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Joe Elsasser has a problem that plenty of advisors wish they had themselves: His retirement planning practice in Omaha, Neb., is growing so fast, he’s worried he soon won’t be able to keep pace with the workload.

“If this keeps snowballing, I could be in real trouble,” Elsasser, a certified financial planner who runs Sequent Planning, says with a wistful laugh.

As the heads of their own thriving advisory firms, Rosemary Caligiuri of Harvest Group Financial Services in Langhorne, Pa., and James E. Poe of Texas Retirement Specialists in Dallas-Ft. Worth, can sympathize with Elsasser. They, too, run practices whose revenues are consistently robust, whose client and prospect pipelines are consistently full, and whose competitive standing in the markets they serve is consistently strong.

How did Elsasser, Caligiuri and Poe get their firms to the top? And what are they doing strategically to stay there?

The Caretaker

As a former registered nurse and founder of a flourishing advisory practice, Rosemary Caligiuri knows how to take care of people’s health —and their wealth. Having spent two decades building her wealth management firm outside Philadelphia into a 1,000-client powerhouse, she evidently knows how to take care of her business, too.

Caligiuri says her success is no accident, but rather the result of a focused, sustained practice-building effort. In the mid- to late-1990s when her firm was still relatively young, she relied heavily on educational seminars aimed at her target client demographic: pre-retirees and recent retirees within the high-net-worth and mass affluent segments. Come the early 2000s, her practice now firmly established, Caligiuri began hosting a weekly radio program (“Financial Issues and Answers,” still on the air locally in 2013) focused on financial and retirement literacy, which brought still more clients. The radio gig in turn opened doors to other media opportunities, from bylined articles in local publications to becoming a source for leading international finance and business outlets.

“I’ve always kept an eye out for marketing opportunities through the media,” she says. “It’s important to keep my face out there.”

Those marketing efforts having proven fruitful, Caligiuri is at the point now where she’s quit doing seminars altogether. The bulk of her new business comes via referrals, oftentimes from within a family. “We’re doing a lot of generational planning,” she says. “We’re asking clients to send their children to us and as a result, the money stays with us.”

Meanwhile, Caligiuri continues to hold semi-annual “market snapshot” events where her clients are encouraged to bring guests, along with large client “thank-you” events and smaller, more intimate, high-end client gatherings.

As prosperous as her practice has become, Caligiuri says she’s diligent about maintaining the momentum she’s worked so hard to build. “You can’t just sit back and rest on your laurels.”

The Experimenter

When it comes to investigating new tactics and channels for attracting the high-net-worth clients that his firm targets, “we will try almost anything once,” says James Poe.

In Poe’s case, “anything” means advertising in local print media, hiring a media/public relations firm for outreach to local and national media, and even encouraging members of his advisory team to seek teaching posts at local universities.

Whatever the practice-building endeavor, Poe says he’s diligent about tracking return on investment. “We have spent a fair amount of money over the years on different things,” he explains, “and we track the data very carefully, so we know the source of every lead we get. Then at the end of the year, we review the data to see what worked and what didn’t.”

In terms of ROI, Poe says his seminars and his radio shows (he hosts two weekly financial planning programs) consistently deliver the most bang for the buck. “Radio now is our biggest source of new business.”

That new business doesn’t come cheaply, however. Poe says his firm spends upward of $9,000 a week to buy airtime on the two Texas conservative talk stations that carry his hour-long “Found Money Report.”

While the content of the show is educational in nature rather than self-promoting, it does give him a chance to mention the workshops that Texas Retirement Specialists frequently holds in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to keep their client and prospect pipelines full. Most are “very-high-end” dinner seminars held at venues such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which, he notes, have proven highly effective at drawing high-net-worth prospects.

Having carved out a niche in the investment advisory and retirement income space, primarily for the 55-to-75 age group, Poe says that after years of experimenting with practice-building tactics both traditional and unconventional, he’s finally found the right combination of approaches. “We are trying to get in front of as many affluent people as we can, and it’s working.”

The Phoenix

Joe Elsasser left the financial services business altogether in 2001, only to return to it in 2008 as a certified financial planner with his own practice, Sequent Planning, in Omaha.

In a span of less than five years, Elsasser has established himself locally as a retirement planning specialist, while also turning an offshoot venture called Social Security Timing into a viable national business. He’s done so largely on the strength of a highly successful educational seminar series held in conjunction with the city’s library system, and the proprietary Social Security timing tool he developed (and which some 1,200 other advisors are now using for retirement income planning, according to Elsasser).

Having a clear idea of his target market—upper-middle-income pre-retirees and retirees—along with a means to differentiate himself within that market (seminars and the Social Security Timing tool), have been key to Elsasser’s quick ascent. “It starts with defining your market, a group of folks you want to serve,” he explains. “To me, that’s absolutely critical. Then, once you identify a suite of services that appeals to that group, you go out and determine how best to deliver those services. To do that, you need to ask yourself, ‘How can I add unique value that nobody else [in that market] is providing?’ It’s about keeping your eyes open and recognizing you have something that others need and want. The top advisors, it seems, all have some unique insight into some unique aspect of the population—a way to add value for clients.”

In Elsasser’s case, he recognized that his target market wanted objective information about Social Security and the broader retirement income picture, plus a number-crunching tool to help them make better sense of that picture. Thus were born his Social Security Timing tool and his seminar series. The seminars, he explains, are strictly educational, serving to inform people while also providing Elsasser with a platform to showcase his expertise and his system. “It’s not about 90 percent of the room scheduling appointments,” he says, “but about giving them a feel for what I’m like and what I do.”

Having a distinct brand identity (including, perhaps, a unique product or system) is vital to gaining a competitive edge, according to Elsasser. “Everything I do is branded to the retirement transition and beyond.”

Elsasser says the relationships he has developed within professional centers of influence — CPAs, estate planning and elder law attorneys, mainly — have also proven to be an indispensible practice-building tool. “I’m happy with five to seven very focused referrals a year, and that’s roughly what I deliver back to my partners.”

Elsasser says he welcomes those referrals, even if they mean a larger workload.

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