What’s your financial advisor paying attention to?

I often hear financial professionals talk about the wealth they manage. They usually talk about how the market has impacted financial capital. Or about what the next exciting stock is going to do in the next quarter. I rarely hear them talk about their clients.

A lot of financial professionals focus on the net worth of their clients. They may not pay enough attention to what their clients are actually going through in their lives. Do they want to purchase a second home? Are they worried about their children taking over the business? Dreaming of a long-overdue vacation? Just received an unexpected medical diagnosis? These things are the important determinants of their financial situation – not the stock market.

Conversations with my clients about what’s happening in their lives go a long way towards creating a direction for their investments. Time spent in these discussions is a far cry from market forecasting, but it is never wasted.

What you give your attention to makes all the difference.

Does Asset Allocation Make Sense for You?

At Note, we frequently encounter business owners who tell us they get approached by “wealth” managers preaching asset allocation. These managers possess little information about them, their businesses, their objectives, or the headwinds they’re facing. These managers then readily preach about the importance of diversification and the investments that owners need to make.

The thing is, most business owners aren’t thinking about asset allocation at all. Rather, they’re focused on asset concentration.  

Why?

Because their life savings and sweat equity are tied up in their business. This is punctuated by the debt they’ve taken on in order to feed the engine of their business – their most concentrated investment.  

While asset allocation may be wise advice from an “Investment 101” standpoint, it is not an effective conversation with most small business owners. Many I’ve spoken to over the years are quick to say, “I have nothing to invest.”

However, if I have their ear, I’m able to persuade them they have everything to invest. 

They have themselves, their tomorrows, and the investments they’ve already made. With good fortune and perseverance, those assets will give them the kind of financial capital that wealth managers very much want under their management. However, it can take a decade or two before that happens. Only then does asset allocation advice become relevant.

An effective financial advisor must be able to see you – the business owner working to build equity. They must recognize the importance of promoting asset concentration, not preaching diversification. They should fully understand your business, your objectives, and the headwinds you are facing. Only then can they be dedicated to working with you to mitigate the risks associated with business ownership. Only then can you more easily move from concentration through liquidity, and onto successful allocation.

Who’s Got Your Back?

Have you ever explored the full meaning when someone says, “I’ve got your back?” 

Is it that they’re committed to watching out for you and taking care of things that you are likely to miss?

Are they dedicated to being that second set of eyes and hands for you when necessary?

Is it someone willing to help when you need assistance, even before you know you need it?

How about somebody who will literally enter into a physical battle on your behalf?

Have you ever taken the time to consider who’s got your back in your business? 

Perhaps it’s an advisor who has a single-minded area, whether it be law, accounting, or lending. 

Maybe it’s that individual who’s able to rise 30,000 feet for a broad view of your world and then tell you how your business fits in your life, particularly during stressful times. 

Maybe it’s the person who can keep the bigger picture in mind when aiding you in your day-to-day business battles. Or someone who can pull you aside – despite your protests that you ‘don’t have time’ – and offer strategic perspectives and advice you can trust.

These “have your back” individuals will ask questions that stop you in your tracks, that allow you to take a deep breath while the stress of the moment leaves your body. They do this without fear that their questions might be simple, naïve, or lacking a complete understanding of your business. 

They don’t worry if they’re the biggest thought leader or genius in the room. They’re focused on helping you slow down, making certain that you’re not ignoring the larger implications of whatever task is at hand.

They maintain the big picture, yet they are at the street level, working right alongside you. They open their network and introduce you to the accountant, the attorney, the banker, even the medical professional, and ask them for exceptions on your behalf, all because they truly believe you are exceptional. 

These are the people who see you for who you are, believe in what you are trying to accomplish, and give all they’ve got to help you get there. In effect, fully defining what it means to say, “I’ve got your back.” 

We all need someone like this, don’t we? I know who it is for myself and the impact they continue to make in my world. Who has your back, in your business, and in your life?

AUM vs. LUM

“What’s your AUM, Tom?”

During financial industry conferences and meetings, this seemingly innocent question surfaces almost without fail.

AUM = “assets under management.”

To me, that question is a veiled and vulgar way of trying to find out the total assets being managed by our firm. When using the term “assets,” the person inquiring doesn’t mean the humans and their lives that we’re helping to navigate. Rather, it’s all about the dollars and cents under our direction. The question they’re really asking is, “How much of other people’s money do you control?” To many in our industry, this is the badge of honor that they believe measures success.

I believe that “assets under management” is a crappy way to categorize clients.

I also believe that if all you have is financial capital, then you don’t really have all that much.

While it’s an important data point for valuing a business, it unfortunately doesn’t indicate the true value of a financial professional or their client base. At Note, we have a different standard of that value for both.

We like to think in terms of “lives under management.” 

When considering the “assets” we manage, our focus turns to people we advise. The human beings we help to successfully navigate their personal and financial challenges. Challenges such as:

  • Investing their limited resources of time and money in starting a business. 
  • Taking on the financial capital risks of borrowing money to begin and/or grow a business. 
  • Sweating-out the personal guarantees needed to secure loans in early-stage businesses, or businesses under stress.
  • Lost sleep and compromised health due to the pressures of financial and business risks. 
  • Business distractions that prevent clients from being “present” with their family, spouse or significant other, and the resultant dissatisfaction over a loved one being mentally somewhere else.

Often when we begin advising clients, they find themselves in uncharted waters as we help them navigate their “lives under management.” Yet because of our years of experience, we know the management plan we are creating for them will deliver results. We’ve seen it. We can smell it. We know it, often before those we are working with actually experience it.

We also know that helping people transition their sweat and tears into something of value, and extracting that value over time in the form of financial capital, can give them valued independence. People can live in ways that allow them increased control over their time. They can enjoy extended vacations. They create the ability to transition their business to family or employees, or sell their businesses and move on to their next venture with a smile on their face.

Most importantly, they become fully aware that they are not simply “assets under management.” They are human beings who we value and whose lives we are helping to build and enjoy.

Are You Really “All Set”?

    “We’re all set”

     This simple three-word phrase is one I’ve heard throughout my career, in instances that often stick in my mind. One of those relates to a couple I worked with for more than 20 years. Early on, I provided the husband with financial advice about an insurance policy, which he then purchased. Sadly, he subsequently contracted an illness that caused him to become disabled for the remainder of his life.  

     As I do with all clients, I attempted to get back together with the couple for an annual review of that policy, and the details of how it worked. More often than not the appointments were scheduled and cancelled as “unnecessary,” with the wife always concluding, “We’re all set.” 

   This year the gentleman passed away. His widow contacted me to ask if I could provide her information on his life insurance beneficiaries. When I shared the information, she was shocked. She indicated that she and her husband had modified their wills to ensure select individuals they had originally noted as beneficiaries on the policy would not receive any proceeds.  

     I advised her that since such a policy is a separate contract with the insurance company, changing their wills did not change the beneficiary designations. I explained that unless an insurance contract is modified, the policy is paid out according to the original terms.

     At that point, the widow became upset, saying her husband would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the amount of money that would be going to certain beneficiaries. She said she understood that she and her husband had cancelled a number of appointments with me and clearly they were not as “set” as they both thought. 

     I advised her that I was sorry but, as difficult as it was to watch it unfold, the proceeds were being paid out exactly as they had been written. In the end, it was an expensive and painful lesson for this woman about the consequences of not being “all set.”  

     Medical professionals require an active relationship with their patients in order to establish and maintain a baseline of their health. Without that baseline there is no reference for how much a patient has changed, how their current health varies from “normal”, or how to ensure their ongoing wellness. 

     The same is true for financial professionals.    

     Without a baseline understanding of a client’s personal and financial situation and a game plan for the future, advising is often nothing more than business transactions that sometimes include opportunistic purposes to sell products to a client without clear objectives. 

     Today, professionals in every field are recognizing the risks of advising “we’re all set” clients; those who don’t proactively participate in the planning process. They are also facing increased liability costs of attempting to advise reactive individuals in today’s litigious society. Many are notifying such clients of non-compliance and pruning them from their client/patient lists. Not a great place to find yourself when you need professional help and realize you are not “all set,” not insurable, not prepared for retirement, not liquid and not protected by any kind of safety net or parachute. 

     The next time you’re inclined to dismiss a professional who is trying to serve you and maintain an active relationship, think twice. Agree to meet with them and keep that appointment. Maintain your baseline. Let your professional lead you through their established processes and provide you with proven solutions. Make sure that ultimately, when you say those three little words, you really are, “all set.”

Great Advisors Ask Great Questions

In the decades I’ve spent advising individuals on their businesses and their wealth, I’ve observed that people are often concerned about having the “right answers.” It makes sense. We all want to be correct, feel affirmed, and know we’re on the path of success. However, I’ve learned that to arrive at the “right answers,” you need to ask the right questions. At Note, we believe great advisors ask great questions. The kinds of questions others might not.

Questions you never get to fully contemplate in the day-to-day demands of running your business. 

Questions which, by the time you recognize they should have been asked and addressed, rob you of valued financial capital and time. 

“What made you decide to start this line of work?”  

“Are you still doing it for the same reasons?” 

“What has to happen over the next three years for you to feel professionally fulfilled and successful?” 

“When was the last time you took off a couple of weeks, or even a month, from your work?”

 “If you don’t have the support in place to take a month off or more, what do you think would happen to your business if you become unable to work for an extended period of time due to illness, injury, or premature death?”

These kinds of essential business questions don’t stop there. For many business owners, there are succession concerns that can implicate partners, family, and employees.

“How do you plan on getting out of this business alive?” 

“Are your children working for you? If so, do they expect to own the business someday?”

“Can you identify key employees in your company?” 

“Do they know they are your key employees?”

Some business owners have shareholder involvements. 

“Have you reviewed your shareholder agreement to make sure those integral to your business aren’t robbed of ownership positions, like your children?”

“How might this impact partners and co-shareholders you might have?”

“Does your shareholders agreement address liquidity needs that may occur during their lives—college education funding, unanticipated expensive medical care, helping a child with a home down payment or a grandchild with their education?”

“Can these needs create the unintended consequences of diminished business focus, or loss of a key shareholder?”

There’s also the challenge of managing relationships with varied business advisors.

“Do you have a collaborative team of advisors—an accountant, a tax expert, a lawyer, an operations pro?
“How do you coordinate communication among them all? 

“Do you have one core advisor facilitating such communication? Or do you find yourself spending your business time interpreting the work of each one of your advisors for everyone else?”

“How’s that working for you?”

If any of these questions hit a nerve, I want you to know that I see you and the challenges you’re facing. That’s why I’m passionate about asking great questions that grab your attention and give you pause. Questions that inspire the right answers for your family, your business, your wealth, and your legacy.

If you’d like to start a conversation filled with great questions, I can be reached at Tom@NoteAdvisor.com.