Is a 2 1/2-week vacation for a busy financial advisor too much to ask for? How about 2 1/2 years?
That’s how long Scott Leonard spent on a 50-foot catamaran sailing from Florida to Australia with stops at dozens of exotic ports of call along the way.
And that long absence apparently only made the hearts of his high-net-worth client base grow fonder: he didn’t lose any clients and indeed gained an additional 5 to 8 clients a year from 2011 to 2013, the years Leonard, his wife and three sons set out on their seafaring adventure.
Back from his voyage only four months, the principal of Redondo Beach, Calif.-based RIA Navigoe is hitting the dry land running with the publication of his new book, just out, called “The Liberated CEO: The 9-Step Program to Running a Better Business so it Doesn’t Run You.”
“I’m so energized to be back in the business,” Leonard tells ThinkAdvisor in a phone interview.
“Leading up to this trip, the whole marketing and growth part of the business was put on hold. The whole design of the business was to allow me to take this trip. I’m 47 now but I feel like I’m 28 again. I’m so rejuvenated. It’s incredible to feel this way again,” he says, comparing the feeling to that of a new college graduate with boundless time and energy but no money, the difference being that this time he indeed has some money.
In a world in which many business people, advisors especially, don’t permit themselves a week away with the family without carrying their cellphone everywhere, the success of Leonard’s experiment would seem to validate his business management principles — most particularly the idea of designing one’s business to allow for such a trip.
Indeed, the initial planning began some 13 years ago, when Leonard’s eldest son, Griffin, was born. Leonard, who early on cultivated a high-end practice — his average portfolio size is about $2 million — was struck by the comments from more than one of his wealthy business owner clients to the effect that:
“If I could do it all over again, I’d give up my wealth to have that time again with my kids.
I just don’t have the relationship with my kids that I want to,” he recalls them saying.
“That really resonated with me,” he says, especially since his own father died at 48 of a heart attack, leading him to worry about his own longevity.
He hearkened back to his childhood dream of circumnavigating the globe, and to the dreams he shared with his wife, Mandy, when they met, and proposed to his wife that they take that trip at a time when their kids would be old enough to enjoy it but not too old for it to interfere with their high school education.
Without any hesitation, Mandy agreed, and they had years to plan for the day that Griffin, Jake and Luke (now 13, 12 and 8) would spend 2 1/2 years homeschooling at sea, touring exotic lands and living a life of adventure.
But the question advisors are probably asking is how do you run a business with $250 million in discretionary assets under management from the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia?
“It was a deliberate process,” says Leonard, a financial planner and DFA Funds acolyte. “The key thing that needed to happen was that the relationships needed to be transferred from myself to the company. Clients needed to look to the company for answers instead of me.”
While that might sound like a straightforward concept, that message didn’t always go over easily when Leonard began telling clients of his plans in 2009 — during the depths of the Great Recession.
“I’m gonna take a 3-year sailing trip around the world — I hope you’re cool with that,” he jokingly recalls.
More seriously, a few clients responded: “That’s great. I respect that. But we’ll have to take our assets and go.”
So Leonard explained all that he had put into place to make his business, then known as Leonard Wealth Management, stronger and better.
“Before…all they had was Scott Leonard, CFP,” which he told them was problematic if he were hit by the proverbial bus.
“But I designed this business,” he continued, “so that I am not critical to the day to day operation of the firm.”
His coup de grace was advising worried clients: “Don’t leave because you think it might be bad. Why don’t we wait and see — if you’re unhappy with how things are going we will find you another advisor and I will refund the fees you paid during time I was gone.”
Another key management principle that made Leonard’s dream possible was having the right staff and — this is key — empowering them to think like owners.
Leonard recalls an instance when his satellite broadband connection went out while on a call with a client unhappy about a service issue — not the time you’d want to demonstrate the difficulties of being halfway around the world.
By the time Leonard was able to get back online — 45 minutes later — the call was over, the problem taken care of by Eric Toya, his “No. 2,” who had been on the call when Leonard dropped off, and who had long since been trained to act like an owner.
“People don’t make mistakes, processes do,” Leonard says, adding that his team continually refines its process when something goes wrong.
That approach means that “people aren’t afraid to make a wrong decision,” not fearing blame, and “more likely to make decisions in your absence than you would make if you’re there.”
That ownership mentality enabled Leonard to get by with working on average 10 to 20 hours a week, mainly reviewing email, overseeing what was going on and writing articles.
He also maintained a physical presence, flying back to the U.S. every quarter for about 10 days to meet with clients and prospects. It was the long-term clients who most appreciated seeing him — the new clients, he says, were content meeting with Toya.
As for his family, he’d pull his boat into a marina near an international airport for those mainland visits.
Docking was hardly unusual for the family since, Leonard says, the boat trip was just a maritime version of a cross-country RV trip whereby you set up your camp in one location and stay for a while before venturing forth again; 90% of the time, their boat was at anchor, he said.
The family always had lots of work to do—one takes for granted how easy life in the U.S. is, but finding food and going shopping were often “big outings,” he says, and there was an all-too-constant need to for ship repairs and various sorts of mechanical tinkering.
The kids kept busy with their homeschooling lessons and tests.
But when not engaged in such mundane activities, they stood atop an erupting volcano in Vanuatu, “where people die every year getting hit by flying magma,” Leonard says, adding there are no rails at the volcano’s opening.
Back on the catamaran, they’d get on dinghies to spear-fish, in one location amongst hundreds of curious sharks (who had plenty enough of their own food not to pose a danger, he adds).
While shark-infested waters or close encounters with hot lava may not be for every financial advisor or CEO, Leonard strongly advocates they do not forsake opportunities to get more out of life.
“Step away from day-to-day operations. Maybe coach one season of basketball for your kids,” he suggests, “but really do it right.
“For the business it’s extremely healthy, too. It’s gonna force others to step up,” he says, returning to basketball as a metaphor from which to take his rhetorical shot.
“If Kobe Bryant is always in the game and always handling the ball, everyone always takes a second seat to him,” he says, adding that their absence both reveals other players’ talents as well as “making it really obvious where the stress points are.”
“If you’re building a great business,” he concludes, “you’re really not needed day to day.”