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Hurricanes, Surgeries, Even Vacations

Sunit Bhalla of Oaktree Financial Planning in Fort Collins, Colo., had just landed at San Francisco International Airport when an email arrived from a client who was closing on a house. “The closing was moved up, and they needed more money than they expected,” Bhalla says.

Bhalla replied to the client and contacted the custodian to “get the money moved quicker than we normally would.” The problem was solved by the only person who could do it, because Bhalla works alone.

About 36% of registered investment advisors are solo practitioners, according to Cerulli Associates. How do advisors in one-planner offices juggle the needs of their practices with the everyday demands of life outside the workplace?

As Bhalla’s example illustrates, technology plays a big part. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and encrypted cloud files mean the solo planner need never be out of touch.

“Technology now allows you to do a lot that you couldn’t do before,” says Rich Winer, president and chief executive of Winer Wealth Management in Woodland Hills, Calif.

“Ten years ago, or even five years ago, it wasn’t so easy,” says Ray Mignone, a CFP and the principal of an eponymous firm in Little Neck, N.Y.

Managing Time

But equally important is the ability to manage time efficiently. “My business plan has a list of things I want to say ‘no’ to,” says Bhalla, who now limits speaking at conferences to once a year and only when “I have something I really want to say.”

Vacations are the out-of-office situation that solo planners find easiest to manage. “If I schedule a vacation, I’m going to go during the slow period,” says Shelley Ferro, a CFP and the president, investment advisor and financial strategist at Ferro Financial in Metairie, La.

So she usually takes vacations in October.

Ferro always checks to make sure that her hotel has a good wireless connection, and for backup, she carries a device to create a Wi-Fi hotspot. “When I go on vacation, my computer’s with me,” she says. “All my files are in the cloud, and my back office is available.”

One question advisors must address is how available to be during a vacation. “Some may call it a mistake, but I’ve always been accessible,” says Winer, who defers to clients when deciding what’s important.

Even on vacation, he rises at about the same time each morning, and while his family sleeps, he catches up on work. “I actually enjoy working on vacation,” Winer says.

Mignone takes a different approach. He doesn’t return calls or answer emails on the weekend, unless it’s an emergency. “There are very few emergencies in this business,” Mignone says.

When away, he makes time zone differences work for him. On vacation in Europe last year, for instance, Mignone would return to his hotel at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. and answer emails. For his clients in New York, it was 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. “As long as you get the work done, most people don’t question where you are,” he says.

Debbra Dillon, a CFP and founding principal of Dillon Financial Planning in Eagle, Idaho, takes a stronger stand on vacations by notifying clients a couple of weeks ahead that she will be unavailable.

“I’ve actually had clients who have told me that they appreciate that I have set those boundaries,” Dillon says. She notes that because she charges by the hour, she has greater freedom than if she were managing assets. “I’ve never had one complaint about taking vacation.”

Most advisors who fly solo soldier on when faced with a typical cold. Minor surgeries, however, require forethought. When Ferro needed an outpatient procedure in 2014, she put thought into the timing.

“I purposely scheduled that on a Thursday,” she says. “Fortunately, it wasn’t something that required a lot of downtime. I was back at the office on Monday.”

Contingency Plans

But a solo advisor’s practice could experience a devastating blow from an extended illness. The possibility that it could happen suddenly is something for which advisors should plan.

“I’ve actually been working on a contingency plan for that type of scenario with another advisor in my area,” says David McPherson, a CFP and the founder of Four Ponds Financial Planning in Falmouth, Mass. The two advisors serve as each other’s backup in the event either suffers a short-term disability.

Stan Johnson of Comprehensive Financial Planning in Durango, Colo. has two advisors who can help if he is out for an extended period. The arrangement is in a written contract, and clients are informed. “I let them know in one of my newsletters,” Johnson says.

If an advisor is out sick, the most difficult situation is meeting with clients.

“I actually did have an incident where I was bedridden with back pain for a month,” says Maureen A. Whelan, a CFP and the owner of M.A. Whelan Financial Planning in Peekskill, N.Y. She was able to deal with most clients via phone and email but suspects that two potential clients were lost “because I wasn’t able to meet with them.”

There is a different set of practice concerns when a solo advisor is in charge of care for an ailing loved one. Dillon’s husband, for instance, is undergoing chemotherapy. With travel time, his treatment has her out of the office for two half-days a week.

“That’s where I have to be completely efficient with my time,” Dillon says. “I have to get eight hours of work into four hours.”

For four years, Whelan coordinated care for her ailing parents, who were more than 50 miles away. She accomplished the task by establishing a virtual office near her parents, where she met clients one evening a week. “I was able to do what I needed to do,” she says.

Although advisors may not need to set up a satellite office, technology can extend their virtual presence. Winer no longer employs an office assistant. If he isn’t in, his office phone system forwards voicemails as MP3 files that are sent to him via email.

Mignone still has an assistant to answer the phone in his main office, but he can pick up the line in Florida, where he often goes during the winter. “Phones can ring in five different places at once,” he says.

Unusual circumstances can require thinking outside the box. Bhalla recalls a family vacation that involved an Alaska cruise with no possibility of cellphone or email access.

“I emailed my clients ahead of time to warn them, and I gave them the cruise number to call if they had a real emergency that I needed to be involved in,” he says. Fortunately, there were no emergencies.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in 2005, Ferro, not yet in her own practice, relocated to be able to serve clients. Now that she is on her own, she has a similar plan in place should another hurricane occur.

When the market tumbled in 2008, Ferro had been scheduled to attend a business conference. She canceled at the last minute.

“I felt that, in that situation, I could have clients that really needed to talk to me,” Ferro says. A few clients called, “but, for the most part, I was reaching out to them,” she says.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.