PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

Joni Youngwirth

Commonwealth Financial Network

To be a standout advisory firm, it's no longer enough to draw up stellar client financial plans or design winning asset allocation strategies. If a business is to thrive, it must also be at the top of its game in operations, marketing, recruiting and risk management.

Not every advisor is comfortable with these responsibilities. But Joni Youngwirth, managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network and the winner of this year's Practice Management Influencer Award, wants to help.

Start with an attitude shift, Youngwirth says: "If you keep saying, 'I'm not good at managing people,' you're not going to be good at managing people." That's just one of the many nuggets she imparts to Commonwealth's 1,450 advisors - about 95% of whom pass through her department in any given year seeking advice on how to be better business people.

Commonwealth was early to recognize the growing professionalization of the financial advice industry. Even as the wirehouses were winding down their training programs, the independent broker-dealer launched Youngwirth's 11-member practice management group in 1998 as part of an effort to give newly independent brokers the support they needed to grow their businesses.

"Joni carried the flag in helping to create that value proposition," says Matt Lynch, principal of Tiburon Strategic Advisors, the San Francisco Bay Area consulting firm. That effort, and others, have paid off. According to Financial Planning's annual broker-dealer survey, Commonwealth's 2012 revenues of $712 million ranked it fourth among independents.

When advisors call Youngwirth's office, it's often with a small annoyance they are trying to fix: how to motivate employees, for instance, or improve their marketing efforts. Very quickly, though, Youngwirth steers the conversation to vision. "We'll dig deeper to understand what is going on, and then we'll take them through a business-based process that is right-sized for a small organization," she says.

Yes, that means writing a business plan. And yes, that means designing systems that will help achieve the end goals. "Here we have all these financial planners, and yet they resist business planning," she says. "So many of them are running by the seat of their pants."

Business plans need not be too long or cumbersome, Youngwirth says. Shorter is often better, as advisors really get to the meat of what they are trying to accomplish. Only then do efforts like marketing and human resources make sense.

"The recurring message that Joni has been known for is that this isn't a hobby, it's a lot of work," Lynch notes.

To further push advisors, Youngwirth - whose career path includes three years as a U.S. Air Force dietitian - started the yearlong Power in Practice program aimed at turbocharging revenue growth within individual practices. About 40 advisors participate in the annual program, begun four years ago, which delves into six practice management areas. Roughly one-sixth of Commonwealth's offices have participated. Participating advisors have achieved revenue growth of 22 to 47 percentage points above their peers, depending on their yearly production, Commonwealth says.

Youngwirth's impact stretches well beyond Commonwealth, through speaking engagements, guest columns (including in Financial Planning) and blogs. "She's always one of those names," says Julie Littlechild, recipient of last year's Practice Management Influencer Award and president of Toronto-based Advisor Impact, which provides advisors with research and training. "When people are planning a conference and they say, 'What speaker should we get?' she's at the top of the list." - Ilana Polyak

Read more:

•    Industry Leadership: Ron Carson
•    Tech Innovator: Sheryl Rowling
•    Portfolio Innovator: Rob Arnott
•    New Generation: Richard Brown
•    Lifetime Achievement: Lew & Karen Altfest

• Return to the Influencer Awards main page