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On the Road Again

Advisors reach crowds through corporate seminars. It beats cold calling.

His U.S. tour was a critical and financial success. He played to packed rooms in cities across the country — St. Louis, Chicago, New York and Dallas, to name a few. And his fans are very loyal.

He's no rock star. He's a financial planner.

A growing number of advisors have taken to the road to spread the gospel of financial planning at corporate seminars, and win clients in the process. In the past few years — before unemployment shot up — companies were scrambling for workers, paying big money to attract quality staffers and implementing programs to retain them. But the more they implemented, the more complicated things became for the employees, who had no idea how to make the most of their benefits, bonuses and options.

Norm Chiodras, Todd Taskey, Jason Franklin and other enterprising brokers willing to take the time to learn the ins and outs of a particular company's financial plans find themselves in demand. Chiodras speaks at Motorola-associated seminars, Taskey at Marriott meetings, and Franklin for one of the Big Three automakers (which he wouldn't name).

For Franklin, a retirement planning specialist at Leonard & Co.'s Investing Consulting Group in Troy, Mich., the turning point came after spending thousands of dollars buying dinner for prospects, most of whom he never heard from again. “We wanted people who were interested in what we were saying, not just a free dinner,” he says. And “working with one company or just a few allows you to be an expert, rather than a jack-of-all-trades.”

Taskey, a financial planner at Bethesda, Md.-based Solutions Planning Group, says it was crazy “running all over creation” to meet with prospects and clients, when there were literally 4,000 employees across the street — at Marriott's corporate headquarters. “I said, ‘What am I doing?’”

More than 10 years ago, Chiodras, president of Retirement Planners in Oak Brook, Ill., hooked up with Motorola by calling it in an effort to get more clients. The seminars with Motorola employees became so popular that there was a waiting list. And, even though the company cut back its number of seminars, Chiodras still gets referrals — weekly.

All three worked to become familiar with the companies' available financial programs, and determined how employees could best reap the rewards of their benefits. Taskey maintains that getting into the business of seminars isn't difficult, but it does take some planning.

Something for Nothing

Taskey recommends asking your clients for introductions to colleagues. Once you have a couple clients at the same company, call human resources. Tell them you are so-and-so's planner and you want to know more about the offered financial plans. Chiodras says human resources is bombarded with companies pushing their products, but you'll pique their interest if you say you want to give them something for free — like a seminar. “After a while, you become successful and can command a fee,” he says.

Taskey's success is evident in his fee. He gets $150 a head for between 20 and 25 employees. After 25, he charges $15 per person for materials. His flat fee for travel is $500.

Taskey conducts a four-hour investment-planning tutorial. It's followed up by one-on-one sessions with eight handpicked participants. If he doesn't talk to all of the people who want to talk with him, he or one of his associates will talk with them by phone soon after. The final step is a monthly e-mail. Taskey has an e-mail list of about 1,100 people. He also recently launched an online seminar series, inviting more than 500 Marriott people to ask questions about whatever the seminar's focus is on that occasion.

Chiodras' approach isn't that much different, but he stresses that the seminars should be fun. He says everyone has a teacher they liked in school, whether for his sense of humor or personality, and that affability helps build trust.

That's what attracted clients Ken and Susan Koldan, who were both employed by Motorola until their recent retirements, his at 54 and hers at 52. Ken Koldan says he attended three of Chiodras' seminars — once four years before he retired, the next a few months before and the last when his wife was thinking about retiring. He says a couple of factors convinced him he wanted Chiodras to be his planner.

For one thing, he says, Chiodras seemed to know more than the company's credit union, which provides optional financial planning services for retiring employees. “After his four-hour-long presentations, I was amazed by how much I was able to absorb,” says Koldan. “He's really good at making it easy for a layperson like me.” Koldan also thought it “was really ethical” of Chiodras not to pass out his business cards. When asked for a card during a break at one seminar attended by about 300, “He told me ‘Motorola asked me to provide information on financial planning, not to solicit new business.’”

When Chiodras entered the seminar business, he wasn't quite so polished. He recommends to brokers wanting to follow the seminar route “try to hook up with someone already doing public seminars to get some experience.” He bought a seminar “franchise” from one company that sells kits, with booklets, transparencies for overhead projectors and even a script.

Company-specific financial planning educational seminars may sound like a godsend to some reps looking to boost their books, but they're not easy and do have some drawbacks. (See Marketing on page 71.)

Franklin says be patient and do not expect to get immediate results: “It takes a while to get up and going, but I used to do cold-calling and this is a lot better.”

Also, just as clients are advised not to put too much money into one company (ahem, Enron), one East Coast rep says it's best not to have too many clients from one company. If that company goes away (ahem, Enron), so do your clients. Taskey says that about one-third of his clients are Marriott-related, so his business would be hurt, but not crippled by a corporate crisis. Conversely, a company's troubles can lead to even more business. Taskey says that when Marriott laid off some employees in September, several clients decided to keep him as their planner. That translated into close to $4 million in rollover business.

More than a year ago, Chiodras says Motorola stopped having its monthly seminars because they cost too much. Not that he was being paid. The expense was in time off for attendees and a free lunch. But after complaints from some employees, Motorola agreed to host at least a couple seminars a year.

And while attendees are either hiring Taskey to do their financial planning or just learning from him and going out on their own, he says, they aren't the only ones getting something out of the seminars. “You think of what Marriott is paying for benefit programs, and wasting tons and tons because no one really knows what's available,” Taskey says.

Eventually, with enough time invested, company-specific financial planning seminars could really pay off. Just ask Taskey. Thanks to a trade-out he did with Marriott, he and his family spent the last days of March schussing down the slopes of Vail.

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