Meditation, at a financial services firm? A focus on developing well-rounded individuals?

Fusion Advisor Network, the Elmsford, N.Y.-based group that provides broker-dealer support and practice management advice to independent financial advisors, couldn't envision it any other way.

“We see a lot of broker dealers talk about practice management and marketing, but we don’t see anyone talking about mental health, balance and mindfulness,” said Stuart Silverman, chief executive officer of Fusion Advisor Network. The group just launched a program called THRIVE, designed to assist Fusion advisors in managing their health, wellness and stress levels, it shows them how to reconcile the demands of running a financial advisory practice with being individuals with outside lives.

Scott Tobe, managing partner at Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Signature Financial Planning, one of the network’s 120 member firms, is glad that Fusion thinks that way.

Tobe is known among his family and friends as a winsome extrovert. He was the type of man who can greet almost any situation on any day whilst looking for the upside. After the credit market imploded and triggered the Great Recession, however, life was frighteningly nerve-wracking for Scott. At the end of 2009, revenues at Signature Financial Planning were down 15% from 2008. Clients were nervous, and constantly needed him to assuage their fears: Is their money safe? Is now the time to sell? For the only time in the firm’s history, Tobe had to dip into its six- to twelve-month reserve account to pay its operating expenses.

Tobe is normally outdoorsy, an avid skier. But in those days, he recalled, he would come home, and plop his athletic frame onto the couch, feeling completely drained. He had not realized it at the time, but he was internalizing all of the daily pressures of running the firm. He was behaving like a different person, someone more moody and withdrawn. While he and his wife, Becca, entertained a friend for dinner one evening in late 2008, she quipped: ‘I have to check the stock ticker to see what kind of mood you’ll be in’.

“When she made that comment, I realized I was being affected by an outside force,” Tobe said in a recent interview. “I had to try not to allow the outside world to affect my emotions.”

Trouble was that Tobe did not know how to achieve an emotional work-life balance on his own. He cares about his clients, and the staff at the firm, which his father, Stephen Tobe, founded 20 years ago and retired from in 2005. All too readily, he put in long hours to maintain open communications with clients—via emails, conference calls, newsletters, whatever it took—to assure them that they should maintain their existing financial plans and ride out the crisis. 

Ultimately, Tobe found some helpful clues through the THRIVE program. During a recent meeting, Tobe heard mountaineer, author and motivational speaker Alan Hobson describe the feeling of scaling Mt. Everest, then contracting acute leukemia three years later—a lethal disease normally. Hobson survived the affliction.

“He really emphasized how important it is to have a positive attitude, and to look at the positives that are in your life, and to focus on the positives,” Tobe said. “That helped me to refocus and start looking at the wonderful things in my life.”

Advisors are essentially small business owners, whose passion for their profession can easily consume everything else in their lives: their families, hobbies and interests, said Philip Palaveev, president of Fusion Advisor Network.

“People don’t segment their work and personal lives,” Palaveev said in a telephone interview. “The two merge when you run a business very easily. It consumes a tremendous amount of energy, resources and time.”

The THRIVE program will consist of retreats, regular events, advisor clubs that organize the members into groups focused on similar interests and hobbies, as well as other supportive information and tools via a newsletter and Web site. The first THRIVE event will be a retreat in New York’s Catskill Mountains in May 2011. That meeting will get advisors to talk about how to stay physically and mentally active past age 40. In July, a group of 30 advisors will attend a Mindful Leadership and Wellness Retreat, designed in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  Advisors will go through a four-day class on managing stress, mediation and life balance.

Tobe, 33, learned to focus on his wife, parents, siblings and friends. Tobe said Hobson’s story also gave him the confidence to guide his clients through the crisis, even though it was unlike any that he, his father—or any other financial services firm, for that matter—had seen in recent memory. His father offered tips on how to reach out to clients. Becca was a constant listening ear, and also offered advice when Tobe asked for it.

He enlisted the help of meditation teachers, who came to the office to work with his staff. They were skeptical, to be sure. “There was some eye rolling. I could read their expressions,” Tobe said. “The truth is that we all in the industry work extremely hard.”

Tobe said the THRIVE tips on finding inner peace, calm and balance were beneficial, and everyone in the firm has come around to agree.

The firm’s clientele has benefited. Due to the high amount of contact through the downturn, Signature had a record number of referrals. “A lot of clients felt we were there for them,” Tobe said. “They said we did a great job for them through the difficult market. They gained confidence in the firm.” 

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