Welcome to Research magazine’s Advisor Hall of Fame, now in its 23rd year. (Full list: Past and present winners.) 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 20 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.
Jay Nagdeman, president of Suasion Resources in Fairfield, N.J., performed the contest’s final judging, bringing to the task his extensive industry experience as a top consultant on financial services marketing.
When advisor Drew Bilotta left his longtime corporate home in 2007, he was very close to, as he puts it, “just” retiring. He couldn’t. “It would not have rung true for me to say ‘Oh well, I made mine. Now you’re on your own.’ There was something bogus about that. This is what I do.”
Bilotta, 52, has a deep need not just to give back, but, simply, to give—a characteristic that shapes not only how he operates as an advisor but who he is as a person.
“I’ve got to do it,” says Bilotta, founder of PAX Partners, a Raymond James & Associates affiliate in Wayne, Pa. “It’s a driving force.”
Since joining Raymond James & Associates from Merrill Lynch, Bilotta has sought to construct what he calls “the grail of perpetuity,” a succession plan that will allow him to “close the loop in gratitude” for all his clients have provided him.
Bilotta, who manages $440 million in assets for 350 households, currently works with a nephew-in-law whose practice is concentrated in corporate executive benefits. He is mentoring him on the private client business. PAX Partners also has three client service associates.
Bilotta is contemplative about his leadership style.
“There is no task too small I wouldn’t do. If the phone rings, I pick it up. I’m organized and structured. I’m here at five every morning, out at 4:30, like the rat on the wheel. One of my failings is you can’t expect people you lead to be just like you,” says Bilotta, a certified financial planner since the 1980s. “I’m trying to change that.”
What Bilotta does do well—extremely well—is to engage people.
“I want to hear what they think. I want them to be affirmed in the positives, reflect on the negatives—and act on it. It’s much like my business. I know there are many who would scrutinize my business and tell me how to do more business. I understand that,” he adds. “If business is your driver, I know how more business can be done.”
More important to Bilotta than building assets is tending to people with sensitivity and compassion.
“To me that’s number one. I don’t need more business,” he says. “That’s not why I come to work in the morning. I come because I’m very committed and devoted to these relationships. I’m juiced by them. I love this element of it. That’s what I’m trying to perpetuate.”
Bilotta got his start in the business at Merrill Lynch when he was 22, making as many as 200 cold calls a day. He liked it.
“I believed in being straightforward and I was amazed at where you could take a phone call and how you could engage in the beginning of a relationship,” says Bilotta, who has a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania. “If the person was happy with their advisor, I’d say: ‘Good. I hope that’s what my clients say to the next guy who calls them.’”
Bilotta has never asked friends or family to do business with him. They have come to Bilotta. When he left Merrill, he told clients he was changing firms but left it up to them to call if they wished to continue the relationship. Eighty-five percent of his clients accompanied him to PAX Partners, which stands for “Planning Around Xpectations.”
In thanks, Bilotta donated $100 to every client’s favorite charity. Since then, PAX Makes a Difference, as it is called, has contributed monthly to a client’s charity. Over 80 organizations have been touched so far.
Tom Walrond, a regional director for Raymond James & Associates, says Bilotta is known for his “generous spirit, herculean work ethic and unquestionable integrity.” Tash Elwyn, president of Raymond James & Associates, adds that Bilotta epitomizes the word “professional.”
“Simply put, Drew gets it. He cares about his clients, his community, and being the best he can possibly be for them. He holds himself to high standards and expects the same of those around him as well as his firm, thus requiring all of us to keep pace with him.”
To keep balance, Bilotta runs. He prays. And he listens to The Great Courses, university-level lessons on philosophy, theology, math and science. At the moment, Bilotta and his wife, Dierdre, both passionate philanthropists, are contemplating what cause is next for them.
“Everything we’ve ever been involved in just happened,” says Bilotta, who most recently has supported an orphanage in Honduras as well as Friends for Friends, a non-profit that donates funds to neighbors in need. “I wouldn’t even call it philanthropy. To use someone else’s words, it’s paying it forward. For me, it’s beyond financial. That’s wonderful but it’s easy too. I like grassroots because it requires all of you to be involved. I’m at a place in life now that’s all about discovery. I’m excited about what’s next.”
As a child, Shelly Church watched her divorced mother struggle to provide a comfortable home for her and her five sisters. She worked minimum wage jobs at places like Walmart and the local hardware store and, at one point, drove a school bus.
“She made it work. In spite of my mom not having a lot in life, she never complained or made us feel we were less than important. I never felt like I was without,” says Church, whose Naples, Fla.-based Church & Box Planning Group of Raymond James manages $285 million in assets for 120 households. “But seeing her struggle as a single mom for years probably motivated me more than anything. I wanted to figure out how not to end up like that.”
Today, Church, 59, heads a comprehensive investment and financial planning practice whose focus includes the conservation of family resources. One of her specialties is financial planning for divorced and widowed women. In 2011, Church published an e-book, Divorce: What Every Woman Should Know. Its successor, on widowhood, is due out soon.
After going through her own divorce in 1996, Church realized there was a void in the market when it came to financial advice. Her aim: to fill it.
“If it was difficult for someone like me, who knows finance, how difficult must it be for other people? Until I went through it myself, I didn’t really get it. I couldn’t believe how fearful I was about not being able to support my children. I had this tremendous fear I would lose clients and lose income,” she says. “It was an unjustified fear but it was real in that moment.”
Church subsequently contacted local family law attorneys, offering her services as a financial advisor who could help navigate the tricky terrain of divorce. Today, it’s a mature business. Roughly one-third of the group’s referrals come from divorce attorneys.
As part of the process, Church helps the attorney’s client formulate monthly budgetary needs. She assists in collecting documents for mandatory discovery and analyzes brokerage statements for any tax implications. She also attends mediation hearings—and she does it all for free.
“The key to the success of these referrals is I make it crystal clear to every client that I do not have a financial interest in the referral. There is no sharing of commissions. I get paid as a lawyer. Shelly gets paid as a financial advisor,” says attorney John E. Long, who has worked collaboratively with Church for over a decade. He is also her client. “By the time we get to mediation, the client has as much trust in her as they have in me. We are a team working in the client’s behalf. All my clients adore her. It’s only natural for clients to place their money with Shelly. I can’t remember any who haven’t.”
Church immersed herself early on in all things financial. Largely self-educated, she started her own firm, Diversified Financial Group, in 1984. The firm sold mutual funds and limited partnerships. A few years later, when she became a certified financial planner and fully licensed, Church broadened her reach to include comprehensive financial planning. She joined Raymond James & Associates in 1994.
Church connects deeply with clients—in part by sharing her own stories: her economic beginnings, her divorce, and the loss of her son Kyle, who died of heart disease in 2005 at the age of 18.
“I think when you’re real with people they trust you more. I lay everything out. What you see is what you get,” says Church, whose partner Ilona Box started out as her sales assistant 16 years ago. “We dive pretty deep into our clients’ personal lives. A lot will share stories with us even their kids don’t know. That’s where it really makes a difference. They are totally comfortable having those kinds of conversations.”
Just recently, a client learned he had brain cancer. First, he told his wife, then his two kids. He called Church next. “It’s like we’re family,” she says. “It becomes very personal.”
On Church’s desk is a plaque that says: “One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth doing is what we do for others.”
For Church, these aren’t random words.
It’s how she lives her life.
She mentors women advisors new to the business. She’s a role model for client families. And she has long been involved with the American Heart Association, carrying on her son’s legacy by raising almost $700,000 for the organization.
“I don’t have many bad days. I’ve always been able to look out and realize that no matter how bad my life is, there’s always something worse out there. It’s what got me through life when I lost my son. There are others who have so many more problems than I do,” says Church. “One thing I know more than anything is that the more you give—I give—the more that comes back in so many ways. That’s the secret of my life.”
In 2008, Jeff Concepcion faced a tough choice. After being forced out by Lincoln Financial, his corporate home for 23 years, he could have taken a handsome severance package and waited for his non-compete to expire.
Or he could chase his dream and build his own advisory firm—a place where every advisor is an equity owner and the client comes first.
“I didn’t take a paycheck for three years and worked seven days a week,” says Concepcion, 48. “In the beginning, the business was losing $80,000 a month. I put up all the capital because I wasn’t willing to take other people’s money until I knew it was viable. There’s no debt because we’ve never borrowed. There’s no outside investment. And today, I can tell you, we are meaningfully profitable.”
Last year, FINRA awarded Concepcion $2 million in damages in connection with an arbitration case he had filed against his former employer. That victory, he says, provided some vindication. But nothing feels sweeter to him today than the wild success of Stratos Wealth Partners, his Solon, Ohio-based RIA, an affiliate of LPL Financial.
Five years out, Stratos Wealth Partners, with more than $6.1 billion in assets, has over 170 advisors in 58 offices in 19 states. The firm has added over 45 advisors this year and in just one month opened offices in Cedar Falls, Iowa; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Birmingham, Mich.; Gulfport, Miss.; and Lexington, Ky.