Welcome to Research magazine’s Advisor Hall of Fame, now in its 24th 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 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.
The contest’s final judging was performed by a distinguished panel of Research experts and contributors: Ronald L. DeLegge, founder/chief portfolio strategist, ETFguide; Bill Good, chairman, Bill Good Marketing; Jay Nagdeman, president, Suasion Resources; and Bob Seawright, chief investment/information officer, Madison Avenue Securities.
See the full list of past and present winners at thinkadvisor.com/halloffamewinners.
Dreamer. Pioneer. Game changer. Lew Altfest, widely credited with changing financial planning for the better, is all those things. He is also a fulfilled man who says: “It’s easy to say there are stocks I could have made more money on. I could have done this. I could have done that. But things have apparently come together, haven’t they? I’m very content with the way things have turned out.”
Altfest, 74, was one of the industry’s first fee-only advisors—forming Altfest Personal Wealth Management in 1983 and co-founding the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors a year later. Last year, as the firm celebrated its 30th anniversary, Financial Planning magazine honored Altfest and his wife Karen with the Lifetime Achievement Influencer Award as advisors who have pushed the profession to new heights.
The last year has been one of reflection for Altfest—looking back but also forward.
“I would love to say that when I started out it was simple—that I would just announce who I was and they would come,” says Altfest, who had a successful career on Wall Street before launching his own firm. “It was a number of years before I took any money out. I had been used to high salaries and this was like being on a starvation diet. But I could see that even though I wasn’t making any money that the number of clients I had was growing and they were recommending clients. I had a trajectory.”
Today, Altfest leads a firm that manages over $1 billion in assets for 550 client households. What inspired him early on inspires him now: helping clients manage their entire financial lives. Altfest describes himself as the “thinker,” the “analyst” and the “doer” in a firm that prizes teamwork, character and accountability.
As Karen Altfest, who heads client relations, notes: “Lew is value-driven—not just in choosing investments but in his life. We have certain expectations of this business, certain values. There’s a lot of mentorship that happens here. One man in the office said something the other day and I thought, ‘Gee, that sounded just like Lew.’ Lew’s brought along a lot of people. We’ve all learned a lot from having Lew as our leader.”
Altfest remains a fierce advocate of conflict-free advice—a fact that is not lost on his clients or his staff. “We view ourselves as true fiduciaries. That means you step into the shoes of the person. You put their interests ahead of our own. We practice that. The number one feedback we get from clients is that they really perceive us as being what we say we are: fiduciaries. They trust us.”
Is Altfest surprised that the fee-only model hasn’t gone totally mainstream?
“That’s sort of like saying are you surprised HBO and Showtime haven’t taken over from CBS, ABC and NBC. I personally prefer watching more mature, sophisticated stuff when I watch television,” he says. “We have our niche. And we get a lot of clients coming in because of our objectivity. There obviously remains some appeal for others to continue in the old framework. To me, that’s not a pure situation.”
A self-described workaholic, Altfest rises at 5:30 every morning and scans The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Weekdays, he walks the two miles to the firm’s Park Avenue headquarters. Weekends, he works at the couple’s country home. Altfest also teaches financial planning at Pace University and he is currently working on a second edition of a financial planning textbook that is used at leading universities around the country.
And he continues to pioneer new systems to push financial planning forward.
His Total Portfolio Management, as an example, blends analytical and personalized assessment to create customized client portfolios. “It allows us to look at things in a more sophisticated way than just saying how much do you want in stocks and bonds and that’s how I’ll judge you,” Altfest says. “Our role is to discover what makes clients unique so we can help them imagine—and ultimately live—the life they desire.”
Altfest’s system, for example, considers financial assets like real estate and the client’s “human asset value,” which is the salary a person would make over a lifetime. Liabilities are also on the table. “From that, we can tell you how much risk you ought to sustain,” he adds. “It helps you assign a risk profile in a new way.”
Not surprisingly, Altfest has no plan to retire.
“I feel good. I really do. I’ve done things that are worthwhile. I’m having an impact on what’s going on,” he says. “All I wanted early on was for the phones to ring. That is certainly the case now. It’s a responsibility, but I don’t mind having it. I like helping people. At a wedding the other day, three guys thanked me. One called me a magician. He said I’d changed his life. Those are the things that are gratifying to hear.”
Sally Law describes her introduction to financial services as an Alice in Wonderland moment. “Like everything else in life, you tumble through the floor,” she says. “You kind of fall into the rabbit hole.”
Law had already had a string of jobs—working on Capitol Hill, doing research for a Harvard think tank and writing grant proposals for Gallaudet University—when a friend suggested that she would make a terrific financial advisor.
The friend was right.
Law, 71, now heads a firm that manages $417 million in assets for 350 households—including the first couple to sign up with her when she became an advisor in 1973. When she sat for the securities exam at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Law was the only woman in a sea of men. Likewise, in the early 1980s she was the first woman to be appointed to the prestigious Chairman’s Council of Raymond James Financial Services. And, since she fell into that rabbit hole, Law’s firm has been listed as a top advisor by numerous industry publications.
“I think if you really like your work you never really go to work. I don’t worry. I sleep well at night. I love the fact that my clients come back year after year and they thank me. One client who just retired told me how much this firm has meant to him,” says Law. “I live for that.”
And to think it all started with a jar gripper—yes, a jar gripper. When she got her start, Law’s jar gripper was included in a Welcome Wagon package that was delivered to new homeowners in her neighborhood. It came with a tagline—“Keep a firm grip on your money”—and the offer of a free consultation. Some of her earliest clients made the call.
“I’m just fortunate somehow. I have a decent personality and I was trying to do my best. I went to people’s houses and I always talked to the wife as well as the husband. After a while, they understand that you’re not threatening, you’re trying to be helpful. You’re not trying to sell anything,” says Law. “Early on, the wives became a big part of the process. In my opinion the decision-maker is usually the wife.”
In some ways, Law is decidedly unconventional. She has never asked for a referral. “I don’t believe in it,” she says. “I think it’s low class.” Law doesn’t believe in client segmentation either. “A, B, C clients. I hate it. I have no use for it,” she adds. “If someone has trusted me and given me their money, no matter how small, I’m going to be good to them. I’ll take a kid that has $300 from a bar mitzvah. I’ll take anybody. That’s my job. We make enough money. We don’t need to be greedy.”
Law also isn’t a formal goal-setter. “I stood in front of a room once, all my staff was there, and I was asked: ‘Sally, what are your goals?’ So I answered: ‘I don’t have any.’ That didn’t go over well. But the truth is my goal is to get in, do a good job, the business continues, and it’s not too crazy.”
Law and her five-person staff work out of a two-story cottage that she calls “a living, breathing thing.” It’s not so much office as habitat for a practice that has been built from the heart.
As Linette Dobbins, president of Portland, Oregon-based McGee Wealth Management, frames it: “What comes through with Sally is she is all heart. She’s very smart. She cares deeply about people. This industry is all about numbers and investments and all that but when you meet Sally you know she really cares about you. She has walked through life with her clients. She has since day one.”
Dobbins calls Law a “Type Triple-A.” Law herself admits: “I’ve managed my life around my office.” And, if she has one overarching goal, it is to be a good steward.
“I eat my own cooking. Whatever we tell clients to do, we do ourselves. If we tell you to get an estate plan, then we better have one. If we tell you to pay down your mortgage, we need to understand that absolutely. If we’re looking at your balance sheet, we need to be looking at our own,” she says. “To me, it’s all about the balance sheet and cash flow. Investment to me is an incidental part of the financial planning process. We don’t even think about investments until we are done with the plan.”
Sometime, in the next year or so, Sally Law is going to retire. A transition plan has been in the works for the last five years and Law has been “giving things up, little by little.” Advisor Janice Henderson, who has sat in on every client meeting for the last 20 years, will take over the reins.
“It’s time for my staff to make their bone and for me to leave mine. I have a lot of younger people and it’s their time now. My job is to guide them so they understand the right perspective, which is,” Law laughs, “my perspective.” Law’s successor has decided to keep the firm name. “It does make me feel good. Law & Associates, this is what it’s known as,” says Law. “It’s a good name.”
Gene Lerner has always been driven by a very simple question: How do you make a little? In the 1960s, while teaching finance at Northwestern University, he ran simulations on thousands of companies looking for winners that would do just that. Today, Lerner says, “I still keep the simulations going. Same goals, nothing’s changed. How do you make a little?”
At 86, Lerner is still very much a work in progress—just like the markets he watches so closely.
“Once you understand there is no rule for all seasons, the question becomes: How do you find the new rule? Change in this business comes in two ways—first from the client, secondly from the market. You must forever be flexible, recognizing the needs of the client change and, equally important is that the world changes,” he observes. “John Maynard Keynes was a pretty good economist who said: ‘The markets will remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.’ I believe that deeply.”
Don Jacobs, dean emeritus at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, recruited Lerner nearly 50 years ago and he says only one thing about his friend has remained constant: “He thinks of nothing else but the markets. He has such a fantastic mind. He’s one of a kind. There are no two Gene Lerners walking the street, that’s for sure.”
Nothing about Lerner seems to operate in a straight line. His world is one of zigs and zags. So no surprise, then, that his career has had so many trajectories.
As an academic, he taught at the graduate business school at New York University, City College of New York and UCLA before joining the Kellogg Graduate School of Management in 1966. Notably, he received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago where the legendary Milton Friedman was his thesis advisor.
Lerner’s government experience includes service as a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, economist to the House Banking and Currency Committee, and consultant to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Internal Revenue Service.
Lerner, who has lectured worldwide about the field of finance, also served on the Board of Governors of the Chicago Stock Exchange, participating in an initiative that lowered bid-ask spreads for all transactions, and paving the way for a new product: the exchange-traded fund.
Lerner’s research project at Northwestern—all those simulations—launched his career as a financial advisor. In 1972, he formed Disciplined Investment Advisors, primarily serving institutional investors such as the pension funds of Illinois judges, Volkswagen, Avon and unions, among others. When the market changed and his value strategy went out of favor, Lerner nimbly changed direction by targeting high-net-worth clients.
“The advantage of dealing with high-net-worth people is you are talking to decision-makers,” says Lerner, who moved his group to Morgan Stanley in 2001, joining HighTower just two years ago. “You don’t have someone in-between second-guessing you.”
Today, The Lerner Group serves 350 households with roughly $900 million in assets under management. Lerner arrives at work at 8:00 every morning, revising portfolios and putting models to work for each client. Everything is individually managed and he and his partners, Walter Gondeck, Jr., and Mingdong Tan, personally own every stock that their clients own. “It gives us skin in the game,” says Lerner, who has co-authored eight books and published nearly 60 articles during his career as a financial advisor. “Our order is simultaneously placed with our clients’ orders.” Several million dollars of transactions are processed every single day.
Lerner says he joined HighTower so that he could continue to innovate. During his tenure there, the group has become a serious bond trader interacting with 60 different firms. Another new initiative involves outreach to the local Chinese-American community, whose investments are largely tied up in real estate.
Most advisors at 86 would not be going to the office every day, if at all. But that’s not Lerner.
“This is the most wonderful business in the world. Every day, there’s something new,” he says. “Why would I retire? There is continuous change going on and it’s enormously exciting. Every day I come to work is a pleasure. Every day is different.” During his down time, Lerner reads. He especially likes the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and its emphasis on responsibility. Lerner himself believes: “You’re obligated to give and to make a difference. That’s why we are here, among other things, to be of use and be of value.”
Lerner also likes to fish, which he does twice a week in search of bass, bluegill and walleye. He calls the experience “glorious.” Then, he adds, “And of course you take someone with you and talk business the whole time. I’ve made a little while sitting there dreaming. You’d be surprised at how much money you can make when dreaming.”
Seven years ago, Rob Reich took a hard look at his advisory business. He didn’t like what he saw: a high-volume, low-touch practice where deep client relationships were the exception, not the norm.
“It was not what I had set out to build,” says Reich. “Very frankly, what we really wanted was a low-volume, high-touch practice. We needed to reinvent ourselves.”
Reinvent he did. Reich, who moved to Wells Fargo in 2008 after a long run with Bank of America, now tends to 105 households instead of 1,200. Over the past five years, assets under management have grown by over 300% to $477 million. And he has built a service model based largely on client feedback.
“I didn’t want to be the guy who says ‘Build it and they will come.’ So we asked our top clients: What would the ideal practice look like to you? What they really liked was that they felt we were personally vested in their financial success,” says Reich, 53. “What they didn’t like is that they realized we were pulled in so many directions. They didn’t feel we were always able to execute on things we talked about. And they wanted more access.”
Today, Reich’s approach to client care isn’t about “what” or “how” but “why.” Why does it matter to you? Why do you feel that way?
“At some point, the industry decided to treat every client like they were a hedge fund with all these conversations around performance and risk management. The industry is far too focused on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’: What do you want to happen? Here’s how I’m going to make that happen. What’s much more important is the ‘why.’ That’s what leads us to genuinely understand what clients are trying to get at. Our job is to take that understanding, that knowledge, and personalize it to the client. That’s how we create wisdom,” says Reich. “Clients today are looking for wisdom.”
Reich, headquartered in McLean, Virginia, has long been fascinated by the markets and economics. But it is his fresh thinking, candor and sense of self that set him apart. At the moment, he is visiting the classics—reading Plato’s “The Republic” and “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Nadia Adly, Mid-Atlantic director for Wealth Brokerage Services, a division of Wells Fargo Advisors, calls Reich a “visionary” who is constantly doing “a gut check, a reality check.” It took Adly seven years to recruit Reich and his team. “Finally, it was the right time, the right place and the right fit,” she adds. “He knew exactly what he wanted to build. He also knows exactly what he wants to look like 10 years from now. He is deeply in tune with his inner self.”
Most of Reich’s clients are business owners, C-suite executives, the top partners in law firms, and consultants. And they have this in common: They are self-made, financially conservative and, as Reich puts it, “well grounded.” The account size of new clients Reich is currently bringing on is also getting larger. In the next two to three years, Reich hopes to add another 15 to 25 households in the $5 million to $50 million range. He plans to top out at 125 to 150 client families.
Clients today, according to Reich, have two main concerns: Am I going to be OK and do I have any financial blind spots? And that’s what drives this client-advisor relationship. “What I tell clients is we believe the role of the richest person in the world has been taken so our job is to make sure you are the happiest, most fulfilled person you can be and that your life is everything you ever dreamed it could be,” he says. “Our job is to figure out how to do that for you.”
Reich has a saying he uses a lot: Significance trumps consumption.
“What I mean by that is our clients are really out to create lives of significance, take care of their families and have a legacy to leave behind. The old notion that wealthy clients are out to buy expensive cars, yachts and jewelry is nonsense,” he adds. “That’s not what I see with my clients.”
A few years ago, Reich went on a binge—collecting wine, watches and cars. “Like a lot in this industry, it was all about production and income. You get lost in all that,” he says. “One night I sat down with my wife and said ‘Here’s the budget for next year. I want to do this, and when this happens, I want to do that.’ She stopped me and said: ‘Rob, it’s never going to be enough. What you are chasing, it will never be enough.’”
Consumption had trumped significance.
Five years ago, as his father-in-law lay dying, he did a reset.
“I told everyone in the office: ‘Don’t think I don’t have goals. I want to hit goals. But the mission now is to have a good, better, best mentality about this practice,’” says Reich. “Today I would tell you what drives me is I want to be able to get to the place where I can go home most nights and say ‘I did this job as well as I know how to do it’ much more often than not. That’s my driver.”
For Greg Sarian, it’s always been about the client relationship. “It’s far more interesting than the numbers side of things and it remains as such,” he says. “What brought me into this business is a love for people and to truly be a servant.”
Sarian, 45, heads a team that works with 135 households—many of them high level executives in the life sciences industry in greater Philadelphia. His leadership style is informed by what he calls a “servant mentality” that pushes him not just to do but to give.
“How can we elevate the client experience? That’s what drives us. We want to become a part of the client’s life that goes beyond the business relationship,” says Sarian, whose group manages $600 million in assets. “We want to serve.”
At his core, Sarian is both a servant and a leader.
As Russ Cadle, president of the non-profit Friendship Ministries Foundation, observes: “He is so authentic and so committed to excellence. He is constantly thinking about how he can improve his business, help his colleagues, serve his clients. He’s very faithful about supporting people. There are givers and takers in life. He’s just a giver.”
Sarian was hired right out of college into Merrill Lynch’s training program in 1992. “I worked nights, weekends, I was so afraid of failing. Merrill gave me a great start and opportunity,” says Sarian, who left his longtime corporate home for HighTower in 2013. “Early on, I got a sense from advisors 10 and 15 years ahead of me that this is a helping industry and if you work hard and you work smart you can really build a career.”
Sarian, a certified financial planner, experienced early success by conducting tax and estate planning seminars with accountants and attorneys. “I was never a stockbroker,” he says. “I’ve always had a financial planning mindset.” He also developed a niche serving corporate executives in the emerging biotechnology, medical device and pharmaceugtical fields with his core competency in pre- and post-exit planning. Today, that niche represents half of his client base.
It’s an interesting cast of characters. One client pioneered a hand-held medical device that detects concussions early. Another is working on a device that will treat everything from arthritis to post-surgery pain. Still another developed a compound that gets rid of head lice more efficiently.
“These are some of the most educated, intelligent, intellectual professionals I’ve ever met. They think and analyze at a different level. They pour their hearts and souls into their companies. They are entrepreneurs at the core, and they eat, sleep and breathe their businesses,” says Sarian, who leads all financial planning efforts with an emphasis on executive compensation, risk management, tax minimization and wealth transfer planning.
“They lack the time and inclination to look at the entirety of their financial world and put a game plan together. They see the same integrity, passion and focus in what I do as what they do. They want somebody as talented and skillful and hardworking as they are watching their money. While they’re running their businesses, we’re watching their money,” adds Sarian, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Boston College. “We’re their personal CFO.”
That’s the doing. Here’s the giving. Every quarter, Sarian headlines an executive briefing on topics to help clients grow their businesses. He also distributes research reports that are relevant to their work—what big pharma is doing in diabetes research, as an example. And Sarian, active in the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Association, routinely holds conference calls and webinars to keep life sciences clients informed about what is occurring in their marketplace.
The Sarian Group also hosts an annual “shred day,” when clients can bring paper to a shredder in the firm’s parking lot and then have lunch. Just recently, Sarian introduced a program to connect with his clients’ children—talking to them about saving, investing, budgets and credit cards. His concierge service currently offers a menu that includes an identity theft protection program and a nutritionist who makes home visits to help clients map out healthy food choices. In the works: SAT counseling for clients’ kids.
“Our demographic is slightly younger. There are a lot of 40- and 50-somethings busy running companies,” says Sarian, who has been included for the past four years in Barron’s list of the top 1,000 advisors. “So we are constantly asking: What does that demographic need and want? And we’re more concerned with quality than quantity. We’ve never been interested in volume. We want to be many things to a few people. Yes, we are a for-profit business but our goal has always been to develop a very deep relationship that becomes a meaningful part of the client’s life. It all goes back to the relationship. That attitude has brought us whatever success we have achieved.”
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