It was 1976 and Martin V. Higgins was working in construction. One day, while he was painting a house, his boss told him he was taking a vacation and that Higgins would be supervising the job for the next week. So he thought it might be a good time to bring up the possibility of a raise.

“And he said, ‘Well, that’s really not possible at this time.’ So I’m thinking there’s something wrong with this picture long term. He’s taking his family to Disney and I’m working for him and I can’t get a raise,” Higgins recalls.

That was just the push he needed to get into the insurance business and later financial planning in the early ‘80s. He admits he entered the insurance field initially because it offered the potential for uncapped income and the ability to set his own hours. Later, he obtained his CFP and discovered what truly energized him was the opportunity to do comprehensive financial planning.

Today, as founder of Family Wealth Management Advisory, L.L.C. in Marlton, N.J., Higgins oversees the financial plans of about 800 clients, mostly seniors. About 15 years ago, he created a fee-based program called the WealthCare™ Process. In this system, Higgins ascertains a client’s goals in retirement and literally maps out everything from their interests (cooking and travel, for example), family relationships, their assets, their short and long term goals, and prints it on a laminated board.

But instead of actively managing the client’s money by picking stocks and bonds, he leaves that to a money manager. By doing so, he can focus on cultivating client relationships and making sure the client’s overall objectives are being met.

He uses a baseball analogy to describe the WealthCare™ Process: The client is the owner and he’s the general manager of the client’s retirement savings. It’s then up to Higgins to hire the right money manager to handle an individual client’s investments, much like a baseball manager manages the players on the field.

“If I understand the goals and objectives of what this money means, then I can go get the right money manager and then they’re going to get the stocks,” Higgins says. “I have to make sure that they’re doing a good job for my client. If they’re not, then I’ll fire the manager.

“I believe that you can manage people, or you can manage money,” Higgins continues. “Pick one. People say they’re going to manage the client relationship and then they sit in front of a quote channel picking stocks and bonds and rebalancing everything. It’s two separate jobs.”

As the GM of a person’s retirement portfolio, Higgins says it’s vital to meet with clients regularly to find out any life changes and to also ensure that clients are meeting with other important advisors, such as their attorney and CPA.

“Say you have a couple of retirees and two years later, their daughter calls up and says her husband left her and she has no place to stay. She’s coming in with the three kids. Well, that changes the retirement plan.” Higgins says.

There are other challenges that can alter a client’s retirement plan as well. Two of the biggest are sequence of return risk and how to oversee the distribution phase of a person’s financial life, Higgins says.

“The most dangerous risk of all, the one that no one seems to be addressing with people, is sequence of return risk, or retiring into the teeth of a bear market,” he says. “Average returns in the distribution phase are irrelevant. If the losses come early, you’re probably not going to recover with the standard buy-and-hold philosophy that Wall Street teaches. We have a whole slew of people wandering around in the dark thinking risk is the loss of principal and what I have to convey to them is that there are tools now that we can use to manage the loss of principal. There are other risks involved like inflation and living too long, not just principal risk.”

Higgins contends that most financial planners excel during the accumulation stage of their clients’ portfolios. Yet when it comes time to parcel out that income during retirement, many advisors may lack those skills.

“We’ve got a whole population exiting accumulation land and ready to pass through into distribution land and the advisors are still using tools in accumulation land that aren’t going to work so well,” Higgins says, “like dollar cost averaging. In accumulation land, it works great. In distribution land, it’s a bad weapon; it’s not going to work. It falls into sequence of return risk and people are going to lose money.” Higgins is currently writing a book on how to handle the distribution phase of retirement. (He’s co-authored three books.)

“It’s an educational process for the public but also for the industry,” Higgins says.

And he may be just the guy to build that knowledge base.

For practice management tips from other top advisors, see SMA’s 2012 Advisor of the Year Finalists.