Lew & Karen Altfest

Altfest Personal Wealth Management

It's easy now to take for granted the concept of unbiased, objective financial advice on a fee-only basis. After all, the well-established model has become a sought-after standard for both giant corporations and one-person shops.

But that wasn't the case in 1983, when Lew Altfest founded his namesake firm in New York City. The fiduciary standard was hardly the norm and fee-only RIAs were still a rare breed. Altfest, who had been general partner and director of research for Lord Abbett and a research analyst at Wertheim, was determined to do things differently - and better.

"I was, and am, a great believer in the fee-only model," Altfest says. "I used Consumer Reports magazine as my model. I was impressed by the fact that they were interested in recommending the best possible product and weren't influenced by advertisers because they didn't accept any advertising. I wanted to recommend the best investments and give the best advice, and the best way to do that was not to accept commissions."

The concept caught on: Altfest's satisfied clients told their friends and the business took off. His wife, Karen, joined the practice in 1986; their firm, now called Altfest Personal Wealth Management, has approximately $1 billion in assets under management.

But the couple's accomplishments go beyond their resounding personal success. The two are also receiving Financial Planning's Lifetime Achievement Influencer Award for their shared roles in both spreading the gospel of objective, fee-only financial planning in the consumer marketplace, and for reaching out to women on personal financial issues.

With his background in institutional research, as well as a Ph.D. in finance and designations as a CFP, CFA and CPA, Lew Altfest's credentials are clearly impressive.

Indeed, as a founding member of the NAPFA 30 years ago, Altfest gave the fledgling organization the "intellectual credibility" it needed to establish itself, according to Mary Malgoire, another early NAPFA member and board member. "Lew really understood the investment side of the business and helped us see what you could achieve if you took into consideration a client's taxes and cash flow when planning for them," says Malgoire, the founder of the Family Firm, an RIA in Bethesda, Md. "He was always there for us as we were trying to figure it out in the beginning, and gave the rest of us confidence that we could really make a living doing this."

Lew Altfest, now the CEO, chief investment officer and principal advisor at his firm, has kept busy ever since. He developed Total Portfolio Management, a proprietary, holistic investment and planning tool, and wrote Personal Financial Planning, a textbook that has become an industry bible and is required reading at many universities around the country.

He also keeps a full-time position as associate professor of finance at Pace University in New York, where he teaches financial planning and investments. He was also co-director of the Investment Program at the New School. "I like working with students," Altfest says. "We also have a big intern program at the firm. Education and learning has always been part of our mission."

Indeed, Karen Altfest, principal advisor and executive vice president of client relations for the firm (as well as a Ph.D. in history), launched Pace University's CFP program and worked with her husband at the New School. She is also the former president and chairwoman of the New York Chapter of the Financial Planning Association and former chairwoman of the Northeast Region for NAPFA.

But Karen Altfest's true passion has been educating and working closely with women. She conducts educational seminars for recent widows and women looking to retire, and her groundbreaking Financially Savvy Woman programs, including "Women's Financial $pa" events, have become legendary in the industry.

"Women are not concerned with benchmarks, charts and graphs," Karen Altfest says. "They want to talk about how their finances impact their lives. They want to know: 'Can I pay the rent? Can I take a vacation? Can I take care of my children? Can I take care of myself if I live as long as my parents?'"

"When I see the light go on in their eyes," she adds, "that makes it all worthwhile. That's why we do this." - Charles Paikert

Read more:

•    Industry Leadership: Ron Carson
•    Practice Management: Joni Youngwirth
•    Tech Innovator: Sheryl Rowling
•    Portfolio Innovator: Rob Arnott
•    New Generation: Richard Brown

• Return to the Influencer Awards main page