Brett Ellen has a modest goal: He wants to make American Financial Network (AFN) the "go-to financial planning firm" for middle-market American businesses and their employees. As founder and president of the Calabasas, Calif., firm, which offers securities through Securities America, Ellen is well on the way to making that happen.

Ellen is the top-producing rep for Securities America, both in firm revenue and assets under management, a distinction he has held at every broker-dealer he's worked with in the last 25 years. The midsize firms he serves-they have $5 to $500 million in annual revenue-provide a big portion of the firm's planning revenue.

Ellen specializes in wealth management and corporate benefit planning services for business owners and corporate executives; the two groups comprise about two-thirds of his clientele. With a staff of 22 full-time employees, he manages assets well in excess of $1 billion for approximately 2,500 individuals and 500 corporate clients. The practice is fee and commission based, with commissions coming from insurance products.

Unpacking the services that AFN offers is like sorting through a set of nested boxes. For example, Ellen might do financial planning for some or all of a firm's employees, and at the same time do corporate planning for the business. The firm's corporate planning advisors might even help structure low-interest loans between family members in the business.

His firm often bundles the assets of a firm's employees and executives into one total under management-with the fees dropping to 50 basis points for aggregate assets of $10 million or more. That's a great deal for both the company and the employees. "We help clients grow their businesses in a variety of ways," Ellen explains.

 

COLLABORATING FOR SUCCESS

How can one firm handle these myriad issues? In a word, teamwork. Indeed, when Ellen and his father started AFN 27 years ago, they were already looking to collaborate with other professionals: accountants, attorneys, financial planners and insurance experts. Partner and Managing Director Denise Villanueva describes Ellen as "the ultimate team player-like the Magic Johnson of financial planning."

Looking inside the AFN box, one discovers another box: the Financial Solutions Alliance (FSA), an elite group of financial service providers collaborating to meet the needs of both individual and corporate clients. According to Villanueva, the goal of FSA is to provide clients with the best legal, tax, banking and other specialists available.

Members of the FSA include the national business-law firm Greenberg Traurig, the tax compliance and consulting firm WTAS and the investment banking firm Houlihan Lokey. Ellen notes that his clients pay the other firms directly. American Financial Network takes no fees in this process.

Another box inside AFN's network is the Collaborative Services Platform (CSP), which serves as a teacher and coach for planners navigating the middle market of private and public companies and their owners or executives. The relationship usually begins with a two-day CSP summit, where attendees share profiles of their practices with the group and learn from specialists in private-placement variable universal life insurance (PPVUL), real estate, executive benefits, captive insurance programs, roll-ups, investment banking, and tax and exit planning. The sessions, which are limited to 30 participants, offer continuing education credit for CFP designees.

 

KIDS AND PHILANTHROPY

Ellen's interests aren't limited to companies and their employees. The father of five also runs a finance blog for children, www.KidsFinanceCoach.com. The site features interactive programs that teach kids (and their parents) everything from the basics to more advanced subjects. There are also coloring pages, activities using calculators, money-savvy piggy banks and links for parents wanting to raise socially conscious kids.

When it comes to philanthropy, Ellen practices what he preaches. In 2009, he won the Community Leadership Award in Mentoring Excellence from Investment News for his Turn Kindness On, an organization that fosters community involvement and social responsibility in children. "There are two classes of charitable planning: tax-related charitable planning and true philanthropic planning," Ellen says. "The best situation is where the two marry each other."

With so many strategic boxes in his grasp, Ellen is clearly a man with a plan. We can only wait to see what he comes up with next.

 Jim Grote, CFP, contributes regularly to Financial Planning

 

Brett Ellen

American Financial Network

 

Credentials:

CFP; 27 years at the firm he built with his father

 

Assets under management:

$1 billion+

 

My Opinion: "There are two kinds of charitable planning: tax- related charitable planning and true philanthropic planning. The best situation, of course, is where the two marry each other."