that badly,” says Stout, “something has gone wrong [with the relationship.] We put a lot of time and effort into smoothing out apprehensions [up-front]. If you have their trust, you shouldn’t have a large number of clients who are excessively nervous.”
To Stout, the biggest vacation challenge is “allowing yourself to have downtime and not get too worked up that you’re not [in the office]. But you just have to realize that you can only control what you can control, and have confidence in the processes you’ve put in place and in your partners.”
Don Alderman likes to totally escape the work environment in order to “keep things balanced.” During his three-weeks of surfing, he’ll call the office just twice a week. “When you go on vacation, you like to relax a little bit,” he says, adding, “of course, 90 percent of the time I’m reachable.”
Alderman’s partners, financial consultants Jamie O’Brien and Scott Laney, will each go on holiday in the month of July. O’Brien plans a fishing trip with wife and kids at a lodge north of Toronto, Canada; Laney has a long July 4th planned — a family reunion in a remote Piney Mountain, N.C., cabin.
“Knowing that our clients are with someone who knows them lets us have a stress-free vacation. I’ll call in once during the week just to make sure a catastrophe hasn’t happened,” O’Brien says.
Systems in Place
Laney’s laid-back family cabin has no phone or TV service. And to use his cell phone, everyday or so he’ll go to another area where such service is available.
For online access to office e-mail, he’ll plug in his laptop at a Starbucks. Should Laney want to contact vacationing clients, he already has on file phone numbers for those usually summering in Florida or the mountains of North Carolina.
Kendall takes her Treo personal digital assistant (PDA) mobile phone, packed with client contacts, wherever she goes. The independent also makes sure to carry along a phone card that will work in whatever country she’s visiting. At the office, “I’ve set up everything before I leave. I can’t control a terrorist attack, but I’ve got back-up systems and procedures, which I can control. That gives me the luxury of being able to turn off because I know everything is all buttoned
The super-organized Kendall’s “Travel Manual” has templates for e-mailing travel plans and detailed itineraries to clients; answering-machine scripts; and a list of other local professionals who can cover her on client questions that can’t wait till she returns.
One of Kendall’s most effective systems is advising clients of her trip dates three or four weeks in advance, and at the same time asking whether any matters need attending. This both avoids surprise last-minute urgent calls and encourages client meetings upon her return. The latter often lead to more business. “Many clients live vicariously through me. They say, ‘Where’s your annual big trip this year?’ My thing is communication,” says Kendall. “The good relationship is always broken down or built up by communication.”
Her website features a “Where Is Susan?” page posting the FA’s known travel schedule months in advance, plus snapshots of cool places she’s visited.
To avoid becoming stressed out before leaving, Kendall goes into what she calls “backwards mode,” packing a week ahead and, as above, seeing to client requests. “That,” she says, “gives me five days to deal with people that call [at the 11th hour] saying, ‘I really need this before you go away.’”
If lucky, your only bad vacation moment will be the thought of scads of e-mail awaiting your return. To help deal with this 21st century fact of life, some advisors take time a day or two before heading home to scroll through these communiqu?s and reply selectively.
Indeed, state-of-the-art technology helps vacationing FAs keep in touch. Stanley Heilbronn likes to take full advantage of this. Here’s why he opts to be in constant contact with his office even though “things run very smoothly” while he’s away:
Promising his wife an “uninterrupted vacation” in Thailand in March 2000, he arranged to stay in touch by receiving only a single daily office fax synopsizing what transpired. One day, while the Heilbronns were enjoying Phuket, the market had a swing of 500 points. “That ended the deal about getting just one fax a day,” he says. “It was the beginning of the Nasdaq decline and a change in market environment.
“Fortunately, I was able to figure out something was amiss in Denmark. But that,” says the advisor, “changed my receiving one fax a day to being on the phone again!”