The Storyteller. For some in the industry, the word “storyteller” might carry a negative connotation, but for Mark Pruitt, a gift for gab is a differentiator. He uses stories and anecdotes that inform, educate and cut straight to the heart and mind of his clients. Along with his production, marketing and practice management skills, being able to connect with people on a very deep and impactful level, made Pruitt our choice for 2012 Advisor of the Year.
While sitting in Mark Pruitt’s Dallas-based office for this interview, I checked the time and then said: “I need to be leaving to catch my plane, but I have one more question.” One of Pruitt’s associates said, “If you’re looking for an answer, you’re going to need at least 30 minutes.” Everyone laughed, Pruitt the loudest. He knew the comment was true—he’s a talker, a natural born storyteller.
Considering the time and Pruitt’s propensity to talk, I skipped the last question and began gathering my things. He stopped me, before I could get out the door.
“If it’s alright,” Pruitt said, “I have a question for you.”
I’ve been covering this industry since 2008. In that time, I haven’t run across many shrinking violets, particularly among advisors who hit the production numbers of Pruitt’s $12.4 million in 2011. If they win an accolade, they know why—because they deserved it; they’d earned it. But Pruitt, a minister before making a career switch more than a decade ago, is a humble guy. Proud and confident in his abilities no doubt, but humble just the same, and a little bit curious.
The words hung in the air for a moment. You see, selecting the Advisor of the Year is more art than science. When you mix two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen together you get water, good ole H2O. But there’s no pat formula for Advisor of the Year.
When I did start talking, I rambled on and on for what seemed like 20 minutes, thinking I might miss that plane after all. I wanted to say, when I come across an Advisor of the Year candidate, I know it—that old Spidey sense starts tingling—but somehow that didn’t quite seem right.
So I told him (and now you) a few of the trade secrets of what makes someone an Advisor of the Year, at least in my eyes.
Production. I put this item first, though it’s not the deciding factor. We need the advisors to hit a certain threshold of $5 million in total production, but anything above that is icing on the cake.
Suitability. Yes, doing the right thing matters. Being squeaky clean is extremely important in this whole process. The industry gets enough bad press from the mainstream media. We don’t want to pour gasoline on that fire so we go through the National Ethics Association to run background checks, both financial and criminal, on every nominee. Then we vet the candidates with industry insiders to discern if this advisor is as good a person as has been reported in the empty rap sheet.
Community Involvement. In our advisor survey the last couple years we’ve asked the question: What’s working? Topping the list for successive years has been community involvement. It’s helped brand advisors as leaders in their community and also helped earn trust among their clients. With his mission work that takes him around the globe and his local non-profit work, Pruitt makes a commitment to building better communities.
Connection with Clients. Now, we’re getting into the squishy stuff. How do you define “connecting with clients?” There’s not a simple answer. But when I talk with an advisor and hear their story, hear the emotion in their voice when talking about their clients, yeah, that can really go a long way. We love that human connection. These are, after all, human beings, many in great need of financial help, on the other end of these transactions. Which leads us to the final tipping point I’m going to discuss:
The Journey. Being a writer, I’m a sucker for a good story. Hearing the path an advisor took to get to their position in the industry is often a deciding factor. How they tell that story, how Pruitt told his story, with all the fire and passion of one of his old Sunday sermons, and you begin to see the Advisor of the Year materialize.
Now read on to learn more about Pruitt’s story…
Location, Location, Location. “You don’t have to be big to have a great location. Start with a virtual office (which is what I did). It’s the best way to start with a credible location that is affordable. You can then work your way into a full time office (as I did) when ready. Location, location, location as the old saying goes works because we office in a location that people are familiar with and has easy access they can drive to. This helps in the comfort level for people who may be stressed on how to get to you. I can simply mention ‘The Galleria’ in my case and people go, ‘Oh, I know right where that is.’ If it’s upscale and recognizable, it shows that you are not just working out of the back seat of your car. Many clients these days want to see your office and you can do that with either a real office or renting (by the hour) a virtual office. Both provide a positive result. Our Fort Worth office is right off the freeway. Simply hit the exit, travel down the feeder road, look for the only glass building and you have arrived. A distinctive or well-known building with easy access is the key.”
The Galleria (above) is a prime location in the Dallas area that clients easily recognize. The chess pieces help brand Pruitt’s company, Strategic Estate Planning Services Inc. as an organization that looks at the big picture.
Smart Growth. When Pruitt jumped into financial services in 1998 his business grew and it grew fast. Maybe too fast. He has certain benchmarks that he or his agents need to hit. In the areas close to home, they were knocking it out of the park, but that was not always the case outside of the home base. So, instead of looking to see how big he could grow he wanted to have the best organization possible. To make things easier to manage, he pulled back from offices in Missouri, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He continues to run operations in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. “The interesting thing is,” Pruitt says, “with as many as four generations of a single family line that we serve, it has taken us from New York, to California and even Hawaii. We don’t solicit in those states but we do serve clients in those states.”
The Staff: Currently, Strategy & Estate Planning Services Inc. employs six agents and nine support staff.
On smart growth: “The best advice I would give: When you do grow beyond a one-stop-shop, get a personal assistant first, someone who can help with the non-income-producing activity. Once you continue to grow and get more business than you can manage yourself, then you bring on another agent.”
On practice management: “Early on, you do everything as an independent advisor. Often, it’s you and only you. Eventually though, as you grow, you can bring people on and you ask yourself the question when faced with a task: Is this income-producing activity or non- income-producing activity? In doing the non-income producing activity, there are many things you do that might not make you a dime, but they create client loyalty.”