The Storyteller. For some in the industry, the word “storyteller” might carry a negative connotation, but for Mark Pruitt, a gift for gab is a differentiator. He uses stories and anecdotes that inform, educate and cut straight to the heart and mind of his clients. Along with his production, marketing and practice management skills, being able to connect with people on a very deep and impactful level, made Pruitt our choice for 2012 Advisor of the Year.
While sitting in Mark Pruitt’s Dallas-based office for this interview, I checked the time and then said: “I need to be leaving to catch my plane, but I have one more question.” One of Pruitt’s associates said, “If you’re looking for an answer, you’re going to need at least 30 minutes.” Everyone laughed, Pruitt the loudest. He knew the comment was true—he’s a talker, a natural born storyteller.
Considering the time and Pruitt’s propensity to talk, I skipped the last question and began gathering my things. He stopped me, before I could get out the door.
“If it’s alright,” Pruitt said, “I have a question for you.”
I’ve been covering this industry since 2008. In that time, I haven’t run across many shrinking violets, particularly among advisors who hit the production numbers of Pruitt’s $12.4 million in 2011. If they win an accolade, they know why—because they deserved it; they’d earned it. But Pruitt, a minister before making a career switch more than a decade ago, is a humble guy. Proud and confident in his abilities no doubt, but humble just the same, and a little bit curious.
The words hung in the air for a moment. You see, selecting the Advisor of the Year is more art than science. When you mix two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen together you get water, good ole H2O. But there’s no pat formula for Advisor of the Year.
When I did start talking, I rambled on and on for what seemed like 20 minutes, thinking I might miss that plane after all. I wanted to say, when I come across an Advisor of the Year candidate, I know it—that old Spidey sense starts tingling—but somehow that didn’t quite seem right.
So I told him (and now you) a few of the trade secrets of what makes someone an Advisor of the Year, at least in my eyes.
Production. I put this item first, though it’s not the deciding factor. We need the advisors to hit a certain threshold of $5 million in total production, but anything above that is icing on the cake.
Suitability. Yes, doing the right thing matters. Being squeaky clean is extremely important in this whole process. The industry gets enough bad press from the mainstream media. We don’t want to pour gasoline on that fire so we go through the National Ethics Association to run background checks, both financial and criminal, on every nominee. Then we vet the candidates with industry insiders to discern if this advisor is as good a person as has been reported in the empty rap sheet.
Community Involvement. In our advisor survey the last couple years we’ve asked the question: What’s working? Topping the list for successive years has been community involvement. It’s helped brand advisors as leaders in their community and also helped earn trust among their clients. With his mission work that takes him around the globe and his local non-profit work, Pruitt makes a commitment to building better communities.
Connection with Clients. Now, we’re getting into the squishy stuff. How do you define “connecting with clients?” There’s not a simple answer. But when I talk with an advisor and hear their story, hear the emotion in their voice when talking about their clients, yeah, that can really go a long way. We love that human connection. These are, after all, human beings, many in great need of financial help, on the other end of these transactions. Which leads us to the final tipping point I’m going to discuss:
The Journey. Being a writer, I’m a sucker for a good story. Hearing the path an advisor took to get to their position in the industry is often a deciding factor. How they tell that story, how Pruitt told his story, with all the fire and passion of one of his old Sunday sermons, and you begin to see the Advisor of the Year materialize.
Now read on to learn more about Pruitt’s story…
Location, Location, Location. “You don’t have to be big to have a great location. Start with a virtual office (which is what I did). It’s the best way to start with a credible location that is affordable. You can then work your way into a full time office (as I did) when ready. Location, location, location as the old saying goes works because we office in a location that people are familiar with and has easy access they can drive to. This helps in the comfort level for people who may be stressed on how to get to you. I can simply mention ‘The Galleria’ in my case and people go, ‘Oh, I know right where that is.’ If it’s upscale and recognizable, it shows that you are not just working out of the back seat of your car. Many clients these days want to see your office and you can do that with either a real office or renting (by the hour) a virtual office. Both provide a positive result. Our Fort Worth office is right off the freeway. Simply hit the exit, travel down the feeder road, look for the only glass building and you have arrived. A distinctive or well-known building with easy access is the key.”
The Galleria (above) is a prime location in the Dallas area that clients easily recognize. The chess pieces help brand Pruitt’s company, Strategic Estate Planning Services Inc. as an organization that looks at the big picture.
Smart Growth. When Pruitt jumped into financial services in 1998 his business grew and it grew fast. Maybe too fast. He has certain benchmarks that he or his agents need to hit. In the areas close to home, they were knocking it out of the park, but that was not always the case outside of the home base. So, instead of looking to see how big he could grow he wanted to have the best organization possible. To make things easier to manage, he pulled back from offices in Missouri, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He continues to run operations in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. “The interesting thing is,” Pruitt says, “with as many as four generations of a single family line that we serve, it has taken us from New York, to California and even Hawaii. We don’t solicit in those states but we do serve clients in those states.”
The Staff: Currently, Strategy & Estate Planning Services Inc. employs six agents and nine support staff.
On smart growth: “The best advice I would give: When you do grow beyond a one-stop-shop, get a personal assistant first, someone who can help with the non-income-producing activity. Once you continue to grow and get more business than you can manage yourself, then you bring on another agent.”
On practice management: “Early on, you do everything as an independent advisor. Often, it’s you and only you. Eventually though, as you grow, you can bring people on and you ask yourself the question when faced with a task: Is this income-producing activity or non- income-producing activity? In doing the non-income producing activity, there are many things you do that might not make you a dime, but they create client loyalty.”
LTCI. “Yes, we are doing more long-term care than ever before and it’s for many reasons. First, we are bringing it to the forefront of planning. It’s a serious question that must be addressed and most agents don’t address it because they have never dealt with it on a personal basis. Six members of my wife’s family have or had Alzheimer’s or dementia. One of those six, my sister-in-law, has lived with me, my wife and my two daughters for the past two-and-a-half years. On a scale of 1 to 30, with 13 and below being severe, she is an 8. This brings it to light in a very real way. Secondly, people are seeing their parents at 70, 80 or 90-plus needing more care, and find that they are unprepared for it. They see how LTC can become an estate buster in terms of long-term cost and they do not want to repeat that with their own children. Thirdly, the new national health plan does have limitations and people are wanting to keep as much control as possible with their own health plan. LTCI really allows us to stay in control regarding where we will receive that care. I have never spoken with anyone that says, ‘Hey I want to be in a long-term care community,’ and rightfully so. I, as well, would prefer to have care in my own home versus anywhere else and LTCI allows that to happen.”
Tough Talk. “Every family has a driver. In regards to the financial side, it’s usually one or the other and not gender-driven anymore. In our workshops we talk with couples and let them know that at some point, that driver could be gone, leaving all the financial decisions, the bills, etc. left up to the remaining spouse. We have Game Plan A and Game Plan B planning with clients. Game Plan A is when both are alive and fine. Game Plan B is if one spouse passes away—what happens then? The best time to have Game Plan B planning is when you don’t need it, because trying to find someone to build rapport and trust with once you’re mourning the loss of a spouse is very difficult. That trust needs to be built during the Game Plan A stage. So, we try to educate people. We know that the remaining spouse must know how and where to pay the bills and to make all the other financial decisions.”
One-size-does-not-fit-all. “I am an independent advisor and I have set up my firm from the beginning this way so I can find custom solutions for each of our clients. On a visual note it’s like offering many pairs of shoes to someone versus just two or three. This is how unsuitable investments occur—trying to make a pair fit that does not. Thus, we are the independent agency offering any type of product a client may need.
“I get many appointments from people telling me that I was the first one that spoke about insurance, estate planning topics, income stream planning, long term care, etc. in a way that they could understand. People also want someone who is available to them, will check on them and that they can trust. I tell them trust is earned through time and we earn that by doing what we say we will do.”
Community Involvement. Pruitt or members of his company have traveled oversees on faith-based missions to countries including Belize and Romania. He also speaks at retirement communities and helps people transition to assisted-living facilities.
Keep the Faith. A minister for 18 years with the Assembly of God, Pruitt still holds strong beliefs. “I currently attend Prestonwood Baptist, which is a very large church that has about 30,000-plus in attendance and hosts a multitude of people with different denominational backgrounds. That openness to others is why we attend there, along with the great music and programs for our family.”
Music Man. Pruitt has a master’s degree in music education with a specialization in percussion and was in music ministry full time for over 18 years. He has played in jazz bands, Dixieland bands, steel drum bands, symphonies, small ensembles, has done studio recording work and very large productions with over 50,000 in attendance. “I still do the large productions at Christmas and other major holiday events, plus I play percussion weekly at Prestonwood Baptist Church.”
The Mailer. “We’ve gone through every type of marketing mailer and never could get the response I wanted. So, I met with a marketing expert. He looked at all the mailers and ads I’d attempted and he didn’t like any of them. He set me straight. What you need is an oversized postcard. You want it to stand out. It’s a card that’s already open, it needs to be in color, needs to be informative and needs to have a hook. He said the average individual, when going through their mail, takes about five seconds to look at it and decide if they want to read it, open it or trash it. With the postcard, you don’t have to open it. So it’s down to reading or trashing. Now, you bring in that hook: it’s already opened, sticks out from everything else. The hook is the restaurant—we use Ruth’s Chris Steak House. That hook needs to be on both sides of the card. After that, some bullet points that stand out. This is not a seminar, it’s a workshop. At a seminar people sit and listen. A workshop is interactive. The attendees are a big part of the discussion. We’re talking with them and asking questions and soliciting responses. Also, the topics on the mailer evolve—we keep up with what is on top of mind now. Currently, taxes are big so we focus on that.
Storyteller. “I’m asked what makes our workshops successful. One of the real keys is the way we present to our prospects and clients. We don’t bombard them with facts. We’re a strong believer that “facts tell, but stories sell.” Stories are believable, stories are emotional, stories are heartfelt and stories are something we deal with every day. Every day we meet with clients who are dealing with real “life” stuff. When you get toward that end-of-life situation, you have to be able to relate with the prospects and give them real life stories that you have experienced through your existing clients. These kinds of stories have the greatest impact on connecting with prospects at workshops and elsewhere.”
Keys to Success. “One is persistency. Not giving up and staying on it and not accepting the status quo answer from the industry and from your fellow agents or your neighbor. If you believe in something enough, you’ve gotta continue to do it. Just like creating a resource company, that’s something that’s unusual—we know that. But creating something that’s unusual versus the norm has been the main part of our success. The other thing is literally doing what we say we’re going to do. I mean, my father always told me, ‘They’re gonna talk about you one way or the other, it’s just a matter of how.’ We know that and if we do what we say we’re gonna do and build trust with our clients—we know trust is earned. It’s not built in a meeting, it’s built out of doing what you say you’re gonna do and doing it through time and using listening skills.”
A Typical Day
8 am: Read emails and other information, researching the economy for the day and what is being projected as well as studying other current events. “You want to know what’s going on and be able to field any questions or concerns clients might have.”
9 am: Begin getting in touch with clients. Call and set up appointments for reviews. Also, people will start calling around 9:00 am.
10 am-5 pm: “Our first client meeting starts at 10:00 and each meeting is usually an hour-and-a-half, so we’ll have one at 10:00, 11:30, then we’ll have a quick lunch and start the next one at 1:00. We have slots all the way to 5:00. We’ll even open up one in the evening if people are working, and also have meeting times available on Saturday from 9:00 to noon, but nothing later than that.”
“Clients have our office number. They also have our cellphones in case an emergency happens and they know to call us because we know life doesn’t just happen between 9 and 5. We even have the cellphone numbers printed on our cards. We make ourselves available to them and they do use it. And what we tell them is, ‘If it’s an emergency, give us a call and we’ll call you back as soon as we can. If not, give us 24 hours at the latest and we’ll call you back.’ So every client is touched within 24 hours.”
On Asset Protection. “Asset protection has become bigger now than ever before. The cause: stock market crashes in ‘01-‘02 and ‘07-‘08 wiped out a lot of people. Markets are still uncertain and tied globally more than ever before. Unemployment, downsizing, cost of living—20 years ago the national average for a gallon of gas was $1.13. Now it is over $3.30. That’s called inflation. All of this creates stress and uncertainty on retirement income.
“It’s not just about politics anymore, it’s about math and the old adage of ‘just hang on, the market will come back’ may be true but the question that is missing is this: WILL IT BE IN THEIR LIFETIME? If you lose 30 percent it takes 43 percent to get back to even. If you lose 50 percent it takes 100 percent return to get back to even. History means nothing when you are retired and in the draw-down mode. The question to ask is ‘What’s happening when you are in retirement and you need the money?’ It’s virtually impossible to catch up when history shows that the market has corrected at least two times every 10 years. Something even more interesting we are finding is that the younger generations have watched their parents lose six figures in their retirement accounts and they do not want to repeat what their parents have done. They are also understanding the math of loss and that it pays to have safety—reasonable, positive growth that does not go backwards.”
The Clientele. “My oldest client is 103 and I have clients in their 20s. The average client I have is age 60 and up and that makes up about 80 percent of my business.”
Generational Advisor. “In some cases our practice has gotten to the point of serving four generations and it has spread out to in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, etc., to the tune of either 22 or 23 different members. That makes it four generations deep and several wide.”
Saturdays. “We’ve had to incorporate Saturday appointments. We work from 9 a.m. to noon—and try our best not to go past noon—so we have our own family time. What has expanded to Saturday appointments is the generational division in our client base. Most retired clients don’t need to meet on a Saturday —every day is Saturday for them! What we’re finding is our younger clients, those in their 20s and 30s who are busy during the week, prefer to meet on Saturdays— it works out to be the best time for them.”
On Designations. “Clients don’t usually ask me what my designations are. I know from experience that people don’t care so much about what is beside your name. They want to know if you can take a complicated topic and communicate it in a manner that they can understand. Regarding designations, I find it interesting that each carrier has on its list what they approve of and what they do not approve of. I disagree with how different it is. I look at what designations does my resident state insurance department approve of. I think carriers should look to the state insurance departments for continuity since they are the ones that do the final regulation and enforcement of all agents.”
On the Senior Market. “Clients need a resource that they can depend on and I find that many agents simply do not follow up well and that is their downfall. My father has always stated: ‘Mark, they will talk about you one way or the other. The question is how.’ He is so right and that is what I pride myself in the most. Doing what I say I will do and being there for my clients through death, accidents, 50th anniversary celebrations, retirement celebrations that we host, new grand babies, etc. Simply just saying, ‘Hey I was thinking about you and thought I would call to see how you’re doing’ means more than anything to clients 60 and over.”
On Regulations. “I am always ready to turn the ship on a dime if I have to, regulatory wise. If you don’t, then you won’t be in business very long. I’m 51 with no plan to not retire any time soon and when I do, I have other agents in line and my two daughters that have stated they want to follow in my footsteps. I take that as a compliment seeing that they can be anything they want to be. I have other agents besides me currently in my firm so if the good Lord takes me home tonight then I’m ready and my clients will still have a company they can depend on.“
On the Advisor-Client Relationship. “My approach to planning is first allowing the client to ask me questions in the very first meeting. The meeting is for them and they are there for a reason. I need to know what those reasons are and find that I must listen first in order to deal with their hot buttons and concerns. I know how to ask good questions, listen, take notes and then ask other questions that will eventually lead me to offering solutions. I never do a one-call close. Some agents are proud of that and for that I say, you, my friend, are a salesman and not a true advisor. You don’t fix a lifetime of issues in a single meeting or with a single product. I will say that at the end of the first meeting they will have homework and so will I. We build the overall plan with future meetings. It’s like building a house and you don’t do that in a meeting or two. It takes me about 90 days (just like building a house) to get from start to finish on a total estate plan and yes we can earn a living in the middle of all of that.”
On Following Through. “One of the things where many agents can improve is in following through with their clients. We gain a lot of clients that way because they say, ‘I can’t get my agent to call me back. I don’t know where they’re at. They never communicate to me. They never talk to me. They never call us. They never check on us.’ And basically what that means is the agent sold them a product and after that, they never talked to them again. We don’t do that. We keep up with our clients and we communicate with them.”
On Referrals. “We tell people, ‘Don’t forget about us. Tell people about us.’ We never ask for names, but we continually say, ‘Don’t forget about us. If we’re doing something right for you, tell your friends and neighbors when this subject comes up.’ And this subject does come up. High interest comes up, death comes up, sickness comes up. And we’ll tell them, ‘Refer us when that happens.’ And we get a lot of calls from people. In fact, a lady I just was talking to in Missouri was actually one that was referred and she said, ‘We just sold our home and we want to be able to do something with this money.’ And I said, ‘OK. Give me the numbers’ And she was giving me the details. Well, it was a $600,000 home and they don’t need it for income, they have another home. So that’s a great referral.”