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Systems and Solutions

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Trust a Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad to perceive estate planning as “an engineering problem.”

“It’s how you put the pieces together to best serve families so they can keep the most money for themselves, their children and their grandchildren,” explains Emerson T. Knowles, who, with Bachelor of Science degree in hand, went straight from MIT to train as a financial advisor.

Twenty-eight years later, he heads the four-person River Hills Group at Smith Barney. A senior vice president and top producer with annual revenue of $1.25 million, Knowles, in his 25 years with the wirehouse, has made either Director’s Council or Chairman’s Council more than 20 times, including last year, when he again scored Chairman’s level.

Knowles’ engineer’s mind has dealt him a brilliant knack for developing systems that automate work and boost efficiency in his practice.

“I’m a problem-solver. Throw a pile of junk in front of me and I’ll figure out how to make a car out of it,” jokes the FA, 50, who is as precise as he is resourceful.

“Everything Emerson does has a system behind it. Things that would take a shoot-from-the-hip-style advisor four hours to do, takes him only one,” says Paul Blease, Smith Barney’s director of team development and consulting.

The firm happily shares Knowles’ innovative methods with its advisors. These include a system for closely watching and reviewing high-net-worth client accounts and an organizer that pulls together every important financial document so that components work in concert to make client “dreams come true.”

The Cincinnati-born FA caters to affluent multi-generational families. Most of the $275 million in assets managed by his team are, in various forms, monies for retirement. “First and foremost, you have to understand what the client’s vision of retirement is,” he says. “Then, once you quantify it, you go to work getting the right balance of savings and growth and what they need to put on deposit with you, so that when they hit the magic age, they can press the button and buy their house on Lake Wobegon!” Or wherever.

Knowles puts stress on developing a quality rapport with clients and acquiring insight into where they’re coming from and where they want to be. According to Knowles, “clients need to have advisors that truly know them — their likes, their fears and what they want to accomplish.”

Inspired by an elder brother’s working in the industry, Knowles, spotting “an incredible career opportunity,” shifted in his last two years of college to business and economics classes at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Right after graduating with a B.S. in urban studies and planning, in 1979, he hopped in his car, headed back to Cincinnati and reported for his first day at Merrill Lynch. By his second full year there, he’d topped $100,000 in revenue.

The following year, Knowles left to join Shearson (later Smith Barney), which, compared to Merrill, he says, had “a more entrepreneurial view and more flexibility in the style of business to structure and develop.”

Though Cinci remains his chief base of operations, in winter Knowles works from a high-tech office at his second home in Saddlebrooke, Arizona, 20 miles north of Tucson. This arrangement enables wife Peggy, who has been recovering from a massive stroke, to stroll in the sunny outdoors.

Four years ago, Knowles walked in the front door to find Peggy (“the love of my life”) lying helplessly on the floor. The stroke has left her paralyzed on the left side and partially blind. Though he’s been a motivator, coach and disciplinarian in her rehabilitation, Knowles credits Peggy as “a walking miracle.

“I’ve seen the miracle of pure will in action. She’s a symbol of courage and perseverance. I was told that she would probably never walk or read or write again. But she goes out the door in Arizona and walks a mile a day,” he says. “She organizes projects. She cooks up dinner at night!”

Just a year after Peggy’s stroke, Knowles was handed another challenge when he was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery, fortunately, was successful. When he turned 50, he says he took himself in hand, “after seeing what my wife had accomplished,” lost 35 pounds and took up running three to four days a week. Last February, in Apache Junction, Ariz., he proudly ran his first marathon.

To kick back, Knowles likes reading espionage novels. But it doesn’t take a spy, he says, to scope out what’s going on in financial services industry-wide. “Everybody is now out for our business. Being able to deliver all [services] is our future. If you stay with just one single little niche, you’re going to be chipped away at very heavily in the years to come. But those advisors who have taken the time to [learn new competencies] will flourish.”

Emerson T. Knowles

Senior vice president-wealth management; head, The River Hills Group at Smith Barney; Cincinnati and Saddlebrooke, Ariz.

AUM: $275 million.

What he says clients really want: “They prefer to go to one place for all [their financial services]. There’s a lot of comfort for the modern client to have one person they trust who can handle it all.”

The secret to Knowles’ success, according to Smith Barney’s Paul Blease: “His practice is systematized and high quality, and that transfers to his entire life. He focuses on getting from A to B no matter what it takes.”

Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.