Paul Strebel has the best of both worlds.

A certified financial planner, certified public accountant, certified business coach and lecturer at Cornell University, he runs the Strebel Planning Group (www.strebelcpa.com), also located in Ithaca, N.Y. He shares the business with wife Leslie, an advisor, long term care specialist and certified business development coach, and his brother Chris Strebel, CPA, CFS, who runs the office’s tax-planning department. The Strebel family’s commitment to the industry will continue as Paul and Leslie’s daughter Debra will graduate from the CFP program at nearby Alfred State University this year, joining the firm as a planner.

While it might sound like a family affair, the Strebels are supported by a staff of 10, handling client service, administration, compliance, technology and marketing. In business as independent advisors since 1984, Strebel Planning Group regularly advocates giving back to the community it serves, and regularly encourages others to do the same.

Strebel is a firm believer in utilizing the power of research and education, and he not only teaches financial planning and accounting principles but also continues studying them. In so doing, Strebel can boil down macroeconomic theory to show clients how economic issues impact their financial future. Senior Market Advisor recently spoke with him about his business, his outlook and his advice for success in these tough times.

SMA: You have a unique perspective within this industry. What is it like to change hats from advisor to educator and vice versa?

Paul Strebel: It’s two very different worlds. The school can be a sanctuary–case studies are theoretical and you can look at the economy and markets through students’ eyes. It’s satisfying and uplifting to influence students and hear how a class has changed their future. It’s very different being employed at a large institution versus managing a 12-person firm where we have control and can make things happen quickly.

SMA: Considering your experience as an educator and your ability to look at the “big picture,” in what ways does that impact or shape your practice? And shape and impact the way you relate to clients and prospects?

PS: While I have a deep understanding of those clients who work in higher education, it’s vital that all advisors transmit confidence and competence in presenting information in a clear, understandable way. As for the economy, it’s no secret that consumers are fearful. I’ve found that it helps being able to give them a long-term picture of markets and what has happened historically. We certainly use this in our communications.

SMA: Talking about the economy, what’s different about this downturn?

PS: One of the consistent challenges is that we can best identify what’s gone on in the markets and economy, only after the fact. This downturn affected all asset classes simultaneously so there were precious few places to run and hide. The speed with which the market dropped also made this unusual. The takeaway is that this is a golden opportunity to start new client relationships.

SMA: What can advisors do to take advantage of this situation?

PS: Many clients are currently not happy with the performance of their products. A lack of communication from their existing advisor and a distrust of the financial institutions that have been making headlines … that’s what’s pushing them away. We have an opportunity to stand out by reaching out and addressing their fears, not hiding from them.

SMA: Are there strategies or techniques you’re currently employing to communicate with clients and prospects?

PS: We are not shy about promoting our firm. We use an e-mail newsletter, snail mail and monthly workshops for clients, their friends and families. We write a local newspaper article every month which lends great credibility. Our sales and marketing manager regularly feeds announcements to the media. When asked for an interview, we do our best to prepare for what’s often a tight deadline. We post articles to our Web site and send links to our mailing list.

SMA: What are you doing about obtaining referrals?

PS: This is a great time to ask for referrals. Over the past six months the markets have been a steady subject of conversation. Our clients know who, among their friends and coworkers, are unhappy, worried and fearful, and they are much more likely to give a referral out of a desire to help their contacts and us. As advisors, we obviously don’t have any control over the markets, but we do control how we respond in tough times. If we have risen to the occasion, we’ll earn referrals.

SMA: What advice do you give other advisors during this time?

PS: For many, this will prove to be one of the greatest marketing opportunities of all time. We’re definitely navigating within a climate of fear, but it’s a mistake for advisors not to stay in contact with clients. Clients want to know how they’re protected and what control they have. While the wirehouse rep is focusing on growing assets and chasing prospects, the independent advisor should be nurturing clients, obtaining referrals and growing his brand within his community, because most business is local. Now is the time when reputations are going to be made in this business.

SMA: What adjustments have you made at your practice due to the current economic troubles?

PS: We are communicating more frequently with clients and prospects and hosting monthly workshops about the economy and future strategies. We’ve become more tactical in our investment recommendations. And we’re marketing more because we see this as a huge opportunity to grow business.
We’re also offering more products with downside protection, such as variable annuities with guaranteed-income benefits and more defensive investment strategies. We read more and work with other advisors via affinity groups to stay informed and share ideas. And we’ve resigned ourselves to earning less and working more, at least temporarily.

SMA: What are some of the money-saving, creative or entrepreneurial ideas your practice is embracing?

PS: We moved our workshops to our offices and toned down client dinners and appreciation events. This saves money and helps avoid appearing like this downturn is not affecting us, which would be a lie. With a little creativity, one can find great value and fun for clients. We recently purchased a block of 300 tickets for a Chinese acrobatic troupe. We got a great group rate and private section for a party. We want our clients to go back to their offices on Monday and tell everyone about the fun they had on our nickel.
We’ve always had a culture of entrepreneurship, and we continue to engage our employees in finding new ways to do business to help us be more efficient and effective. For many years we’ve incorporated life-planning tools in our process. It’s more important than ever to discuss clients’ lives in broader terms, helping them remain resilient in stressful times.