Helping Small Business: Take the Lead in Client's Plans

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Mark Jones considers himself and his team at SunTrust Bank as clients’ quarterbacks, especially for the endgame (retirement).

Business owners are busy — particularly those directing dozens of workers and a decent-sized company to run. But managing their own benefit plans, along with those, perhaps, of their own employees? Not something they’re usually able to tackle.

“When we go to meetings, [clients] often forget, secretaries are dragging them out of other meetings,” says SunTrust Bank’s director of employee benefit solutions in Atlanta. “We know they don’t have time to focus on all things you want to make sure are done the right way. So that’s what business owners are looking at from us.”

As a business grows from its shaky start-up stage to a more mature enterprise, so too can the financial needs of its owner. Founders of companies larger than a corner deli, but small enough where they know every employees’ name, may be champions at running their own firms. But when it comes to their retirement and investment needs? The smart CEOs know when to bring on a chief of their own.

“A financial advisor can hopefully serve as the one face for a client, talking about equity in a business but also how to protect class flow,” says Sophie Schmitt, a senior analyst with Aite Group’s wealth management team. “For small business owners, that can help avoid a big headache.”

The headache that can come from overseeing their own sponsored retirement plan is definitely one most owners don’t want to develop, says SunTrust’s Jones from experience. Yet he says they should consider the benefits.

For a struggling company, one only able to pay basic expenses, a 401K plan is off the table. But for firms doing well, a sponsored plan with a match is a bonus not just for employees, but for owners looking to salt additional funds for their own retirement. Here, they can save a lot more than a SEP IRA.

“It really benefits them,” says Jones. “You can put a huge amount of money away on a tax free basis. You can put darn near $40,000 into a retirement through your company match called a catch-up. But it does come with a cost.”

That cost? In order for owners to take advantage of a match, they need to offer the same benefit to their employees. But that rewards can also come back to an owner — by helping keep valuable employees. Having a phalanx of good people, who can run a company without an owner, increases the value of a business.

Richard Watson of Wells Fargo Bank echoes that thought. He pushes that idea further, nothing business owners sometimes forget how crucial employees are to the value of a firm, and don’t consider them when architecting an exit plan.

“Often times the owner is most vital person in the business,” says Watson, the senior director of planning for Wells Fargo Private Bank’s business advisory services group based in Irvine, Calif. “If we then have to remove them, the business is worth less.”

So Watson says a good advisor will raise that question early in the relationship with a client, by asking who handles the business when an owner goes on vacation.

Having more qualified people who can take over means a company can continue to pull in profits, even if the founder is fishing or skiing. That’s very attractive to a buyer.

“Sometimes we say to a client,’ I know you want to transition in the next 12 to 18 months, but we think you need to book revenue for another three years and then go to market,’” says Watson. “That’s not always good news. But that’s the job of a good advisory team.”

An advisor’s responsibilities can certainly include helping business owners value their business, address succession planning tax issues, and plan for their retirement.

But Zuzana Brochu, a certified financial planner, says while she often helps owners work through balance sheet concerns, she also holds their hand through tough personal issues as well.

A client wealth strategist and senior vice president at People’s United Wealth Management (part of People’s United Bank), Brochu’s had clients who want to give the business to a child, yet know their son or daughter may not be capable. She’s also worked with family members set to inherit a company, and having to navigate between siblings where one won’t work for the other.

“The family dynamic must be taken into account,” she says. “But you also have to ensure business and retirement goals are met as well.”

She knows owners are sensitive to protecting their company, but also their legacy.

Often that’s not just ensuring their name lives on, but that the people who helped them build their business are protected as well.

As a financial planner and wealth strategist, she knows her first instinct is to make sure the numbers add up the right way for her clients.

But she also realizes the right answer does not always come at the bottom of a column of figures.

“As planners we are sometimes all too ready to provide a solution that will maximize financials over the long-term,” she says. But financial planning is much more than numbers. It’s my job to help you make a decision you feel good about in the end.”

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Practice management Small business