In geographical terms, Herb White’s years in the financial services industry have taken him almost nowhere. In fact, his entire career has taken place within a three-block radius. Nevertheless, the journey has been long, fulfilling and successful.
White got started just down the road from the current location of his Denver-based practice, Life Certain Wealth Strategies. He began working at a local investment broker in 1997, but quickly became disillusioned. “It seemed that the focus was purely on transactions,” he remembers. He says the majority of sales were conducted over the phone, rather than “the face-to-face interaction I had envisioned. I wanted to be involved in the planning, to meet with clients in person and understand their goals and objectives in order to bring value and try to help.”
Over the next few years, White began working toward his CFP, CLU and other designations, with an end goal of “understanding more about the tools at my disposal so I could better help people solve their problems.” In 2002, White decided he was ready to strike out on his own, so he opened his own planning firm. “And I still look forward to coming in every day,” he says.
At first, White grew his business by conducting onsite educational workshops for nearby employers like the Red Cross or local utilities companies. Initially, the presentations were relatively simple, he says. “We would go in and explain the benefits they already had. We became well-versed in their specific plans so we could help explain them in detail and answer employees’ questions.” He describes how an employee who thinks he makes $50,000 a year based on salary alone is likely failing to consider the employer-provided health plan, 401(k) matching and other benefits that raise the actual dollar amount far higher. “So that would be our value proposition to the employer; that’s why they had us come in,” White says.
Once White felt he was “in” with a particular employer, his goal was to come back on a regular basis to present additional information that would be of value. One way to do this was by asking two simple questions. The first: “Show of hands. Who has a will?” Often, no one in the room would raise a hand. White recalls his follow up question with a chuckle: “Who thinks they might die one day?”
White networked with local attorneys who would join him at these events to help answer additional questions that arose. But after several of these attorneys brought their own advisors to subsequent meeting with clients rather than working with White, he thought, “There’s got to be a better way.” Over time, he formed partnerships with local attorneys and brought them in-house, eliminating the risk of being left out.
This was one of many lessons learned in the early days of White’s career. “New things would often come along that I was not familiar with,” he recalls. “If a new situation was presented, I’d go and read as much as I could, bone up on that, and reach out to other people who knew more about it. I called it ‘last-minute learning.’ But as time goes by, you develop a bigger repertoire and skill set and that makes it easier.”
A team approach
Today, Life Certain Wealth Strategies’ seventh-floor office is home to five advisors, three attorneys and a full administrative team. In addition, members of the practice meet regularly with a local CPA/tax specialist, a P&C specialist and other professional affiliates.
Having access to such a broad knowledge base allows the firm to take a comprehensive view of each client’s situation, White says. “The way I view it, we must first have a complete understanding. Once I understand the broader picture, then I’m going to work backward to address each piece of it.” His initial discussions with clients cover topics ranging from budgets and tax mitigation to health care and potential caretaking responsibilities that could arise down the road.
In addition, White’s background in investments, combined with a Series 4 license (Registered Options Principal), have helped him carve out a niche with local companies that offer employee stock options, an area he says “few people in our industry are really knowledgeable about.”
The clock is ticking
White began to notice that the “people who are most likely to show up at workshops are those approaching retirement. In fact, a lot of [those I worked with at onsite workshops] early in my career are still clients. They’re now in retirement and we continue to work with them. And that’s the age group we still focus on today, for the most part.”
White believes his firm can provide the greatest value for those who are five years or less from retirement. “Usually if they’re within five years or so, their mindset is different. Now they’re thinking about it. They stay awake at night worrying about these kinds of things, so this is a good time for us to reach out and help them.”
He notes that when he’s spoken with prospects to whom retirement still seems distant, they often don’t take the idea seriously enough. “Maybe there’s some kind of biological clock,” he says with a laugh. He recalls a time when he was younger and a coworker asked what kept him up at night. “I thought to myself, nothing! But I think maybe as we see colleagues and people we went to school with begin to pass away, we become more aware of our own mortality.”
When it becomes real
In the time since that conversation, White has experienced firsthand just how quickly life can change. Eleven years ago, his son passed away suddenly in his early 30s. White’s granddaughter, who was then two years old, came to live with White and his wife, and they have raised her alongside their own daughter ever since.
“I’m raising my granddaughter and there are a lot of people I work with who are doing things like that,” he says. “Something that they never thought would happen. I have several clients who are trying to figure out their own retirement at the same time they’re supporting kids and/or grandkids and/or other family members, and I’ve had experience with all three of those scenarios. Those things resonate.”
He recalls one client whose identity was stolen by a family member. Another who watched as a neighbor’s wife was moved to a skilled care facility. Without insurance to cover the costs, the couple’s assets were quickly drained and the surviving spouse now struggles to make ends meet. “When people see these things happen,” White says, “it becomes real to them.”
“The longer I’m in this industry and I experience things like that, I can share them with people. I’ll ask them, ‘If you were to retire now, are there family members or anyone else who might possibly rely on you for support?’ That starts to provoke thought.”
And White himself is not immune to such thoughts. “I’ve had times where I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Wow, how would I handle it? What would happen if I required skilled nursing care?’ We have LTCI and we’ve planned ahead financially, but what would happen with other parts of my life? If I’m in a skilled facility, who is playing the role of father for these girls I’m raising right now? I think about those kinds of things. It comes up.”
The more you know…
White hosts a weekly educational radio series, writes numerous articles for local newspapers and websites and appears regularly on local televisions stations, all in an effort to spread the word about retirement preparedness and financial literacy. He describes the current influx of boomers entering retirement as “uncharted territory,” noting that “the onus for preparing for retirement has shifted from the employer to the employee,” placing much more responsibility on individuals to make the right choices.
“I think people can do themselves a valuable service by trying to learn as much as they can,” he says. “People should go out and find more information. I think that’s good. I want there to be a conversation that’s intellectual in nature. If you come in and you’ve done a good job of learning things on your own and you have some questions, we can work together. It’s your retirement; I’m here to help you get there.”
In an industry where success is sometimes measured in transaction totals and dollar amounts, White says, “I want people to see I’m not here to sell you the product of the day or any of that. I’m here to provide real value if I can. I want to educate you; I want you to feel comfortable when you come in. I want you to know that if we have a meeting, we’re going to talk about issues that are real to you and see if we can uncover value and help you.”
If you do end up becoming one of White’s clients, don’t be surprised if he pulls out his phone before a meeting to show off a video of his granddaughter’s uneven bar routine.
Spoiler alert: She nails the landing.