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2012 Advisor of the Year: Mark Pruitt

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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 hearts and minds 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.”

“Go ahead.”

“Why me?”

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.

Why me?

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 that 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 that make 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. There 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. 

Read on for 18 more reasons that Pruitt took home our Advisor of the Year award.

1. Location, location, location. “You don’t have to be big to have a great location,” says Pruitt. “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.”

2. Smart growth. When Pruitt jumped into financial services in 1998 his business grew and it grew fast. Maybe too fast, in fact. 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. 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 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.”

3. The right staff. Currently, Strategy & Estate Planning Services Inc. employs six agents and nine support staff.

Pruitt says that it’s important to think long and hard about how you’ll manage your practice. “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.”

4. A personal approach to selling LTCI. “We are doing more long-term care than ever before and it’s for many reasons. First, we are bringing it to the forefront of planning. It’s a serious question that must be addressed and most agents don’t address it because they have never dealt with it on a personal basis. Six members of my wife’s family have or had Alzheimer’s or dementia. One of those six, my sister-in-law, has lived with me, my wife and my two daughters for the past two-and-a-half years. On a scale of 1 to 30, with 13 and below being severe, she is an 8. This brings it to light in a very real way.

Second, people are seeing their parents at 70, 80 or 90-plus needing more care, and find that they are unprepared for it. They see how LTC can become an estate buster in terms of long-term cost and they do not want to repeat that with their own children. Third, the new national health plan does have limitations and people are wanting to keep as much control as possible with their own health plan. LTCI really allows us to stay in control regarding where we will receive that care. I have never spoken with anyone that says, ‘Hey I want to be in a long-term care community,’ and rightfully so. I, as well, would prefer to have care in my own home versus anywhere else and LTCI allows that to happen.”

5. Relevant risk-management. “Every family has a driver. In regards to the financial side, it’s usually one or the other and not gender-driven anymore. In our workshops we talk with couples and let them know that at some point, that driver could be gone, leaving all the financial decisions, the bills, etc. left up to the remaining spouse. We have Game Plan A and Game Plan B planning with clients. Game Plan A is when both are alive and fine. Game Plan B is if one spouse passes away—what happens then? The best time to create Game Plan B is when you don’t need it, because trying to find someone to build rapport and trust with once you’re mourning the loss of a spouse is very difficult. That trust needs to be built during the Game Plan A stage. So, we try to educate people. We know that the remaining spouse must know how and where to pay the bills and to make all the other financial decisions.”

6. A custom fit. “I am an independent advisor, and I have set up my firm from the beginning this way so I can find custom solutions for each of our clients. On a visual note, it’s like offering many pairs of shoes to someone versus just two or three. This is how unsuitable investments occur — trying to make a pair fit that does not. Thus, we are an independent agency offering any type of product a client may need. 

I get many appointments from people telling me that I was the first one that spoke about insurance, estate planning topics, income stream planning, long term care, etc. in a way that they could understand. People also want someone who is available to them, will check on them and that they can trust. I tell them trust is earned through time and we earn that by doing what we say we will do.”

7. Community involvement.  Pruitt or members of his company have traveled oversees on faith-based missions to countries including Belize and Romania. He also speaks at retirement communities and helps people transition to assisted-living facilities.

A minister for 18 years with the Assembly of God, Pruitt still holds strong beliefs. “I currently attend Prestonwood Baptist, which is a very large church that has about 30,000-plus in attendance and hosts a multitude of people with different denominational backgrounds. That openness to others is why we attend there, along with the great music and programs for our family.” 

8. An evolved approach to marketing. “We’ve gone through every type of marketing mailer and never could get the response I wanted. So, I met with a marketing expert,” explains Pruitt. “He looked at all the mailers and ads I’d attempted and he didn’t like any of them. He set me straight.

What you need is an oversized postcard. You want it to stand out. It’s a card that’s already open, it needs to be in color, needs to be informative and needs to have a hook. He said the average individual, when going through their mail, takes about five seconds to look at it and decide if they want to read it, open it or trash it. With the postcard, you don’t have to open it. So it’s down to reading or trashing. Now, you bring in that hook: it’s already opened, sticks out from everything else. The hook is the restaurant — we use Ruth’s Chris Steak House. That hook needs to be on both sides of the card. After that, some bullet points that stand out. This is not a seminar, it’s a workshop. At a seminar people sit and listen. A workshop is interactive. The attendees are a big part of the discussion. We’re talking with them and asking questions and soliciting responses. Also, the topics on the mailer evolve — we keep up with what is on top of mind now. Currently, taxes are big so we focus on that. 

9. Selling smarts. “I’m asked what makes our workshops successful. One of the real keys is the way we present to our prospects and clients. We don’t bombard them with facts. We’re a strong believer that “facts tell, but stories sell.” Stories are believable, stories are emotional, stories are heartfelt and stories are something we deal with every day. Every day we meet with clients who are dealing with real “life” stuff. When you get toward that end-of-life situation, you have to be able to relate with the prospects and give them real life stories that you have experienced through your existing clients. These kinds of stories have the greatest impact on connecting with prospects at workshops and elsewhere.”

10. Persistency. “If you believe in something enough, you’ve gotta continue to do it,” Pruitt affirms. Creating something that’s unusual versus the norm has been the main part of our success. The other thing is literally doing what we say we’re going to do. My father always told me, ‘They’re gonna talk about you one way or the other, it’s just a matter of how.’ We know that and if we do what we say we’re gonna do and build trust with our clients — we know trust is earned. It’s not built in a meeting, it’s built out of doing what you say you’re gonna do and doing it through time and using listening skills.”

11. An understanding of what his clients want. “Asset protection has become bigger now than ever before,” says Pruitt. “The cause: Stock market crashes in ‘01-‘02 and ‘07-‘08 wiped out a lot of people.  Markets are still uncertain and tied globally more than ever before. Unemployment, downsizing, cost of living — 20 years ago the national average for a gallon of gas was $1.13. Now it is over $3.30.  That’s called inflation. All of this creates stress and uncertainty on retirement income. The old adage of ‘just hang on, the market will come back’ may be true, but the question that is missing is this: Will it be in your lifetime?”

Something even more interesting we are finding is that the younger generations have watched their parents lose six figures in their retirement accounts and they do not want to repeat what their parents have done. They are also understanding the math of loss and that it pays to have safety—reasonable, positive growth that does not go backwards.”

12. Cross-generational reach. “My oldest client is 103 and I have clients in their 20s. The average client I have is age 60 and up and that makes up about 80 percent of my business,” says Pruitt. “In some cases, our practice has gotten to the point of serving four generations and it has spread out to in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, etc., to the tune of either 22 or 23 different members. That makes it four generations deep and several wide.”

13. Overtime. “We’ve had to incorporate Saturday appointments,” says Pruitt. We work from 9 a.m. to noon — and try our best not to go past noon — so we have our own family time. What has expanded to Saturday appointments is the generational division in our client base. Most retired clients don’t need to meet on a Saturday — every day is Saturday for them! What we’re finding is our younger clients, those in their 20s and 30s who are busy during the week, prefer to meet on Saturdays — it works out to be the best time for them.”

14. Considerate prospecting. Pruitt knows the power of appreciation first-hand, and he’s an expert at sharing this with his clients. “You have an individual, a client, who’s worked all his life and is now retiring,” he begins. “We ask those clients if it’s okay if we throw them a retirement party. We’ll book a restaurant, usually Ruth’s Chris Steak House. We ask the client to invite 10 of their best-friend couples to enjoy the party. We make it a big event. We have seen them come in from as far away as Georgia, Louisiana, etc. We ask that their friends think of a story, one thing about this person retiring, to share with everyone. It’s been unbelievable. You can learn more about your client than you’ve ever known. It’s very emotional — laughing one minute, maybe crying the next. The only thing we ask the retiree to do is to let these other attendees know that this guy (Pruitt) takes care of me. At the end, we give out an envelope that says, ‘Thank you for coming.’ Inside, there is a business card and a note that says ‘If you ever need anything with your estate, insurance, etc. let us know.’ This has paid dividends. At a recent party, a gentleman came up from Houston and at the end of the party said: ‘I’m retiring soon, can you do one of these for me?’ And from that meeting, we wound up writing $1.7 million of business.”

15. Respect for regulation. “I am always ready to turn the ship on a dime if I have to, regulatory wise. If you don’t, then you won’t be in business very long,” Pruitt explains. “I’m 51 with no plan to not retire any time soon and when I do, I have other agents in line and my two daughters that have stated they want to follow in my footsteps. I take that as a compliment seeing that they can be anything they want to be. I have other agents besides me currently in my firm, so if the good Lord takes me home tonight then I’m ready and my clients will still have a company they can depend on.”

16. A slow and steady approach. “My approach to planning is allowing the client to ask me questions in the very first meeting,” Pruitt says. “The meeting is for them and they are there for a reason. I need to know what those reasons are and find that I must listen first in order to deal with their hot buttons and concerns. I know how to ask good questions, listen, take notes and then ask other questions that will eventually lead me to offering solutions. I never do a one-call close. Some agents are proud of that and for that I say, ‘You, my friend, are a salesman and not a true advisor.’ You don’t fix a lifetime of issues in a single meeting or with a single product. I will say that at the end of the first meeting they will have homework and so will I. We build the overall plan with future meetings. It’s like building a house and you don’t do that in a meeting or two. It takes me about 90 days (just like building a house) to get from start to finish on a total estate plan and, yes, we can earn a living in the middle of all of that.”

17. Consistent follow-through. “One of the things where many agents can improve is in following through with their clients. We gain a lot of clients that way because they say, ‘I can’t get my agent to call me back. I don’t know where they’re at. They never communicate to me. They never talk to me. They never call us. They never check on us.’ And basically what that means is the agent sold them a product and after that, they never talked to them again. We don’t do that. We keep up with our clients and we communicate with them.”

18. A referral strategy that works. Pruitt’s referral strategy is subtle, but effective: “We tell people, ‘Don’t forget about us. Tell people about us.’ We never ask for names, but we continually say, ‘Don’t forget about us. If we’re doing something right for you, tell your friends and neighbors when this subject comes up.’ And this subject does come up. High interest comes up, death comes up, sickness comes up. And we’ll tell them, ‘Refer us when that happens.’ And we get a lot of calls from people. In fact, a lady I just was talking to in Missouri was actually one that was referred and she said, ‘We just sold our home and we want to be able to do something with this money.’ And I said, ‘OK. Give me the numbers.’ And she was giving me the details. Well, it was a $600,000 home and they don’t need it for income, they have another home. So that’s a great referral.” 

For more of Mark Pruitt’s secrets to success, see:

5 Keys to Client Loyalty

Mark Pruitt: The Builder

Up Close: Interview with Mark Pruitt


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