Monday, March 29, 2010

Partners Who Are Friends

A few months back, I used this space to profile two of my partners, Stephen Brady and Tripp Flack. Please indulge me now as I sing the praises of the other two.

Rhett Giddings is the old man of our group (although he’s not much older than I am). He has been in the insurance business his entire career. You know that old saying, “He has forgotten more about (fill in the subject) than I’ll ever know?” I’m tempted to say that about Rhett and insurance, but in truth, I don’t think Rhett has ever forgotten anything in his life.

Rhett’s deep store of knowledge and wisdom comes through almost every time you speak with him. He has seen a lot over the years, and he is able to synthesize it and derive worthwhile insights to almost any situation. Whenever any one of us is in a fix or needs some perspective, Rhett is the one we look to.

Cooper Flack is the youngest and most aggressive of the group. He has an MBA from Penn State, and he spent the early part of his career in the corporate world. He is now the quintessential family man, with three adorable young children. Cooper has become one of my best friends over the years, and the tenderness and affection he demonstrates with his kids is heartwarming.

Cooper wears a lot of hats, handling life and health insurance as well as group benefit programs. He has taken the lead role in our newest service, Health Track Wellness, which is a program we offer to companies and other groups. In it, a registered nurse/personal trainer from our staff works with employees on a regular schedule to improve their individual health and team morale.

I consider myself truly blessed to be associated with all four of these wonderful guys. They each bring unique gifts and perspectives that benefit the others as well as our company as a whole.

Enjoy the week!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Is the Sky Really Falling?

[Follow-up to last week’s update: After last week’s commentary concerning, I received several inquiries regarding the safety and security of personal information stored on the website. The best way to answer that question is to visit’s security page: Personally, I am satisfied that the site is extremely safe and private; the length to which they go in order to ensure safety and privacy is impressive.]

I had a very interesting conversation with a client last week; let’s call him Herb. Herb is an older gentleman who readily admits that he is not up to speed on technology, nor does he follow the news all that closely. But every few months, Herb requests a consultation so that we can talk about the state of the world.

The way Herb sees it, our society is steadily going down the tubes. Morality is at an all-time low; public discourse has degenerated into a simple trading of insults; America has lost its preeminent economic status; and our national debt—the combined trade and federal deficits—threatens to bring us to our knees.

While many of Herb’s points are well taken, I pointed out that our nation has been in terrible straits before and has somehow managed to pull through. Yes, times are tough in a variety of ways. The challenges are many and daunting. But is this the worst time in our history? I think not.

Consider the birth of our nation, when it was doubtful that this bold republican experiment would take root at all. Consider the Civil War, when the country was ripped apart at the cost of 620,000 young men—more than all our other wars combined. Consider the Great Depression, when unemployment skyrocketed from 3% in 1929 to 25% in 1933 while the stock market plunged an unfathomable 89%. Consider World War II, when the entire globe teetered on the brink of tyrannical subjugation. Consider even the1960s, when inflation, Viet Nam, social division, race riots and political assassinations combined to tear at the very fabric of our society.

Somehow, we made it through it all. Every scenario seemed hopeless, every challenge insurmountable. Each crisis led to a significantly different—and arguably better—world that could not have been anticipated beforehand. And I would argue that each of those eras was worse than the one in which we find ourselves today.

One exacerbating factor in the 21st Century is the news media. I would argue that the three major news networks are not news networks at all, but rather 24-hour commentary networks. A story gets reported, and then it gets discussed…and discussed, and discussed and discussed. In my college and grad school days, I studied the art of drama extensively. In order to hold an audience’s attention, there must be conflict. That is what the networks create with their endless debates. And the Internet takes up where TV leaves off; the World Wide Web is the greatest rumor mill ever invented.

Don’t allow yourself to get taken in by the hype. Yes, we are going through an extremely challenging time. Tomorrow’s world will undoubtedly look different from yesterday’s. But is the situation hopeless? Not by a long shot. Can we even state with certainty that this is a bad thing? I doubt it.

This is America, by George, and whatever the final outcome, I am confident that we will prevail.

So get out there and have a great week!

Monday, March 15, 2010

You Gotta Try This Website...

If you’re not already aware of it, I’d like to draw your attention to a great—free—website that could make a powerful difference in your financial life. It’s called

Juliet and I learned about during a breakout session at the FPA Business Solutions Conference in Dallas a couple weeks ago. The session’s presenter was Aaron Patzer, the under-30 entrepreneur who invented the site (and who holds Masters degrees in Computer Science and Engineering from Princeton and Duke). Last year, Aaron sold his young company to Intuit (the makers of Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax) for $170 million. From what we saw, I’d say Intuit got a bargain.

Aaron has stayed on as the executive in charge of his brainchild, and it was a rare privilege to witness his presentation. He demonstrated the site for us, and we were blown away by its ease of use and potential to help people get a handle on their finances.

The system allows users to enter all the logins and passwords from their various financial assets and liabilities: bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, annuities, home value, mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, etc. The system reaches out to the respective institutions and collects the pertinent information, and within a few minutes, it can tell you your net worth, the values of all your assets and liabilities, how much money you have spent and in which categories.

The amount of information the system can give you from such a small effort on your part is uncanny. It analyzes your spending habits and creates a budget for you. It tells you how much you have been spending on groceries, gas, restaurants, etc. It even tells you if you have spent a significant amount on a particular category than you normally do. (When I logged in this morning, it informed me that, in the past 30 days, I have spent $383.22 more on hotels than I usually do.)

The system is not perfect. An institution has to be on the system for you to be able to follow it. For example, while it appears that most of the banks in our local area are on the system, Mountain 1st and HomeTrust (the parent of Tryon Federal) are not. You can ask the system to reach out and include those institutions; I’m sure the more people who make the suggestion, the sooner the missing institution will be included.

I recommend that all my clients sign up for at their earliest convenience. The information it gives can be of great value as we analyze, assess and plan for the future. Non-clients can get just as much out of it. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Three Conferences in Two Months

For some reason, winter seems to be conference season. I attended three industry conferences during the last two months, and each provided excellent content, which will have a direct and positive impact on how we accomplish our mission on behalf of clients.

The first event was the Inside ETFs Conference in Boca Raton, Florida, which provided an in-depth focus on the specific investment topic of Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). The second was the TD Ameritrade Institutional National Conference in Orlando (which I attended with two of my partners, Rhett Giddings and Cooper Flack). Here we explored a variety of subjects in the areas of investing, economics, business management and national and world affairs.

The third and final leg of this mini-odyssey was last Sunday through Wednesday at the FPA (Financial Planning Association) Business Solutions Conference in Dallas. Here the emphasis was squarely on the practical challenges of running a financial planning business in a way that serves clients more effectively and efficiently. Juliet attended with me, and our specific goal was to gain insight and guidance into our ongoing project of replacing and upgrading our aging computers and some software programs. (You may be aware that we have recently accomplished one portion of this project with the implementation of AssetBook as our portfolio management system.)

Technology may not be the locomotive that powers a financial planning practice, but it could be called the tracks on which the locomotive runs. For people in our business, the technology puzzle consists of several parts that must work together in order for us to do our job well. The challenge of selecting the pieces and making them work together are many, varied, and intricate. I won’t go into the details of what we learned, but I will tell you that we came away with a concrete plan of action that we believe will result in another step forward for our clients.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The First-Hand Account of an American Slave

I have been reading Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. It is a remarkable first-hand account of a slave boy who, through hard work, determination, and a positive attitude, grew up to become the driving force at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Along the way, he guided Tuskegee to its position as one of the nation’s leading schools for African-Americans, and Washington became one of the nation’s leading citizens.

Young Booker grew up the son of a slave cook on a plantation near Roanoke, Virginia. He knew nothing of his father. Although his mother prepared meals for the residents of the “big house,” she and her children had only one plate and fork to share among them. They lived in a tiny, dirt-floor cabin. He writes, “Three children—John, my older brother, Amanda, my sister, and myself—had a pallet on the dirt floor, or, to be more correct, we slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor.”

Washington writes that he cannot remember a time during slavery when he was able to play, as we know it. He spent his waking hours working. He and the other slaves did not sit down to meals; each individual snatched some scraps when and where they could, usually while standing and with no plates or utensils.

On the day shortly after the end of the Civil War, when Booker was nine years old, a Yankee soldier showed up on the plantation and told them that they were now free: they could go and do what they wished. The slaves of Booker’s plantation stood stunned, unsure of what they should do or where they should go. Eventually, after tearful good-byes with their former masters, Booker’s mother took him and his siblings to the coal country of West Virginia, there to meet up with his stepfather, a man with the first name of Washington.

The story of this young man’s determined struggle to get educated despite extremely difficult circumstances is captivating. Just one tidbit: Slaves were not given last names, but on the first day of class in what then passed as a school, young Booker needed one. He writes: “I was in deep perplexity, because I knew that the teacher would demand of me at least two names, and I had only one. By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him ‘Booker Washington,’ as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known.”

Years later, when the still-young Washington found himself starting the Tuskegee School from scratch, he had to teach his young charges the most basic life skills before he could hope to make scholars out of them. Another quote: “One thing I have always insisted upon at Tuskegee is that everywhere there should be absolute cleanliness. Over and over the students were reminded in those first years—and are reminded now—that people would excuse us for our poverty, for our lack of comforts and conveniences, but that they would not excuse us for our dirt.” Washington taught the young ex-slaves how to brush their teeth, how to bathe themselves, even how to sleep in a bed between two sheets.

Booker T. Washington worked quietly and diligently for many years, and through his efforts was able to make a significant practical contribution to the betterment of his race and, by extension, the entire nation. With Black History Month just recently passed, he is worthy of our attention and appreciation.