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The Balance of Power

Financial planning is a process, says one successful Maryland advsior.

By Chuck Jones, Senior Editor, Advisor Today

Larry Briskin, CFP, is a financial planner who will hold your hand and calmly explain how a stock market downturn does not mean financial ruin, but he’d rather not. Instead, he wants you to know you’re investing for the long term and the name of the game is balance.

Twice a week on his lunch hour, you’ll find Briskin in the penthouse of his office building in Chevy Chase, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., stretching and lifting in the gym with his personal trainer, striving to balance business as usual with his inner and outer well-being.

“This is relaxing and centering,” he says after a series of strenuous reps to stretch his hamstrings. “When I walk out of here, I’m refreshed and ready for the afternoon.” Today in the gym, Jon, his personal trainer, is nearly sitting on top of Briskin, helping the 53-year-old certified financial planner extend the muscles in his legs and crunch his stomach. “My body’s not as loose and supple as it was when I was younger. Jon helps keep me loose and stretched.” After a series of exercises in which lean and muscular Jon, sitting atop an inflated red workout ball, coached the sweating financial consultant, the pair moved to the weight training area for 20 minutes on the machines.

While Briskin is working hard to balance his physical well-being with his professional activities, the gym is doing its part. In a sitting area between the racquetball courts and a workout room is a large-screen TV tuned to the “Power Lunch” program on CNBC, a financial news show that features stock quotes that scroll across the bottom of the screen. A few paces away is a small table with a telephone for patron use. Popping in front of the TV, Briskin scans the information and comments, “Stocks are doing well so far today,” then calls his office for messages and to give an instruction regarding a client to his general manager. “I’ll be down about one,” he adds. While he’s on the phone, two other exercisers stop by the TV for a quick scan of the Nasdaq.

Briskin’s fast-paced workday starts at 7:30, but his day actually begins at 5 a.m. when he rises to perform an hour of transcendental meditation—another balancing tool. “I meditate for an hour in the morning and an hour after work,” he explains. “It improves my well-being, it centers me, it reduces stress.”

Stress is a factor in Briskin’s working life, which often has him in the office, talking to clients and creating and implementing complex financial plans 60 hours a week. “I work with high-end attorneys in the Washington area, people with two, three, four, five million dollars in retirement plans.”

“Even though I’ve trained these clients to recognize they are investing for the long-term, I still get concerned calls whenever there’s a blip in the market or a particular investment has a problem,” he says. “I’ve got probably a half-dozen clients who could be considered high-maintenance. They’ve got a lot of things going on and they feel the need for frequent contact.” Some of these call him perhaps once a week, whereas most of his other clients, the ones that do not tend toward panic, will wait to hear from him quarterly, annually or twice a year.

Briskin has profited from his planning, his strategizing and his hand-holding. He says he makes a “significant six-figure income” as head of Sagemark Consulting, which is affiliated with Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp. His practice grossed $455,000 in fees and commissions in 1999. This year, Briskin says he expects to gross half a million dollars. About one third of the revenue comes from planning fees, a third from insurance product commissions and a third from investment fees and commissions.

Briskin works exclusively by referral and his services do not come cheap. The minimum first-year planning fee is $8,500, and it goes up from there. “The fees are based on the complexity of the situation,” he says. And it depends on how much money the client’s worth. The highest initial fee, he says, was $27,000. Annual renewal or retainer fees are a flat 60 percent of the initial fee. He says his is the largest by revenue of the 65 financial planners who are affiliated with Lincoln Financial in the Washington region.

With more than 300 clients on the books, Briskin says he’s working with about a hundred of them at any given time. “About 50 of those are what I call my A and B clients,” he says. “These are pretty sophisticated guys. I have about seven client meetings a week. I create about 15 new financial plans each year and do substantial work with 15 to 20 renewal plans.” The rest are reviews and spot recommendations.

A calm but intense man, Briskin works in a world that does not always achieve balance as a whole, but rather in the sum of its parts. Take, for instance, his office. When you walk through the heavy double wooden doors, you’re greeted by a professional receptionist in business attire. On one wall of the reception area hangs a sizable and stylish mirror. The other walls hold a few framed prints of modern art. On a table is a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a vase with white flowers, on another, smaller table, a few issues of Smithsonian and Washingtonian magazines and an elegant table lamp.

Travel down the hall and turn a corner and you’ll find a different atmosphere. You’ll find Larry Briskin’s office.

To say the man’s office is busy-looking is to understate. The small, boxy room is scattered with piles of paperwork from as many as 100 clients. To the left of the door is a stack of shelves for client binders filled with investment information “for easy access,” Briskin says. “I know we have all this information in computer files, but sometimes it’s just easier for me to lean over and grab a file, especially when I’m on the phone.”

Briskin’s desk is messy, his work table wobbles and the two visitor chairs barely fit. On the floor are canvas bags from one meeting or another stuffed with binders, brochures and paper, paper, paper. His office walls show the man’s attempt at dressing up—one wall is filled with professional awards and honors, another sports the framed picture of a bald eagle. On a credenza is a photo of him and his wife, Roberta.

The phone rings during an office visit and the call is dispatched to one of Briskin’s handful of staff—a general manager, a para-planner, an investment manager, an administrative assistant, or one of two summer interns. The phone rings again and is quickly handled by staff. There’s a knock at the door with a message. Soon another knock, another message. And this is June, not exactly the busiest season.

“We do 50 percent of our business in the last four months of the year,” Briskin says. “That’s when you have end-of-year deadlines for estate planning strategies and gifting.” And he picks up one or two new clients a month and juggles six or seven financial plans in active planning and implementation stages at one time.

“That’s the way it is when you’re working with high-level clients,” says Silvia Stazio, a senior case designer and Briskin’s general manager. “This is a high-energy office. We’re always on the go, especially when Larry’s here. There’s always stuff to do.”

“Everything we do is complex,” she says. “None of these cases is simple. And we don’t have any busywork. There’s a lot of stuff going on. That’s the way it is when you’ve got clients who want to be serviced. There’s no room for error, and they like to have their hands held.”

“Financial planning is a long process,” Briskin explains. “With a new client, it starts with the initial phone call that takes up to 30 minutes, where I gather as much information as I possibly can. This allows me to be prepared for our first meeting, which lasts an hour to an hour and a half. It’s at this meeting that I feel the client out, get the lay of the land, see if he’s made of the right material for me to work with.”

The “right material” generally means a predilection for long-term investing and a willingness to let Briskin take the helm. If both parties agree to work together, Briskin quotes the fee. This begins the 10 weeks it takes to create an individual financial plan, which is followed by a typical three to four months for implementation.

Not all clients can keep their cool and, yes, he’s had to fire the occasional customer. “There are some people who want to be active in the market,” he says, “but that’s not where I’m coming from. I try to impress the long-term outlook on these people at the outset, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. I either just let them go at renewal time and not renew them, or sometimes I have to fire them. That’s happened to about seven clients so far.”

Although losing the business hurts—after all, these are people who are worth on average $5 million—the client’s idea of planning and Briskin’s have to match to be effective. Most of the time, it is.

“When you’re talking about financial planning, you’re talking about people who come from a lot of different perspectives,” he says. “My job is to figure out what’s going to work in a situation and resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s funny to watch, sometimes, how my role changes. I start out as financial counselor in many of these cases, but I’ll often become a sort of family counselor between husband and wife and children.”

“This is the nature of close relationships,” he adds. “The roles change. In fact, I now count a couple of dozen of my clients as my personal friends.”

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