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The Big Switch: From Country Musician to Financial Advisor

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Chances are most country music performers don’t routinely gobble up The Wall Street Journal while traveling on tour buses from gig to gig. But that was the norm for Troy Von Haefen as guitar player for the singer Lee Ann Womack and a host of other country music entertainers. It was, in fact, an obvious clue to an upcoming major life change.

Fifteen years ago, Von Haefen left his decade-long show biz career to become a financial advisor in Nashville, Tennessee. “I always had a money mentality,” says the certified financial planner in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

Von Haefen, 50, already had notched informal FA experience: He helped fellow road musicians sort out their finances and investments. That was even before he started coursework to be a CFP, studying assiduously backstage for the accreditation.

By 2004, he had departed the music industry and launched Von Haefen Financial Management, a fee-only holistic, tax-centric solo practice focused on helping people spend less and save more.

Entrepreneurs comprise most of his book; a quarter of the clients are in the music industry. Von Haefen also serves Vanderbilt University employees, and military widows and widowers.

He grew up poor in tiny Victoria, Texas, but by high school had his own band working proms and local taverns. Making music and money in college, he enjoyed success regionally, then hightailed it for the big time in Nashville. There, he moved up to accompanying marquee names and eventually worked as a guitarist in Womack’s employ.

(Related:  Tennis Pro Turned Advisor Manages Nearly $1 Billion With No Employees)

That was yesterday. Today Von Haefen is a member of the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, serves 71 financial planning clients on annual retainer basis, and obtains all new accounts through referrals.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the RIA and ex-country guitarist, speaking by phone from Nashville.

Here are highlights of the interview:

THINKADVISOR: From childhood, you were into making music. How did you become interested in finance?

TROY VON HAEFEN: I always had a financial mentality: I was the manager of the band I had in college — the money guy who booked the shows, budgeted the money, made sure we got paid.

How did you get to talking about financial planning with the musicians you worked with once you were a professional guitar player?

For the last five years of my music career, I’d read The Wall Street Journal in the tour bus as we traveled down the road. Other musicians would sit down next to me and ask questions like, “How much can I put in my IRA this year, and where should I invest it?” So it was very logical for me to make the transition to being a financial advisor.

But why did you want to leave show business?

I had accomplished 95% of what I dreamed of as a kid. The music business is a very difficult industry to grow old in. And being on the road all the time was hard on my family.

Are any of those musicians from the old days your clients?

A handful. While I was designing my exit from the music industry, they were right there asking me questions. So when I opened my doors, they said, “I’m in.”

Has being a musician helped you as an advisor?

It really helps with my musician clients because I speak their lingo and understand the industry’s inside baseball. Even my highly paid, very successful music clients can get a $4,000 royalty check one quarter and a $150 check the next. I understand all that.

Anything else that helps you as an FA?

Being creative — a musician — makes it easy for me to be touchy-feely and dig in. That’s helpful in finding out what clients’ real goals and values are. Organically, I get to know what drives them without having to go through a checklist of questions.

Did you ever prospect Lee Ann Womack or other big stars?

No. I want clients that fit in my wheelhouse. I can impact more change in the lives of someone who makes $300,000 a year than someone with a $10 million portfolio and an incredibly busy, crazy life. As a holistic planner, my clients have to help me help them. People who are that busy can’t do that.

On what is your investing approach based?

I try to capture the market along the lines of the [three-factor model of professors] Eugene Fama and Ken French. I keep it relatively simple and help clients become as efficient as possible with their finances.

Why did you open your own practice right away rather than train at, say, a wirehouse?

I was worried about what the perception would be of a guitar player managing people’s financial future. There are a lot of stereotypes out there — but I didn’t fit any of them. So I set the bar really high for ethics. I wanted everything to be transparent. I wanted to be a fiduciary and fee-only.

What prompted you to join ACP?

About six months after I opened my business, an advisor friend suggested I check them out because they’re a community of advisors who are right in line with my values and goals. The support has been huge. I’m always learning something new.

Except for a few clients for whom you do only financial reviews yearly for a flat fee, you’re compensated by annual retainer. What’s the advantage?

With a retainer [structure], my clients can call me or email me whenever they have a question no matter how “silly” they think it is. And it’s much easier time-wise to fix something — to know something on the front end and develop a strategy around it versus fixing it on the back end, which requires more work.

How do you measure your success in dollar terms?

I don’t have a ton of assets under care, but I’m compensated well above the industry standard.

You were in business only four years when the financial crisis hit. How did you deal with clients’ agita?

I stuck to my guns that we weren’t going to sell. In December 2008 — the pit of pain — I had a client event with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. In a presentation, I showed everyone how [the country] had recovered from all the most recent recessions and stock market downturns. I wanted people to focus on the recovery — that, and how a buy-and-hold strategy [would be best].

How do you handle client anxiety in today’s volatile market?

We let our allocation be our guidepost. If, say, equities have done well, we harvest some of those “crops” and put them in the “pantry” — the bond side so that their retirement income is shored up.

Your plan was to set up your office in your home. How has that worked out?

It’s wonderful. I have a private, secluded entrance, but I also want my clients to see me as a family man — more than just their financial advisor. Sometimes after school, they’ll see my wife and son pulling into the driveway. I feel that all 71 of my clients are family.

What’s been the biggest challenge as a solo practitioner?

I’m chief cook and compliance officer!

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