Maybe you’re wondering how we select the five finalists. Essentially, we look at top production, high ethical standards and active community involvement.

Because there are so many advisors who fit those key ingredients, we go beyond that and look for differentiators, something that can further set nominees apart.

When putting together this list of finalists for Advisor of the Year, we kept running into a similar theme–these final five take a big-picture view of the industry. Of course, they’re all major producers, or they wouldn’t be on this list. Beyond that, though, they have a firm grasp of the giant wheels turning within the industry.

It’s no secret that major regulatory developments are taking place within financial services circles. These final five get it. They know the changes afoot and have plans and suggestions for how to address the key issues affecting advisors today.

The Advisor of the Year will be announced at Senior Market Advisor Expo, held Aug. 24-26 at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. All of the finalists will be in attendance and will be part of “The Winner’s Circle,” a 90-minute discussion on what it takes to become a top advisor.

Abe ASHTON
One for the Money Financial
St. George, Utah
2008 Production:
$25 Million

Senior Market Advisor: What led you to making the advising of seniors a focal point of your practice?

Abe Ashton: It was back in 1997. I had been recruited to sell life insurance at an agengy that my father was manager of, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be a “life insurance salesman.” But, during that time, I came in contact on a sales call with a senior couple. They had heard that life insurance could be used as a valuable retirement tool. So, we went over their plan. I pointed out to them that they had a great existing plan and I couldn’t see where I could benefit them. They told me, “you’re the worst life insurance salesman we’ve ever met.” Then they gave me some advice: “Instead of being a product specialist, we’d like to see a company that focuses on a generation of clients. Instead of having to talk to so many different people to answer our questions, could we get all that under one roof?”

I started searching for that company that would focus on retirees. I was 23 years old at the time and I made a rule to myself–I wouldn’t meet with anyone under the age of 50. We sharpened our focus with the idea that we can’t be everything to everyone. That’s how I was led into the realm of seniors and retirees. And the interesting side note is that the original senior couple I met with are clients of mine to this day.

SMA: What are the biggest keys to the success of your practice?

Ashton: I was recently asked that question at a sales conference. The biggest success for me happened around six years ago when the company became a full-fledged partnership between me and my wife. She is very organized and I noticed that when we began to run our company the way we ran our home, it really took off.

To give you a little more detail, in addition to being on top of our schedule and structure, we put the clients first–all clients get birthday cards and annual check-ups. The other point that’s led to success is integrity. In my dealings with clients, I’m going to call it like I see it. I am straightforward with them. I’m not one person with certain clients and someone else with others. I’m the same. I’m consistent and honest. Even if I’m wrong, I’m going to be very up-front with the clients. That philosophy has led to many referrals. Clients can trust putting their name behind my name.

SMA: What has been your most effective method for prospecting new clients?

Ashton: I have used seminars and my radio show. The radio show has developed over the last few years and I’ve been speaking at seminars for the last decade. That was my bread and butter, but the radio show has helped and really taken off. It’s a whole new challenge, but has brought in a new group of clientele to us and has brought us additional creditability. The radio show allows me to talk about the news, the economy, taxes, etc. The people who listen to the radio show have a good idea about my views for weeks and weeks before they meet me, so there’s a real comfortable first meeting.

The radio show is twice a week. I started out on Saturdays, but have now expanded to Thursday mornings, where it airs in our small town right before Rush Limbaugh’s show. On the radio, I don’t have to talk specifically about a product, but can talk about issues, like how a big tax proposal is going to affect seniors and retirees. Again, it really adds to the credibility and allows people to see that I understand the bigger issues.

SMA: Talk about your community and industry involvement, and how it affects your practice.

Ashton: My little community is a significant desert retirement community, with over 100,000 people, an hour and a half north of Las Vegas. I have three brothers who are or were in the military. So, I always coveted that camaraderie and the brotherhood you find there. So, three years ago, I joined the police department. I work a full 10-hour shift. I donate it back to the police department. Once per week, I go out and work a graveyard shift. And it’s a nice refreshing change from being the boss, the star of the show. It allows me to work with the community.

Also, our company sponsors school events, looking for ways to give back to the local youth. Another sponsorship we work on is the St. George Marathon, where our motto is “slow and steady wins the race.” That’s our motto in both the marathon and my practice.

SMA:
What are the biggest issues facing the industry, and your practice, today?

Ashton: You have advisors who are out there selling products or plans, but they don’t understand the particular plan. This industry sees a lot of people looking for a quick buck, but not taking the time to really understand the needs of the client they’re dealing with. And this has led to more of the issues with 151A and state regulations. If not for the bad apples, they wouldn’t be having some of those issues, in my opinion. What we wind up with is some abuse, in what otherwise would be very good products. Unfortunately, for every 100 good advisors, if just one is not doing the right thing, that’s what the general public will hear about, that one. So, we need to have the education and we need to understand the product. There’s more money to be made by being an ethical advisor and doing the right thing than looking for the quick buck.

Curtis CLOKE
Two Rivers Financial
Burlington, Iowa
2008 Production:
$18.4 Million

Senior Market Advisor: What led you to making the advising of seniors a focal point of your practice?

Curtis Cloke: I spent the first five years of my life living with my grandparents, Monday through Friday. Many days as I was growing up, I would be between my grandfather’s knees in the field on the tractor or in the barn, listening to him sing and tell stories. He was a man of faith and honor and he instilled these attributes deeply into the fabric of
my life.

I started in the financial services business in 1987, at age 23, I had been injured at a previous job and decided to get involved in the industry, rather than be on Social Security disability the rest of my life. I’ve also been a gospel music soloist since I was 12 years old, and I’ve been able to connect with a lot of seniors by singing in my church, at weddings and funerals.

Prior to becoming an advisor, also I witnessed a greedy agent take advantage of my grandfather and I can remember thinking about how I felt, learning that someone would be so inconsiderate with such a loving and kind person. I always remember that the work I do today will be known by those who loved my clients, and the results of my advice will be my reputation, to be judged by their families later.

SMA: What are the biggest keys to the success of your practice?

Cloke: There are five big ones for me:

  1. A deep desire to provide authentic solutions that, when back-tested with time, provide the intended results for the client.
  2. Strong commitment to integrity and putting the client’s needs above all else.
  3. Educating myself by constantly learning and absorbing information that is available by attending conferences, Webinars and professional designation classes.
  4. Marketing is an absolute must! I have three ads placed in our local newspaper, billboards on the edge of town and support a number organizational events.
  5. Work on your business as hard as you work in your business.

SMA: What has been your most effective method for prospecting new clients?

Cloke: Besides my advertising, I am constantly meeting new people and having referrals provided by my existing clients. These lead to a steady flow of new sales activity that keeps our practice flourishing. I always follow up on these leads and try to follow through with each one; I have observed advisors over the years simply not make that call and then waste the opportunities.

We also try to get in touch with our clients four to six times a year by mailing out newsletters, and during the holidays, we have a client appreciation night where we serve food and give away prizes. On occasion, I will put on a mini Christmas concert. It’s been an annual highlight and we have seen it grow over time.

SMA: Talk about your community and industry involvement, and how it affects your practice.

Cloke: I have served for many years as the president of the Christian Action Board; we’ve done a lot to help low-income families with home ownership. I serve as chairman for a local new business incubator organization, helping with new, start-up companies, and I’m also an advisory board member for a local downtown business revitalization group, as well as being appointed to the State of Iowa’s Business Development Centers board. I have been a Kiwanis member for many years and volunteer for many children’s projects; I also support the MDRT Foundation. As well, I have been a member of our local Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, where I have helped moderate the LUTC classes and develop other CEC classes for our members, for many years.
The byproduct of these many ventures is credibility and respect from my community from serving others.

SMA: What are the biggest issues facing the industry, and your practice, today?

Cloke: The financial issues that are creating challenges for our customers in the ways they address their own financial well-being, as well as the confidence they have with our companies and the products that we provide to them. But these times also create some of the greatest opportunities to be creative and provide solutions for challenges facing our clients, especially for those who are honest and have laid a path of integrity and a reputation of providing solutions for real problems.

As an industry, we must be committed to products and services that are providing promises that are responsible, while remaining solvent. These recent financial events should be a reminder that “what we sow, we shall also reap.” There is a balance between innovation and the sound fundamental practices of keeping our industry strong, and we should constantly strive to maintain that balance. We need to resist the temptation to cross that line by risking our future, taking risks and making assumptions that do not pass the test of time.

Arthur FARR
FSG Wealth Management
Stone Mountain, Ga.
2008 Production:
$10.1 Million

Senior Market Advisor: What led you to making the advising of seniors a focal point of your practice?

Arthur Farr: It wasn’t something that I necessarily set out to do. Many of my clients are around 10 years older than I am, and, after three decades in the business, there was a natural transition, where they eventually hit senior or retiree status.

Also, coming from a rural background, I have always related well with older people. I feel very comfortable with them and enjoy building those relationships. With aging parents and a mother-in-law with dementia, I have been touched on a personal level with the needs that seniors have.

SMA: What are the biggest keys to the success of your practice?

Farr: My whole life is centered on relationships. To me, that means my relationship with clients goes to another level. It’s letting them know that being a friend is more important than their business. When I deal with clients, I want to know more than their assets; I want to know them. We label ourselves as a family business. We go beyond just advising them and providing products. We help with personal development. We find out what their passions are, what they want to do in their community. Or we might be helping their grandkids plan for college.

For me, I can’t separate who I am at work, church or at home, it’s all integrated. That relationship means building trust with the client. It’s important that we establish trust and learn how to add value to their lives. We value the client and value what they do with us.

Another way we’ve developed success is by changing our philosophy from a reactive organization to a generative organization. By that I mean we have built and designed our business in just the way that we wanted to and the way that works best for us and our clients.

SMA: What has been your most effective method for prospecting new clients?

Farr: There have been two main things. The first is client referrals, which account for about half of our new business. Sometimes, we will ask for referrals, once we’ve established a level of trust with a client. We’ll do something like ask them to bring a guest to a workshop.

Another way is through “preferred partner relationships.” These are attorneys, CPAs and other professionals that we work with and have built strong relationships with. Over the last 20 years, I have been able to find professionals that have the same values I have. We share a holistic view of the clients where we want the clients to succeed. And we work together by sending each other leads. There’s one other thing I want to say about prospecting. I have a personal goal to develop one new relationship every day. It’s not a marketing ploy; it’s just a habit I’ve developed.

SMA: Talk about your community and industry involvement, and how it affects your practice.

Farr: Again, I can’t separate who I am. I have a passion to serve others. Years ago, I set up a homeless ministry that I ran for 15-plus years. Through church, I’ve been teaching a 5 a.m. men’s class, to mentor a group of men. I’ve probably had 100 men pass through that study group the last 17 years.

I’ve also been a chairman of a non-profit that focuses on third world countries. We have helped people in the Mideast, Africa and Nepal. We teach them basic business skills.

SMA: What are the biggest issues facing the industry, and your practice, today?

Farr: As I look around, I find that we have too many hunters out there, too many looking for the kill.
I think that product design creates that. At my business, we’re farmers. We’re looking at breaking the ground, sowing and reaping. That’s through meeting and working with people.

I think we need more products that are recurring. We need that long-term relationship with the client. Better product design would help that. Also, in the securities world, we’ve already moved to the fee-based, from commission-based. For survival of the industry, I think we need to look at a more fee-based model. I think that will lower litigation and increase relationships, give us better client retention. That would create more profitability for the companies and marketing revenues would go down.

I think another great challenge is bringing younger advisors to the business. It’s important to the industry that we have that next generation of advisors to take over. It’s our duty to prepare them, mentor them, and, in some cases, give them an option to work in a partnership.

Tom LEININGER
Asset Allocation Associates Inc.
Celina, Ohio
2008 Production:
$7.9 Million

Senior Market Advisor: What led you to making the advising of seniors a focal point of your practice?

Tom Leininger: My journey started at home, when, as a boy, my parents taught me to respect the elder generation. I was a Boy Scout, and, at college, worked at a switchboard at a nursing home. My grandmother was single for 40 years. At the end, she outlived her money. Later, I saw my parents work with different advisors. As my knowledge increased, I realized there were people out there who were product pushers. Not bad guys, necessarily, but pushing the product instead of what the client needs. One thing that I’ve noticed working with seniors is the importance of educating the second person to die in a marital union. Both need to know and understand how all the finances work and what’s being done.

SMA: What are the biggest keys to the success of your practice?

Leininger: There have been three main keys–suitability, continuing education and client communication. For me, suitability is doing right by the client, providing positive reinforcement, being unbiased and not pushing a particular product. We often ask the clients what are the things they’ll need in retirement. We really have them think about it so we can go about satisfying that particular need. With products, we look to short surrender periods; the shorter the better.

Continuing education plays a role from a personal standpoint and an industry standpoint. I’m big on listening to self-help and inspirational tapes from people like Lou Holtz, Brian Tracy and Norman Vincent Peale. In those tapes, I hear advice that I can carry to my business. I’m also paying close attention to the ethics ratings of companies. Are they going to be able to follow through on the promises they’re making? Then, there’s client communication. We never play hide and seek with clients. We work to always be there for them. Every year, we have an anniversary dinner for clients who’ve been with us 10 years. When there’s trouble in the economy like we’ve had, we get on the phone and spell things out for clients. We also have a client communication calendar that includes not only their changes, but how we can better serve them. It’s a ranking of clients that keeps us up to date on who’s an advocate of ours and who is more lukewarm. It’s important to know who gives us referrals on a steady basis. They may not be the largest dollar amount client, but they have an account, a great attitude, and they advocate for us.

SMA: What has been your most effective method for prospecting new clients?

Leininger: I met a guy at MDRT one year who told me the key to his success is he’s just “a walkin’ and a talkin’ to people.” I’ve kept that advice and get out and talk to people. I have a client who owns a pizza parlor and works from early morning to late at night. There’s no way he had time to come in for a meeting, so I stopped by the pizza parlor.

Don’t be bashful in this industry. Ask for the business. Centers of influence have also been important. To build your business, you need to align yourself with accountants and lawyers and other professionals where you do not have conflicts of interest and each of you can focus on your area of expertise.

SMA: Talk about your community and industry involvement, and how it affects your practice.

Leininger: We’re well known in our small community and have worked with many non-profits. In doing so, I’ve seen that many people who have served on a board, do it to have it on the r?sum?. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it. If I am part of a board, I am willing to take that extra step forward and be an active member.
I also believe very firmly in giving 10 percent to charity every year. Last year we formed a family non-profit foundation. The reason is so we can give 100 percent of that 10 percent every year. We want to give back. You can’t be in it just for money. If you’re not willing to give back to the clients and the community, you’re hurting yourself in the long run.

SMA: What are the biggest issues facing the industry, and your practice, today?

Leininger: I’m very concerned about this industry. It’s an exciting time. But also it’s become a defining point of the financial industry in American history. In the last decade, we’ve had lots of de-regulation that’s affected the industry. Now, we’re having a re-regulation, so to speak. I think it’s needed, but we have to be careful that the government does not over-regulate and have a knee-jerk reaction. I believe we need to meet with our Congressmen and talk to them from a common sense standpoint. In addition, we need to work on building trust with the public. We can achieve that by doing a better job of policing our guys in the industry. You can also build trust by treating every client’s money like it’s your money, treating every client like it’s your first client, and never compromising your ethics or integrity. The money doesn’t matter if you can’t sleep at night.

Dave WILLIAMS
RDW Financial Group
Brownsburg, Ind.
2008 Production:
$6 Million

Senior Market Advisor: What led you to making the advising of seniors a focal point of your practice?

Dave Williams: I graduated from college with a degree in finance, and spent the first half of my career working in transportation and software development. I’d always had an interest in 401(k) plans and retirement planning, but I noticed that the people I knew who were retiring were getting advice that was always kind of iffy. I did some demographic research and, as a baby boomer myself, I suspected there was going to be a big need in the future, especially with changing taxation and IRA laws. I got into the industry and decided to associate myself with those in the legal and financial community–as a specialist, I can operate in an environment where I stand out from other advisors.

SMA: What are the biggest keys to the success of your practice?

Williams: I think that successful people surround themselves with other successful people. I have a great staff, and that allows me to concentrate more on my clients–make sure you know your clients, and you know them well. I’ve also been interested in using technology to assist my business, so I have all the latest CRM tools. We use them to make sure that we touch base with our clients every month and stay very much involved in their lives.

As well, I’ve been involved in a study group organized by my FMO; myself and 10 other advisors from across the country meet four times a year, discussing accountability, business planning and industry issues. As an independent advisor, I find it very helpful … they’re like a family to me now. Having come out of the corporate world, I also know that you have to have a very good business plan, so I’ve worked on emphasizing the quality and consistency (and profitability) of the products I sell, not just pure quantity.

SMA: What has been your most effective method for prospecting new clients?

Williams: I’ve been doing public seminars since day one and I still love the opportunity to speak in a public arena. Recently, we’ve also taken that to the next level, and we’re organized four “bring a friend to dinner” events a year for our clients … if we’re doing a good job for them, the best thing they can do is bring someone along and introduce them to us. In the past few years, I’ve also put together three client advisory boards, with three different, unique demographic groups, including one women’s-only board. We meet three times a year, in a dinner environment, and I ask them very frankly to tell us what we can do to improve our service, or to increase our educational efforts. In a way, they feel like they’re our board of directors, and it’s a way of holding us accountable for what we do. Clients do want to see you succeed and as a result, our referrals are through the roof.

SMA: Talk about your community and industry involvement, and how it affects your practice.

Williams: I remain very active in my church, and serve on the board of directors for both it and a marriage ministry. My son-in-law is in the military, so I’m involved in the Blue Star Banner program, which helps recognize and support military families. I also try to participate in many different local events–I feel that the more you give, the more you get. Within the industry, I’ve been involved on a producer advisory board for the last 18 months, which is a great way to discuss the current regulatory environment and get direct field feedback and give it to the insurers. We get to act as the eyes and ears of the industry; It’s been useful in creating new and innovative ways to address clients’ needs, and we also get to act as mentors to other advisors, at the same time.

SMA: What are the biggest issues facing the industry, and your practice, today?

Williams: Trust and credibility are key. I’ve never experienced the level of questioning that I get from my clients as I do today, and the credibility of advisors is very important, as that feeling of trust in American consumers has been destroyed. I think that transparency is also going to be increasingly important, especially with baby boomers–they want to be able to see, feel and touch their money, all of the time.

I’m concerned about the continuing build-up of regulation, and I wonder if current efforts might overstep things a bit. I think most of us have done everything to emphasize suitability since day one, and that continues to be paramount; I believe there’s sometimes a tendency to overreact, regulation-wise, and as a result, we need to make sure that our voices are heard, now. We have to let the public know that we’re not all Bernie Madoffs.

Catch up on some of our previous winners.

Steve Delott, 2006, Retirement planning optimist

Craig Randall, 2007, SMA Advisor of the Year: Craig Randall

Rosemary Caligiuri, 2008, The life coach