Taking Flight

For fun, registered rep David Elias likes performing flying stunts—with his model airplanes.

David Elias has always been fascinated with engines. After college, he worked on jet engines at Pratt & Whitney. Next came a motorcycle dealership, followed by a tractor dealership. Then E.F. Hutton came calling. And Elias listened.

“I was looking for a career with unlimited upside potential,” Elias says. “I talked to professionals whom I respected — my banker, my attorney, my accountant and decided to become a broker.”

So in 1982 he traded in his greasy work clothes and his wheels for a suit and a desk at Hutton. But he still had a need for speed, a need only airplanes could satisfy — model planes, that is. From his vantage point on the ground, Elias makes his radio controlled models soar. Not just for fun; but for the thrill of victory — and, only occasionally, the agony of defeat.

“I love the challenge,” says Elias, who has won three Grand National Championships in four years. “I love to compete.”

At play and at work. A broker at Prudential Securities in North Palm Beach, Fla., for the past seven years, Elias manages $50 million, mostly for retirees. He wins business by conducting educational seminars with customers and prospects three times a month. The theme: how to manage risk. “Once I generate enough pain where they realize it's impossible to get where they ultimately want to be without us, we start scheduling appointments,” he says.

Not surprisingly, considering his aging clientele, Elias is relatively conservative. “I tend to use large-cap growth and value managers in tandem and then bring in the mix of bonds — taxable or tax-free based on need,” he says. “I stay away from the small and mid cap arena because of the inherent volatility.”

Even though his practice is in the luxe Palm Beach area, Elias doesn't turn away clients with less than $250,000 to invest, as so many advisors are doing as they home in on affluent investors. “I have many smaller accounts that I've been able to build into nice size accounts over the years,” he says.

Elias wouldn't identify his favorite funds and managers, but says he has a huge selection of options to pick from as part of Pru's Macs managed account program is called.

Elias says he holds onto his clients by regularly calling or meeting with them to discuss their accounts. “Our level of service keeps us from losing people,” he says. “We increase our contact in tough times.”

Except in July. That's when Elias heads off for the model airplane Grand National Championships in Muncie, Ind. He writes all his clients a letter reminding them he'll be away from the office pursuing his avocation. He's even convinced some of his clients to join him on the circuit, and gotten some of his fellow model airplane enthusiasts to join him as clients.

His passion has turned into a marketing tool, helping him forge closer ties with his clients. Even those clients who he can't convert to the joys of model planes, follow his endeavors. “They're great about it,” he says. “A lot of them will call wishing me good luck before I go. Then, when I get back, a lot of them call to find out how I did.”

He usually does well. Take those three recent wins, for example. Not to mention that he met his wife, Maria, when he was managing the U.S. team at the Model Airplane World Championships in Poland in 1980. Maria, a Swedish native, was an interpreter at the event. One of their two sons is following in his dad's jet stream.

“A lot of guys play golf, but to me that's not really an activity you can enjoy with all the members of your family,” he says. “More importantly, when my children were young, airplane flying allowed them to build things and use their minds. To me, it's a lot better than golf or hockey.”

Elias, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia, first encountered a model airplane 50 years ago. On his way to school, he heard an unusually loud screeching noise coming from the playground. “What was that?” he recalls thinking at the time. Then he saw a teenager about to launch a model airplane. “Hey, can you hold this launcher for me,” the teenager yelled to Elias. “Sure,” Elias responded.

And with that, he launched his life-long hobby. Elias won the overall Grand Championship in the radio controlled electric category in 1998, 2000 and last July. So what happened in '99? “My transmitter went south on me,” Elias says. “You have to be good and your equipment has to be good, too.”

Fellow competitor Jon McVay attributes Elias's wins to his patient and practical nature. “When David is flying, he's a totally different person,” says McVay. “He's very methodical and focused.”

Indeed, notes Elias: “Before the championships, I practice eight straight hours at least two days a week. I make dozens and dozens of practice flights.”

Competitors are judged by three criteria: the launch, the duration of the flight and the landing.

The launch should be smooth, like a figure skater gliding adeptly along the ice. Once the model plane is in flight, the motor must be turned off, allowing the plane to glide. The duration of the flight should be eight minutes. For every second beyond eight minutes, a competitor is penalized. Finally, a competitor must land the plane in a 40-foot circle. The better the landing, the more points a competitor receives. The top score is 2,500 points. Elias's best score is 2,498. And he's achieved that score twice.

At work, too, he relies on patience and practice to score with his clients. He hasn't changed his investment philosophy in 20 years. “I've always been one to diversify, and I hire professional managers with excellent long-term track records, and hold them over [a long] time,” says Elias, who relies heavily on his sales assistant, Milissa Panno, a 26-year industry veteran with a Series 7 and Series 65 license. “I diversify portfolio styles because it has less inherent volatility,” Elias says. “Over time, I found that that works best.”

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