By Daniel D. Williams and Andy Stonehouse

Every year the selection process for the Advisor of the Year has interesting twists and turns and the
finalists, while holding onto their unique qualities, take on a common theme as well. This year is no
different. As the SMA staff sifted through nearly 100 nominations to get to a final five, shared traits emerged: integrity, trustworthiness, a commitment to community service and an ability to listen to their clients, among others. These traits, we learned, build a genuine connection that develops between advisor and client. In our conversation with these advisors something else materialized–the core mission of developing a plan, the best plan for the client, versus the pushing of a product.

Eventually, success, true success as an advisor, boils down to answering two essential questions: What does the client want, and what does the client need? The five finalists featured here answer those better than most.

The 2010 Advisor of the Year will be announced at Senior Market Advisor Expo, held Aug. 25-27 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. All of the finalists will be in attendance at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 26, for the 2010 Winners’ Circle, a 90-minute roundtable discussion of the strategies of becoming a top advisor and their strategies for helping their clients succeed, even in hard times.

Chris Abts
If such a thing as a natural-born advisor exists, Nevada-based Chris Abts would fit the bill. “It’s in my blood,” he says about his career in the financial industry. “I’m a third-generation advisor.”
After college in Utah, Abts worked for his dad’s firm, where he really dug in and learned the estate planning side of the business. “Many advisors don’t understand estate planning, but it helps put an overall plan together and you’re able to look at it with the clients as a long-term exit strategy.”

Eventually, Abts moved on and set up his own shop where he focuses on a three-pronged client strategy: Tax planning (“Where we look to find money falling through the cracks”); income planning, where the advisor and client partner to discover the client’s financial goals and various options and, once they’ve got the first two items squared away, “We find out what is their risk exposure versus their risk comfort level.”

Visualizing the plan
As for estate planning, he tells his clients not to “worry about legacy planning until you can feel good about your financial plan.” Once that’s been squared away, Abts goes to a whiteboard so the client can visualize their plan and watch it take shape. Eventually, “we’ll bring in an attorney to create legal documents that the client needs. Years later I can sit down with the surviving spouse and children and go over the estate.”

Talking to Abts, you get a sense of how he makes an immediate connection with his clients and puts them at ease. His voice has the warm delivery of a jazz radio station DJ. There’s also a passion in his voice when he talks about helping clients develop a plan that carries on to future generations. “Helping a client put a long-term plan in place for them and future generations, and hearing them say, ‘I want to put my grandchildren through college’ … I connect with that. I’m passionate about that.”

Core values
Something else he’s passionate about is sticking to “conservative core values.” Abts found that a conservative approach to risk served him well during the financial downturn of nearly two years ago. “When the market dropped and the phone didn’t ring it meant we’d done a good job.”
While he wasn’t deluged with phone calls, Abts has seen an influx of new clients in recent times. “There has been a rush to safety.”

Abts makes sure he’s the advisor they rush to by promoting himself in the Reno area as a financial ambassador. He’s become a ubiquitous presence there with regular TV appearances and a dance card full of speaking engagements in addition to quarterly events where loyal clients bring friends, who become key referrals. “The goal should always be to increase your referrals. If we are serving our clients, they’ll refer us.”

Josh Jalinski
While there’s been talk that the financial advisory industry is aging, just like the rest of the country, there are more than a few young advisors joining the ranks and helping to keep the business dynamic and cutting edge. Twenty-eight-year-old Josh Jalinski is one of the most motivated of that new wave of advisors.

And while Jalinski says that new tools such as converting Facebook “friends” to clients, blogging or even hosting a sometimes politically charged radio show are great innovations, it’s the relations he has with his clients that helps set him apart. That and his unstoppable work ethic.

“I grew up in the middle of the Jersey Shore, which is a hotbed of retirees, and I started working as a lifeguard when I was 14–and that’s when I noticed I seemed to relate more to the 70-plus generation than to my own, or even to boomers like my parents,” Jalinski says. “I was kind of like this Republican, Alex P. Keaton-type kid with a lifelong Democrat grandmother who lived with us.”

Off to an early start
Jalinski’s father was a banker and Jalinski followed suit, starting at OceanFirst Bank when he was just 18. He took both a Bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and a Master’s in Divinity (“I can strike up a conversation with anyone, at any time,” he notes), married at 21 and began taking his first steps as an advisor. “A few years into it, I was a 25-year-old kid with acne and no credibility, so I had to do something to get over the hump.”

Jalinski says that his biggest reputation-building move was his decision to start hosting a radio show on WOBM, a popular AM station best known for playing Sinatra and the standards. By hitting his older target market, he says he’s able to use the show (which now airs daily) to develop interest in seminars.
He’s also not shy to include a lot of his conservative-leaning ideas in the discussions on his show or on his blog. “It’s sort of the Fox News approach to financial planning,” he laughs. “I do get the most response when I’m overt about it. I just don’t bring those kind of discussions into my seminars or my talks with clients.”

Hard work
And just what is the secret to a million-dollar year, when many of his contemporaries are working at Starbucks or living in their parents’ basements? Hard work is crucial, he says, as well as covering all of his bases with a full suite of designations, including the Series 6, 7, 24 and 66 and various insurance licenses.

“I’m like a machine sometimes … we do 30 appointments a week, but that’s the way to do it. I would so much rather help someone with just $100,000 to his name–that alone is sort of like a financial ministry to people. And if you do 30 meetings a week, success just becomes a numbers game.”

William J. McLaughlin
William McLaughlin recognizes “the lost art of listening” as one of the central pieces to his success. In some ways, he sees his role like that of a priest, where the clients come to him in the form of a confession. They pour themselves out to him. And McLaughlin listens.

“I hear what they say. It’s important to hear what they say and to get to know what makes them tick. I wish there was a silver bullet. That would be easy, but it’s not like that. The key is to have integrity, to be transparent.”

McLaughlin’s road to success began with his first job out of college, a gig with John Hancock. “It was clear to me that I was here to serve people, but I soon realized I wanted more independence.” After striking out on his own around 25 years ago, his practice and the idea of the business model he wanted to run took shape. That meant gravitating to the retirement market.

McLaughlin’s dad had an impact on the move to the senior market. “I watched the cycle of his career, the path of work to retirement, and everything I would see him do is consistent with the clients I have. You work and you work and then you’re dumped into retirement.” Unfortunately, “no one is educated on how to retire.”

The reawakening
McLaughlin has long worked on bringing that message to clients, and he saw an interesting thing unfold with the economic downturn. “I call it the reawakening of the client.” Whether or not they have money tied up in the market, there is a hunger for knowledge, “to want to know what’s going on.”

Because of this appetite, business has been brimming. “This year has been phenomenal. By repositioning people into safe money, we’ve gotten so much new business and positive feedback.”
He says his message has been consistent throughout the whims of the economic cycle. “Even during good times, I’ve always warned people about being too much at risk.” McLaughlin has held to that conservative money theme “even during the good bull runs.” And for good reason, he adds. “The bear runs have been devastating.”

Building trust
While times have been good, McLaughlin sees a major challenge to advisors–the trustworthiness clients have with the industry. It’s a big deal, a really big deal, to clients and prospects, when they see all these cases where “the SEC is thumping the bad guys. The majority of the industry is trustworthy. This is a great industry, but the public perception is we’re a bunch of crooks.”

McLaughlin knows a step to take in the right direction. “We, as an industry, need to promote the good guys.” He sees that promotion coming from advisors, carriers and industry associations. An issue he sees on a personal level is the copycat nature of the industry. “Everyone copies things and that waters down some great ideas.”

But McLaughlin has the answer for that attitude. “If you bring your integrity to the clients, that can be a great selling point and can mitigate competition. I sing the same song to clients: ‘It’s you first, you first, you first.’ If you stick to that message the rest follows suit.”

Van Mueller
Ask Van Mueller what the most seminal moment in his 37-year career in the financial industry might be, and he has a surprising answer. “I lucked out when I got fired–I had sold health insurance for the first 16 years and I hated what I did. I wasn’t very good at it,” Mueller says. “It takes courage to change and I did not have that courage, at the time.”

Mueller says the dismissal was the cosmic kick in the pants he needed to help redefine himself and his career in the retirement field, and with the help of a sharp-witted, no-nonsense mentor, he reinvented himself and his approach. In the two decades that have followed, he’s been one of the industry’s top movers and shakers and a consistent MDRT Top of the Table earner. And while he continues to personally serve the needs of a 300-plus client base in the greater Milwaukee area, Mueller spends much of his time offering educational and motivational speeches and workshops with advisors across the country.

Open to everything
“That’s something I began almost right after I made the decision to restart my career, and by going out there, ready to learn and open to everything, I feel I have 1,000 mentors. I’ve read and absorbed everything I can from figures like Dan Sullivan, Zig Ziglar, even Tony Robbins. Learning is what keeps you fresh.”

Mueller says that he also recognized that he had to make a substantial shift in his own worldview, something he says can empower advisors (or anyone in any business, really) to take a truly altruistic path through life … and find success along the way.

“As (19th century writer and philosopher) Goethe said, when you make a decision to do something beneficial for someone else, the universe will conspire to repay you … so you have to make an act of faith,” he says. “The secret of life is that you are happy because of what you give, and as a result, I have an unusual opportunity to go in and help people. I don’t ever think about ‘selling.’ The ‘old’ Van Mueller wouldn’t recognize that; he was just as smart but he only cared about himself. That was the biggest change.”

Life-long learning
Part of that path to self-realization, Mueller says, is constant learning, so he surrounds himself with books and magazines and tries to absorb as much information as possible, which he passes along to his clients. “I took an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, and I started to dive into everything. You can find me drooling over a tax manual,” he laughs.

He’s also a big advocate of practice–be it the five basic “elevator talks” he’s created to summarize his advisor pitch in a remarkably concise message, to a strategy of constantly asking questions of his prospects. “It’s just like Michael Jordan. You need to practice if you want to be convincing. And in order to be interesting, you have to be interested in what people have to say.”

Mike Suttle
A longtime fixture on the scene in sunny Albuquerque, Mike Suttle leads an impressively busy life. Along with his wife and business partner, Paula Sears, Suttle balances a substantial client group with a wide array of athletic activities (he’s an enthusiastic kickboxer) and local involvements. And as a former Boy Scout and later an enlisted Marine, Suttle says he approaches his customers’ finances with an almost military precision and attitude: “I like to make what ground we can, and I do not like to give it back.”
Suttle began his career in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, and worked for a while selling Ferrari, Maserati and Rolls Royce automobiles (“My first chance to work with the affluent,” he says), before signing on with E.F. Hutton. A transfer to Santa Barbara, Calif., eventually led to the Southwest (“I’d had one too many winters in Chicago”) and a gradual focus on seniors.

“For six years, I was the primary caregiver for my mom, and when she passed away, I partially retired from financial services and taught school, focusing on street kids and dropouts,” Suttle says. “I realized how important a role an advisor can be in helping organize and escort people through the various stages of life, something that’s even more important for seniors, considering how much more their time is compressed because of their age. And I felt they weren’t being served properly; there’s a lot of fear underlying their concerns.”

Building a boat
Nowadays, the couple works with nearly 400 clients of various economic and ethnic backgrounds to create the reliable safety net that seniors seek. “It’s all about building a strong financial boat,” he explains. “In the past, seniors’ expectations were very high and they tended to place way too much emphasis on big returns, and frankly, we’ve never had the answers on how to do that. What’s more important is not losing money, so we try to figure out their strategy and how to take the least amount of risk as possible.”

As a result, Suttle says his clients didn’t suffer any losses following the 2008 market meltdown, and most had at least minor gains. “On the worst day of the downturn, I had a friend in my office and he asked, ‘Why isn’t your phone ringing off the hook?’ I said, ‘I guess they’re not worried. I talked to them about event risk, and I’ve always worked to keep their stress down.’ We can’t fix everything, but we can let them know that they’re going to be OK.”

Focus on estate planning
Suttle says he recognizes that as a boomer himself, the new wave of retirees will present some unique challenges, especially those fortunate enough to have a financial legacy. “Estate planning is a critical part of our practice, as we all become 100 percent generous at the same point–you can’t take it with you. Many boomers are reluctant to give away what they have, so I’ve been working on what I call a ‘planned giving acceleration program’ to help small non-profits and private foundations connect with those finances. It makes a lot of sense. Everybody wins.”

PLUS – Check out last year’s 2009 Advisor of the Year Finalists and Winner to hear more from the best and learn how to improve your business!