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.
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.”
Admittedly, Fiorillo does have an outsize personality. “She’s found prospects riding the Metro North and at the opera. The fact is she loves what she does. She has that passion,” Pranio adds. “I sometimes sit here and look over at her and hear that exuberance and hear her ‘Yippees!’ She just enjoys what she does. It’s genuine.”
Not surprisingly, given her energy, Fiorillo fits a lot into her life. There’s her husband, a vet, and her 15-year-old son Max. At the moment, she is working on a charity event she is sponsoring for the Mecklenburg Medical Alliance and Endowment in North Carolina. “I’m ADHD when it comes to philanthropy,” she notes. Fiorillo also hosts a cooking show, Everyone Can Cook, for her local cable TV station. And she’s working on several writing projects.
One thing’s for sure, she is a communicator—and across platforms. She’s written a book, Financial Fitness in 45 Days: The Complete Guide to Shaping up Your Personal Finances. Until a few years ago, she was a personal finance columnist for Entrepreneur magazine. And when she still lived in Charlotte, she served as an on-air financial expert for a local TV station.
But, clearly, her big passion is for her clients.
The size of Fiorillo’s accounts are all over the place but, as she puts it: “I believe in dancing with the one that brung you. I have clients with $400,000 with me and $15 million to $20 million with me. People ask me, ‘What’s your minimum?’ It depends on how much I like you. Sometimes people really need help and they’re a nice person. I want to help them.” In addition to individuals, Fiorillo has two specialties. One is working with medical and veterinary practices, the other managing guardianships for people who have been declared incompetent.
Twenty-five years out, Fiorillo says her most important achievement is “how my clients feel about me.”
“One client, when she talked about working with me, said that when her CPA first introduced us, she thought I was a little weird. Now, that she has known me for 25 years, she is sure I’m weird, but I have also become her family’s most trusted advisor,” Fiorillo says. “Whenever anything goes wrong, she told me, no matter what it is, everyone says: ‘Call Lorayne.’”
Back in the mid-1980s, an entrepreneur named Herb D. Vest kept phoning Victor Hazard, inviting him to join a radical new start-up: a nationwide network of tax professionals who also offer investment advice.
“He called several times and I said we weren’t interested. Finally, one day, I listened to him for half an hour and it seemed to make so much sense,” says Hazard, a CPA who heads Hazard Financial in Lomita, Calif. “Why not offer full financial planning? It allows you to do such a better job for your client. Why not take it to the next step?”
Hazard, 69, was one of the early adopters of the pioneering business model and his practice today looks a lot like what Herb Vest envisioned 25 years ago.
As H.D. Vest president and COO Roger Ochs puts it: “He’s the stereotype of the successful CPA and financial advisor who not only prepares tax returns but, more importantly, helps clients with all their financial needs. That was the vision 25 years ago, and that’s the vision today. Victor just does it better than most of us.”
Hazard got his start in financial services in 1968 when he joined Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., then the world’s largest accounting firm. In 1982, he established his own CPA firm preparing taxes, audits, financial plans and financial statements for individuals and businesses. The H.D. Vest he joined in 1987 was, as he says, “hokey,” a much leaner version of today’s 4,800-advisor network.
At their first meetings with Hazard, for example, Barbara and Herb Vest would make a homemade lunch in their hotel room to share in the conference venue. Potato salad was often on the menu. And when he signed up to take his first securities exam, the Vests sent a grainy video—Barbara shot it, Herb was the presenter—advising him how to pass the Series 7 test. The firm assigned Hazard the number 868 when he hooked up with Vest; that is still the number that appears on most client statements today.
That, however, is about the only thing that has remained static at Hazard Financial, a full-service firm with $103 million in assets under management and an eight-person team that delivers multiple layers of service. At the top of the service tier: retirement and financial planning, tax advice and investment management. The Hazard team also offers advice in specialties such as insurance, estate planning, trust management, tax compliance, charitable giving, debt management and business planning. The firm’s tax compliance arm prepares over 1,000 corporate, fiduciary and personal income taxes each year.
The firm’s growth trajectory has been strong and steady, and perhaps more importantly, it has been intentional.
Hazard, for instance, heads the effort to plan for 20 high net worth families, representing 60 to 70 households. Does he want to grow that? No. “You can’t get too thin,” says Hazard, whose wife, Mary Jo, and daughters Jennifer and Jackie, work with him. “We don’t want to hire a lot more people and lose control of the personal relationship. To us, the personal relationship is everything. We decided to keep it at eight people—and that works perfectly for 20 families.”
Hazard Financial clients also include families that are juggling college savings with other financial goals. Many are multi-generational clients. Notably, the Hazard family itself recently became the first to have five generations with investment accounts.
Looking forward, Hazard says: “Markets are going to be more complex, no one knows the tax picture for next year, regulations require an extraordinary amount of effort, risk is everywhere and circumstances change daily. Our responsibility is to address all of the issues that managing wealth presents.”
Just this past year, Hazard received the premier designation of Personal Financial Specialist from the American Institute of CPAs and daughter Jennifer recently got her mortgage loan originator’s license—part of an ongoing strategy to enhance the firm’s service quotient. Hazard’s own personal growth trajectory—applying for Medicare and Social Security—has also helped deepen the bench.
“Five years ago, I applied for Medicare and found out, as most people do, that you can read up on it but you just don’t have a grasp unless you do it yourself. There’s so much that can fall through the cracks,” he says. “And there are so many different ways to deal with Social Security. There are hundreds of different options. Going through it yourself gives you a much different perspective. It’s made me a better advisor.”
There is one thing that has not changed—and that is Hazard’s fundamental belief in the first credential he got: the CPA.
“The one thing we focus on is having a written financial plan, and that’s what a CPA is trained to put together as opposed to someone who is more product-oriented. And here, you have someone who is trained in accounting as well as finance,” he says.
“If you look at most people we compete with, they send out fliers with their 1099s saying: ‘We take no responsibility for taxes. See a tax professional.’ From Ameritrade to Merrill Lynch to Schwab, there’s always this fine print that says you’re on your own for tax,” he adds. “You won’t get that from us. You’re assured of having someone who is looking at both sides of the equation: tax advice as well as financial advice. Herb Vest got it right.”
When some clients began to turn bearish earlier this year, Howard Safer seized the moment—launching a dialogue he calls “cliff conversations.” A lame duck Congress and the unknowns involving tax law, capital gains, income rules and estate planning—he put it all on the table in seminars and one-on-one talks.
“Our role is to be the designated worrier for our clients,” says Safer, CEO of Argent Trust Company of Tennessee. “We take that to heart.”
The 69-year-old Safer, well known in trust company circles, also used the opportunity to showcase two words he tends to use a lot: safety and security.
“We believe trust companies are the peak of safety and security. It’s a good story to tell,” says Safer, a CPA who opened Argent Trust’s Nashville office in April. “We can do what everyone else can do, only better.”
Safer has had a storied career. Early on, he served as a controller for a New York Stock Exchange public company, as chief financial officer of a substantial private company and as managing partner of a 90-person CPA and consulting firm.
He went high profile, however, as president of the iconic J.C. Bradford Trust, a $900 million company, from its founding in 1993 until 2000 when parent J.C. Bradford was sold to Paine Webber. After that, he headed the Nashville office of the $25 billion Regions Morgan Keegan Trust for 12 years, offering investment, estate and family office services. In an echo of his move from Bradford to Regions, he joined Argent when it was announced that the Morgan Keegan investment division was to be purchased by Raymond James Financial.
“Our clients enjoy it most in smaller environments like Bradford. It’s where you can be the most responsive,” says Safer, whose credentials include the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) designation. “Many of our clients wanted us to be in something smaller. Here, we can do it all and we can do it better. And what we know we absolutely can do is save millions of dollars in taxes through trusts.”
Safer and daughter Mindy Hirt, vice president, oversee about $250 million in assets for 60 households. Senior investment strategist Frank Hosse rounds out the team. Hosse most recently served as chief investment officer for Regions Morgan Keegan Trust, a position he held with J.C. Bradford Trust before that.
Most of the team’s clients are business owners in operations as diverse as bottle manufacturing, real estate and skating rinks. All are millionaires. Notably, most of the accounts Safer and Hirt manage are what’s known as agency accounts—not trust accounts.
“There is a lot that’s misunderstood about trust companies. For one, you don’t have to have a trust to deal with a trust company. It’s a well-kept secret and that’s too bad,” says Safer. “The fact is this is a more extensive business to operate because we have more rules, regulations and auditors and, to me, that gives a high level of comfort to the investing public.”
Many of Safer’s clients are multi-generational. Often, parents will ask Safer to intervene in family conflicts.
“We’re the bad cop if we need to be with the next generation. They’ll tell the 28-year-old who wants to start up a business to ‘Go see Howard.’ I’ll ask for a business plan and there won’t be one. So I suggest taking a course or getting a job in that type of business,” Safer says. “It works well in protecting family assets. It doesn’t work well in terms of them liking us particularly. We get fired by the next generation half the time because we have done what we believe is best. As a trustee, that’s my judgment call. It’s what it’s all about.”
Safer and Hirt have worked together for 10 years—a family dynamic that both say adds an extra dimension to the family office they operate.
Hirt, a certified financial planner, says of Safer: “He has been a great mentor. He’s a great instiller of confidence, a master delegator and when he believes in you he definitely wants you to roll with it. He’s patient when he needs to be, and shows elements of impatience when things need to get done. He’s a real advocate for clients.”
Hirt adds that part of the pleasure of partnering with her father is designing creative solutions for clients.
“There’s a level of excitement in terms of being able to come up with an idea that can save a thousand dollars a month by refinancing a loan or save a million dollars by creating a family limited partnership,” she notes. “Howard also taught me early on to go to a client with three bullet points. Keep it simple. A lot of things we’re dealing with are not simple concepts and it helps to present them in a digestible form.”
Most firm mission statements gather dust. Not so here. Safer often quotes from Argent’s.
“Argent’s mission statement involves our clients, associates and investors. We are passionate advocates for them, their heirs and their charities,” says Safer. “We’re energized when they are happier in achieving their goals. We’re fulfilled when their families live in harmony with positive values. When it’s all said and done, that’s what we’re about.”