Years ago, Beverly Hills planner Jeff Fishman sat at a restaurant near his office for lunch with two bankers and actor Jeremy Sisto. Now starring in the ABC show Suburgatory, Sisto was at the time a character on the critically acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under.
"The bankers were going on and on about how great he is," Fishman recalls, "When one of them asked me, 'Isn't he phenomenal?' and I had to say, 'I really have no idea.'" At that point, Sisto pointed to Fishman and said, "And that's why I work with Jeff."
Before hiring Fishman, the actor says he met with other planners whom he described as "slick and 'big-wiggy.'" By contrast, Fishman, an RIA, is a family guy whom Sisto says he enjoys talking with and who maintains a sense of humor about money, while being financially conservative. "That's the kind of person I need on my team," says Sisto, who's been with Fishman for about a decade.
Over 17 years, Fishman, 44, has built a thriving practice of 300 clients and roughly $500 million in assets under management in the dually registered firm he founded, JSF Financial. Nearly half of his clients are in the entertainment industry: heads of studios, founders of production companies, entertainment lawyers, top comedy writers and agents, and a dozen prominent actors.
But Fishman describes his personal and professional style as being "antithetical" to much of the Hollywood culture. For one, he and his team aren't interested in catering to high-maintenance stars who come with mega egos.
When offered the chance to do so, they have quietly taken a pass, Fishman says, describing a couple of troubled celebrities he says he was happy to avoid. "Some of them are used to having people fawn over them," he says, "which is not what we do."
By contrast, his approach to counseling often lavishly compensated performers and executives is decidedly unsexy. "It's a very challenging type of client," Fishman explains. "I tell them, 'You've got to be humble and realize the good times may not last forever.'"
That means an up-and-coming writer who has sold his first TV show and finds himself making serious money overnight gets no encouragement to spend much of it - at least not right away.
First, Fishman insists that clients build a 12-month financial reserve - double the amount many planners typically recommend - to insulate against the vagaries of the famously fickle industry. "If their expenses are $25,000 a month, that's $300,000," he says, which can take time to accumulate. "One of the biggest issues is always how do you deal with the fact that your income can change dramatically at any point in time."
Sisto, 37, says that from time to time he has called Fishman to propose cutting into his reserve by buying more real estate or investing in a restaurant - a typical actor's investment. Every time, he says, Fishman has talked him out of it.
"I need my impulsive decisions to be monitored," Sisto says. "Most often, he's someone who advises me against my ideas."
Once a prudent reserve is in place, Fishman urges clients who aren't homeowners to begin saving for a sizable down payment on their first house, while simultaneously maxing out yearly contributions to IRAs and pensions, as well as to 529 college savings plans for any children.
But even after a house is purchased, prudence continues to be Fishman's watchword. He prods clients to pay off their mortgages as soon as possible and to pay down all credit cards. In other words, for those clients who heed their planner, much of their new wealth gets stashed in the proverbial trunk of a tree like a shrewd squirrel's hoard against a cold winter.
Fishman shared a cautionary story about another client to illustrate why. "He had been a producer on a well-known reality TV show when he left to do a new show," Fishman explains. But the new show sank before it launched and the client failed to get his old job back. After being unemployed for more than a year, he went through his entire reserve and took a $50,000 line of credit against his house before finding a new gig for substantially less money than his previous position had paid. He thanked Fishman for pushing him to prepare so judiciously.
"If I hadn't," Fishman says the client told him, "I would have nothing." The planner adds, "He hit the bump. Thank God he listened to me."
WHO YOU KNOW
One cornerstone of Fishman's practice is the substantial database he maintains of a "cadre of top advisors and professionals" he taps to provide trusted references to his clients. It includes litigators, bankruptcy lawyers, real estate brokers and lawyers, appraisers, car brokers, conflict resolution specialists, credit repair companies for clients who have suffered from identity theft, specialists who deal with drunken driving citations, psychologists, therapists, obstetricians and gynecologists, among many others.
"It's these kinds of relationships and connections that really help clients," he says. "If you are going to do comprehensive planning, you have to have these networks in place."
It's the holistic aspect of his work that most appeals to Fishman. "So many of these people , they can have so many balls in the air at the same time," he says. "We take some of that burden off their shoulders."
To that end, Fishman has assembled a unique team. His wife, Shari Fishman, is chief compliance officer. His brother Mordechai Fishman serves as a managing director. His father sells insurance, and his own unaffiliated company, Martin Fishman & Associates, shares office space with his son's firm. The commission-based side of JSF is an affiliate of Mid Atlantic Capital Group, a Pittsburgh-based broker-dealer and financial services company.
A senior planner in the firm is Don Peck, half-brother of legendary actor Gregory Peck, who has his famous brother's thick, unruly eyebrows. For the handful of Fishman clients from the ranks of the truly famous, Peck can offer firsthand experience of life lived in a celebrity family and how best to manage it. He and Sisto talk frequently about how the actor and his family - Sisto and his second wife, Addie Lane, have a 2-year-old daughter and were expecting a baby boy - are handling day-to-day finances.
Raised in tony Hancock Park and now living in the Beverlywood district, Fishman has a second-generation Angeleno's appreciation for his city's many attractions that have nothing to do with Hollywood. In that sense, he is well positioned to help the Hollywood arriviste make the transition to a sustainable local lifestyle - as long as he or she is disciplined enough to delay gratification for a while.
"That's the perspective I have," Fishman says, adding that in his free time he likes to watch sports and visit L.A.'s famous Farmers Market. "There's nothing like sitting outside and doing that. It's like going back to my roots. That's part of the joy of being in Los Angeles."
In part because he's at the point where he can pick and choose his clients, Fishman finds his work to be very fulfilling. "All we do," he says, "is help people all day long."
Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.
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