Jeff Wheeler took an indirect path to a very enviable position in the world of holistic financial planning. A studio guitarist turned estate laywer turned financial planner, he's now president of the Wealth Collaborative in Los Angeles, where he manages $290 million for actors, writers, producers and athletes.
But Wheeler remains private about the public clients he serves. That's the way they want it - no website, no social media, strictly word-of-mouth referrals.
"We don't publish much," the advisor says, "because our clients in the entertainment industry prefer anonymity. They don't want to work with a well-known firm. In fact, they don't want me to have too many clients. They want my attention."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine, Wheeler completed his J.D. at the Pepperdine University School of Law and taught probate law as an adjunct thereafter.
He gained lots of estate law experience working for a small tax department in a big law firm in downtown L.A., but soon moved into stints at two entertainment law firms. He enjoyed estate tax law more than any of the other work. "The personal family life planning appealed to me," he says.
Gradually becoming the de facto business manager, or "family captain," for several families with which he worked, he coordinated their insurance, investments, tax planning and estate planning. In the process he discovered that many West Side L.A. glitterati are income rich and asset poor. He has witnessed numerous "financial flameouts" among celebrities.
"Actors, musicians and athletes often have very short careers and despite their business managers prodding them to frugality, many end up living off friends or relatives with no money and no place to go," he says. Lifestyle relapse, Wheeler calls it. This observation prodded his budding interest in holistic financial planning.
Now completing the final leg of the CFP curriculum, he took his first plunge into the financial field with the Canadian firm Assante Asset Management. Canada has no estate tax but the firm hired Wheeler to handle the estate planning for its small lineup of American clients.
In 2003, the Canadian portion of the firm was sold and, from 2004 to 2007, Wheeler worked for Assante's U.S. division, Loring Ward. A wealth management firm in San Jose, Calif., with close to $7 billion in assets under management, the company had two divisions: a turnkey asset management program (originally owned by Financial Planning columnist John Bowen) and Loring Ward Capital Management.
Wheeler bought out the high-net-worth portion of the latter division in 2007 to create the Wealth Collaborative, which integrates life planning with traditional financial planning.
Two financial professionals and one office manager complete Wheeler's firm. "We're approved DFA Advisors and have a direct relationship with them," he says, "but we look to Loring Ward to help us with practice management."
The Ripple Effect
In the process of going solo, Wheeler caught the life planning bug through seminars by Money Quotient (he is now a board member of this 501(c)3 firm), and has followed the life planning seminars of the Nazrudin Project and George Kinder. A Money Quotient licensee, he often uses its tools in his customized four-step wealth management process.
Echoing the advice of Socrates, Wheeler calls the first step: "Know yourself." In this phase, he explores clients' money values and attitudes. What are their money histories, investment experiences, spending patterns, money memories? How did their parents handle money? Most clients tend to either rebel or replicate parental money attitudes - a crucial realization for clients to grasp before undertaking their own life planning process.
For those advisors who view life planning as too touchy-feely, Wheeler offers a conviction born of experience: "Real return is more a function of client behavioral issues than advisor investment strategies." Translation: Life goals must be established before financial goals can be built.
He recalls an extremely successful producer/writer/director whom he would visit on a lot of the studio where the client was producing a hit television show. In the middle of their "know yourself" process, the client admitted he had recently given his young children's toys to charity because they would not put them away or take care of them. Life was a bit fraught at home.
About an hour later, in a "money memories" exercise, the client made a startling discovery. "I'm my father!" he exclaimed. He had chosen to replicate rather than rebel and felt guilty about his family's wealth. He was torn by his success and unconsciously taking it out on his children.
Once he reached this epiphany, he and Wheeler searched for a way to employ his money that better reflected his values and interests. "It didn't take us long to find a very meaningful path . . . making documentary films with his family," Wheeler explains. "In that pursuit, he was using his money to bring family together and shed light on important social issues that would benefit humankind."
The next steps of Wheeler's wealth planning process require more number crunching, but often much less time. In the second step, the wealth accumulation study, Wheeler uses Naviplan to gather client financial goals and assets and see how close the two fit. Goals, spending and/or saving are all renegotiated at this point.
The third step focuses on risk - what can derail the client's financial goals? While his firm does not sell insurance, during the wealth preservation study Wheeler recommends life, disability, long-term care and other forms of insurance as needed.
And finally, in the wealth-transfer study step, he initiates an estate plan with clients by drawing three boxes on a whiteboard - one for taxes, one for children and one for charity. Where should the money go?
Lawyers inevitably focus on the tax box, Wheeler says, while most clients focus on the children box. What amount of money will help and not hurt their children?
"I love the legacy piece and the ripple effect of good planning," he explains. "With the right money decisions, parents can have a huge positive impact on their children that can be carried on for generations."
Sometimes, Wheeler partners with a heritage professional to help first-generation wealth creators document their values and set up pre-inheritance experiences so that the primary client is more confident that the wealth passing down to the second generation will not divide and hurt the family, but unite and enrich it.
He offers this advice to new CFPs: Remember that life planning is the end and financial planning is only the means to that end.
Wheeler adds, "In order to help my clients clarify their priorities, I need unconditional positive regard for them. In the rare case where I do not feel this positive regard, I refer the client to another planner. And I recommend new planners do the same."
Jeff Wheeler, The Wealth Collaborative
Credentials: B.A., social ecology, University of California, Irvine; J.D., Pepperdine University School of Law
Assets under management: $290 million
How I see it: My entertainment industry clients prefer anonymity. They don't want to work with a wellknown firm. In fact, they don't want me to have too many clients. They want my attention."
Jim Grote, a CFP in Louisville, Ky., writes regularly for Financial Planning.