Welcome to Research magazine’s Advisor Hall of Fame, now in its 22nd year. This eagerly anticipated annual feature has become a benchmark of excellence in our industry and an example to all of the rewards that result from effort and integrity.
Candidates who pass our rigorous screens have served a minimum of 15 years in the industry, have acquired substantial assets under management, have demonstrated superior client service and have earned recognition from their peers and the broader community for the honor they reflect on their profession.
Finding the nation’s finest financial advisors was made possible by our panel of four distinguished judges: Ronald L. DeLegge, editor, ETFGuide.com; Bill Good, chairman, Bill Good Marketing; Jay Nagdeman, president, Suasion Resources; and Stan Selbst, vice president, SmartPros Ltd.
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When Susan Colpitts co-founded Signature in 1994, there was something missing from the financial services landscape: the multi-family office. So she and her partner created one.
“When we started, they didn’t exist—anywhere,” says Colpitts, a CPA. “It was novel at the time for a firm like ours to be owned by principals as opposed to being owned by a family. And we liked being fireable because it kept us good every day.”
By any measure, Norfolk-based Signature has gone from good to great.
The fee-only firm that started out with three employees and no clients now has 32 employees, offices in three cities, and $2.5 billion in assets under management. Colpitts herself manages $560 million in assets for 18 wealthy families.
Why a multi-family office? Back in the 1990s, Colpitts was working as a CPA inside a boutique law firm run by Signature co-founder Anne Shumadine. The firm served a couple of very wealthy families. The problem: The complexity of managing different aspects of that level of wealth—investments, philanthropy, income taxes and estate planning—couldn’t be addressed within the framework of a law firm.
“Most RIAs start out with investments and add services,” says Colpitts, 55. “We started backwards. We didn’t come at this with a preexisting notion of what investments should look like. We addressed it almost like a research project: If you could build any investment solution, how would you build it?”
The partners settled on an endowment-like model with the additional requirement that it had to be tax-efficient. After the 2001-2002 downturn, they realized they needed to have access to alternative investments so they built a hedge fund solution—pooling clients’ assets to get the best managers at the best price point. In 2008, they made another adjustment by instituting a long-only equity fund.
The business plan from the start was to develop Signature as a one-stop shop for, as Colpitts puts it, “the working rich.” The plan worked. Unlike many family offices, 85% of Signature’s asset base represents first-generation earned wealth. The firm’s minimum for new clients is $5 million in investable assets but Colpitts spends the majority of her time on family-office clients with more than $20 million in investable assets and complex problems. A liquidity event often brings the client to Signature’s door.
“In the last several years, we’ve realized we are really good at working with the individual who has had his head down, building the business day in and day out and running that business,” says Colpitts, who holds the Personal Financial Specialist designation and started her accounting career with Price Waterhouse. “They’re not thinking about wealth. Suddenly, they sell the business and they have incredible opportunities—and a lot of decisions to make. Every client is different in that moment.”
When she begins a conversation with a new family, she starts with a series of questions, including: How do you wish to be involved in philanthropy? How do you replace the paycheck? How do you make sense of the lifestyle? Notably, everyone in the firm trains with a psychologist so that they can help clients express feelings that might otherwise remain unspoken.
“We’re trying to figure out what their investment personality is. They might say: ‘I don’t want to take any risk with my investments.’ If you don’t know how to open that up, it could be a door-shutting comment,” says Colpitts, whose firm also has offices in Charlottesville and Richmond.
“We want to get at the root cause without putting them on a couch—keeping them in a conversation in a vein that’s comfortable but exploratory. They may have had advisory relationships before but it’s never mattered so much,” she adds. “They’ve taken the baby they birthed and grew for 20 or 25 years and converted it into a pile of money. Some can’t stand the notion of making a mistake with it because it’s so precious.”
Colpitts, the go-to person at Signature for complex corporate and personal income tax structures, also frames the client’s personal balance sheet within a business context—in other words, in language that is instantly understood. “It’s a little less squishy,” she notes. As well, she helps families with other issues that might affect their lives: private aviation, personal security, public relations and household staff management. “Generally there’s a financial piece to it,” says Colpitts. “If you run a business, you would have your CFO or COO do this work. Again, there’s a business parallel.”
Colpitts, who leads Signature’s client services team, is Signature’s brand builder. As the firm’s CEO Randy Webb observes: “What Susan does is challenge, engage and energize this team around the idea: If every Signature client were in a room no matter what level of wealth, they could compare their experience and the picture they paint would be the same. That’s huge. And it’s working.”
Why Signature? Having been a CPA, Colpitts watched a lot of people sign a lot of things with their own unique signature. Signature clients, signature solutions, a signature firm.
“It’s not that our clients have to fit into our boxes. We construct what they need and what they want and we do so in an environment of excellent planning and execution. We try to spend a lot of time just thinking in behalf of our clients,” says Colpitts. “We’re aiming before we shoot.”
Talk about a career of “firsts.” Not only was Lynn Faust the first female branch manager at Raymond James & Associates, she was also the first woman to serve on its executive council. With $350 million in assets under management, she is—no surprise here—one of the firm’s most successful advisors.
No wonder Dennis Zank, COO of Raymond James Financial, says of Faust: “Because of her enthusiasm, professionalism, dedication and willingness to give back, we wish we had many more Lynn Fausts in our firm.”
Faust, who describes herself as “driven” and “motivated,” does do things in an outsize manner. As an example, she has excelled at not just one career—but two of them. Faust, who grew up in a family of educators, taught elementary and middle school children for 12 years. After redesigning a university-level financial planning course, she decided to stick with teaching—only this time as a financial advisor.
“Education is a passion of mine. It’s how I got into the business; it’s why I got into the business,” says Faust, 64. “Teaching is my natural talent. It’s taken me wherever I’ve gone.”
Faust joined Waddell & Reed as a planner in 1979, then jumped to Paine Webber in 1981. A Raymond James & Associates advisor since 1988, Faust today serves 103 households with a typical account size of $2 million to $5 million. She also specializes in executive financial planning, working with senior executives in corporate settings.
While she has made history at Raymond James, Faust treats her groundbreaking performance strictly as a matter of fact. As she puts it: “I wanted to be a branch manager. It was something I was qualified to do, I was asked to do, and I did it like anyone else. I don’t carry a banner. I never felt like I needed to.”
As a producing branch manager, Faust for six years ran a Raymond James & Associates office in Greenville, S.C., that at its peak had 29 employees, including 16 advisors. Her chief challenge at that time: teaching employees to be organized.
“I think the biggest problem in this business is putting organization into your day. There are so many multi-tasking things you have to do. Some of those things you’re going to love, some you’re not going to like doing at all. The tendency is to do only what you like to do. Eventually, you need to hire to your weakness,” says Faust, who ranked as the largest producer in her office and region while running the branch. “You’re not going to be successful without putting organization into your practice and learning to do what you like least to do first. That’s what I brought to the table.”
In 2001, Faust gave up the branch to focus on her own practice with her son and business partner, Michael Faust. Ever the teacher, Faust helps clients create what she calls their “financial masterpieces of life.” When she first meets with a client, Faust starts out with a visual cue: a paper copy of a painting by Van Gogh or Matisse or another great artist that she then cuts into pieces.
“The cut up pieces represent the different phases of life, different goals and objectives: education, retirement, estate planning. It’s one way I help people understand there is more to money than just paying your bills and balancing your checkbook,” says Faust, whose Greer, S.C.-based team includes four advisors and three assistants. “I never throw the pieces away. They all go into a client folder.”
Faust also believes in keeping client conversations short.
“Advisors frequently do not realize that adults have an attention span of 15 to 20 minutes. You need to learn that when you present a financial plan, there is no way you are going to present everything at once,” Faust says. “Before a meeting, I determine what I can accommodate in 15 minutes that will hold your attention. That’s why teaching skills are the real essence to the success I’ve had in business. Clients feel I’m connected to their needs.”
“I also help clients understand how to achieve their goals. I don’t leave them out. And I use very simple explanations. Advisors as a rule tend to justify themselves by being very technical,” adds Faust, whose gold service standard includes a visit each year to all of her clients’ accountants. “I don’t think that wins the day.”
Faust is nothing if not nimble, an attribute she believes that, along with teaching, underlies her success.
“I’m never not energized. It’s true of anything I’ve ever done. I was not a burned out teacher. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever done,” says Faust. “And I’m not afraid of change. If you’re not flexible, you will not be successful in this business. You can’t learn how to do it one day and do it that way for the rest of your life. That’s good for me. I’m Type A. It’s energizing. If this business is a passion for you, the way it is for me, you won’t ever want to leave it.”
A lot of elite advisors like to say they offer white-glove Ritz-Carlton-style service. Lorayne Fiorillo isn’t one of them.
“We take the gloves off and get down and dirty,” says Fiorillo. “Need a CPA who practices before the IRS to help with an audit—on a Saturday during a blizzard? Give us a call. Buying a car and need someone to negotiate with the dealership? Give us a call. If it’s beyond our professional capabilities, we’ll find someone in our professional network that can get the job done. We’re the cavalry who brings in the big guns or brings over the chicken soup. Whatever it is, the job gets done.”
Fiorillo, who heads Fiorillo Financial Strategies Group, recently marked her 25th year as an advisor, and yet she approaches each day with exuberance. It’s not unusual for her to schedule 13 client appointments in a day. “A lot can change in somebody’s life,” says Fiorillo, 55, who likes to check in with clients as often as once a month. “It’s why we talk to people constantly. Plus, it’s so enjoyable.”
Clients, she says, are like snowflakes—each one different from the next. “Just because someone is 55 with two kids, you can’t put them in a box,” says Fiorillo, who manages $235 million in assets for 300 households. “It’s not one size fits all.”
And neither is Fiorillo’s approach to money management.
While she was one of the first to embrace professional outside money managers, she brought portfolio management in-house 10 years ago after the Internet bubble tanked. “I bought into the idea that all they do all day long is manage money; they’re better than I was,” says Fiorillo. “You know, they weren’t.” Today, she and her partner, Frank Pranio, use fundamental and technical analysis to build portfolios that include individual stocks, bonds, options and a broad array of ETFs. They also do a lot of covered call writing.
“The two of us manage it. It’s like playing the piano with four hands,” says Fiorillo. “Investing with us is like hiring a custom tailor. Everything is fitted to your exact measurements and then adjusted frequently to accommodate for life’s inevitable changes. We make sure that your investments suit you perfectly.”
Fiorillo originally set out to become a doctor but switched to finance because she considers it, too, a helping profession. She got her start with Prudential Securities in Charlotte, N.C., where she still has many clients.
“The first time I went with Lorayne to Charlotte to meet her clientele at an event we hosted, it was like they revered her like a rock star,” says Pranio. “At the end, people came up to me and said: ‘What’s it like working with Lorayne?’ as if I was in the presence of a celebrity.”