What does it take to build a successful practice? A panel of advisors whose expertise ranged from estate and business planning to investment compliance and employee benefits sought to address that question at the Financial Service Forum 2007 held here late last month. A recurring theme during the session was the need to establish well-defined procedures for managing all facets of the business.

“No matter what you do, everything should have a process and be documented,” said Mark Hanna, president and founder of Hanna Global Solutions, Walnut Creek, Calif., a provider of human resource management, employee benefits consulting and wealth management services. “Even if you operate a traditional employee benefits firm for small businesses, by shifting from a product orientation to one focused on process and outcome-based results, you can bullet-proof your practice.”

Added Brian Hamburger, a founder and managing director of Englewood, N.J.-based Market Counsel: “Key to our success early on was the creation of a business process, including the development of workflows and checklists. Though we only had a few staffers at the start, we acted as if we were running a major conglomerate. So when it came time to hire people, we already had procedures in place for them to follow.”

Much of his firm’s growth, said Hanna, has been fueled by the addition of services that are not core competencies of the company’s clients. Among these are technology solutions and people with expertise in managing payroll, vendor relationships, compliance and immigration functions, as well as “on-boarding” services tailored to clients’ recruitment, training and documentation needs for new hires.

While adding to its outsourced services, Hanna Global has itself outsourced functions that could be more cost-effectively handled by a third-party. Hanna noted, for example, that the firm’s payroll software was developed by an outside vendor, yet the firm private-labels its payroll services.

“We realized early on that not everything should be done internally,” said Hanna. “If you need domain expertise in a certain area, as we did with payroll, then you can enter a strategic partnership with someone who has that expertise. And you can brand the service as your own via a licensing agreement. We definitely recommend this because the client is buying you and the solutions you deliver.”

Anthony Domino, president of Associated Benefit Consultants, White Plains, N.Y., and immediate past president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, said strategic partnerships have also been key to his business success, but for reasons other than cost efficiencies. A provider of insurance and financial planning that specializes in qualified plans and other employee benefits, the company derives about a third of its business through referrals from an allied accounting firm. Additional qualified leads come by way of partnering with law firms. These other professional practices also deliver complementary expertise in business engagements.

For Market Counsel, a consulting firm offering regulatory and compliance services to entrepreneurial investment advisors, strategic partnering and outsourcing are kept to a minimum. Though the firm maintains a close relationship with its affiliate, Hamburger Law Firm, Market Counsel has developed in-house most of the human capital it requires.

“While it’s great to use outside vendors and independent contractors to get you through the initial phases of a start-up business, to make the practice sustainable we had to bring that expertise in-house,” said Hamburger. “We no longer have independent contractors because it’s very difficult to weave these folks into our corporate culture.”

The company has, however, integrated capable family members and friends into the practice. The family-like atmosphere–staffers are encouraged to express themselves freely and are involved in key decisions–has produced a high degree of loyalty among employees.

Hamburger credits the company’s rapid growth to this cohesiveness and to its focus on quality control and the back-office needs of small and mid-size registered investment advisors. Since its launch in August 2000, Market Counsel has grown from 2 to 39 employees; and, since 2005, has boosted its clientele from 317 firms in 33 states to 520 in 43 states.

In contrast to Market Counsel and Hanna Global Solutions, Hales & George, a family-owned law firm dedicated to estate and business planning, trust administration and probate, opted to keep its practice small. Robert Hales, the firm’s now retired founder, said he was never inclined to manage a large group of attorneys. But he was able a build a successful practice and a smooth succession plan by employing his wife Joan, and later, his daughter Jan Marie George, who now runs the firm.

Hales added that working with George has been a great thrill for him personally and professionally. And he offered a word of counsel to attendees who might also be thinking about integrating children into their own practices.

“One thing I recommend about bringing children into the business: Let go!” said Hales. “It shouldn’t be home; it shouldn’t be Mom and Dad telling the children how to behave all day long. The perspective should be, she’s going to have sit in that desk some day without you around. So let go!”