Building A Client Base with Joel Isaacson
Joel S. Isaacson, Founder and Chairman Joel Isaacson & Co
Founder and Chairman, Joel Isaacson, is considered by many to be a leader in the industry, helping clients and their families achieve their goals and sharing his knowledge with colleagues and the next generation of industry leaders. As a teacher as well as a practitioner,
Joel is active in many industry organizations, having served on numerous boards and speaking on topics to share his insights, including: the New York Chapter of the International Association for Financial Planning, now FPA; Chairman of the Personal Financial Planning Committee of the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants; the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Estate Planning Council. He has taught financial and tax planning at New York University, The New School in New York City, and Iona College.
He holds a BS in accounting from Lehigh University and a MBA in financial planning from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, where he was recently honored as their ‘man of the year’.
Frequently named one of America’s Top Financial Advisors by Worth magazine, Joel is often quoted in financial publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week and Fortune, as well as on radio and television.
Listen to this episode as Seth and Joel discuss:
- The key factors that lead to the unprecedented growth of Joel’s firm.
- Getting recognitions and accolades in press.
- Post Covid challenges in the financial advisor industry.
- Team Building and getting the most out of your staff.
- The most common challenges that the industry faces now.
,,, and much more.
Seth Greene: 1:14
Let’s go back in time, how did you get started in the business?
Joel Isaacson 1:32
Wow, it was a different kind of a business back then. But I was I was working in San Francisco for an accounting firm. And one day I looked in the paper and there was a MBA in financial planning at a school in San Francisco Golden Gate University. At the time, it was the only one in the country offering financial planning as a degree. Back then I think the CFP, you could take, I don’t even think you had to take an exam. I don’t I think it was sort of like, you know, pretty straightforward. So I wanted to get the education. And I left my job with a big eight accounting firm, went through the grad school, and then came back to New York and, you know, took a job as an entry level position there.
Seth Greene 2:14
And then I’m sure the longer version is in some of those articles or the books, but then how did you get from there to where you are now.
Joel Isaacson 2:22
So when I came back to New York, I worked for so and I took a 50% salary cut, you know, because again, it was an entry level position. And you know, and I probably learned more in that year of what not to do, it was someone who was one of these people that charges a lot for the plan, and then didn’t have the ongoing revenues to you know, keep it going. And these were the days, it’s a little embarrassed to say we used to do plans by modem used to cost us 1500 hours each plan to do by modem to get them done. And so I started with this person. And while I was there, I got recruited. My background was accounting firms, I got recruited by one of the top accounting firms in New York to start their practice. And I believe we were the first one to register as an investment advisor was in 1985. And, and that was great, it was really good chance to, you know, kind of use the NBA use the opportunity to start a practice and I was only 26 at the time.
Seth Greene 3:24
And then how did you get from there to the you know, I mean, you’re a leader in the industry, how did that transition? How did that growth curve happen?
Joel Isaacson 3:35
Again, yeah, so you know, when, again, it was a, it was a great chance, because you know, as well as things where I started bringing in clients, but you know, when you’re an accounting firm, one of the things you you know, you always get promised by all your partners is they’re gonna keep bringing you clients and bringing your clients. One thing I really learned and I also started teaching back then I started teaching the CFP. But one thing I learned was don’t depend on your partners for business. So I started, you know, being able to bring in business. And then at the accounting firm, where they made me a partner after 10 years, I also saw how much the managing partners were making. And I said, there’s something wrong here. So I went out on a we went on my own with two of the people from the firm, you know, as partners, we started, and it started with three people and it just built up, you know, slowly by surely by always, you know, putting the client first. You know, we would never on the sales side, you know, always the planning side. And, you know, again, just a lot of hard work client by client building up, you know, to the point where now we have I think over $6 billion in assets under management.
Seth Greene 4:38
That is absolutely incredible. How have What do you think, have been some of the biggest factors responsible for such amazing growth?
Joel Isaacson 4:47
Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, again, also is like sort of was, to a certain extent, some of it being early, you know, back then I think it and I’m not sure I would say we’re a full profession yet. You know, I think that we still have to do more at the college. levels to get education into the schools for financial planning. But I think it was being early, I think it was also having a CPA and, you know, experience back then. And I also got involved with, you know, with teaching at schools, I got involved with the FPA back then it was called the ISP, I was present in the New York chapter. So it’s constantly hustling and networking, we didn’t do any marketing. But it was just really an opportunity to, you know, develop clients in New York, you know, and again, it was really one at a time, a couple things where we got into when I was teaching, I got introduced to some people that worked in the Benefits Office at IBM. So we got an opportunity to, you know, go off to some corporate programs, and some of my students did there. And through contact, we also got involved with equitable life insurance, which at one point, we probably had 20 executives from there, and they used to have a financial planning program. So you know, those type of relationships, and that’s really what it was, it was all relationships or referrals from, you know, people we met in the business, and they looked at us as a firm that was, again, fee only, you know, high quality. And, and I think also having the tax practice gave us a, you know, an edge also in being able to kind of be more of the one stop shop for individuals.
Seth Greene 6:18
That makes a lot of sense, how you’ve garnered a lot of press accolades over the years, how have you been able to get that recognition?
Joel Isaacson 6:28
Yeah, you know, again, nowadays is a lot tougher. But in the beginning, you know, part of one of the people got involved with was involved with the New York Times. And so back in the 80s, you know, and, and the journal, you know, we knew some of the people there also, but it was really just, you know, a lot of networking opportunities. So one that the times took a, you know, liking to me, and he used to write a column every Saturday on your money. And back, then it meant a lot to be in the press. Now, there’s so much press, and so much out there, PR wise was there. But if you got involved with the times, and you got that kind of prospect, then it became a good catalyst to other press and different things. And then I think, you know, again, a lot of the organizations were involved with with the right ones, you know, we were early, involved with nappo, with the FPA. And, you know, and again, it’s, you know, is always one of those things like we weren’t in this for the short run, we weren’t looking to make a big hit, we were in this for the long run. And we always felt if we took care of clients, that the rest would come there. And that’s also I think, part of the way is every time we got involved, like, we also didn’t find fire, the brokers we didn’t, you know, bring in new lawyers, we got to know the lawyers, we got to know the brokers. And some of those people that we met through clients actually became great referral sources to us over time.
Seth Greene 7:45
How has the COVID pandemic affected your clients in your business?
Joel Isaacson 7:52
So I think, you know, it’s, well, I think it’s changed our business fundamentally, as to how we deliver it, I think, you know, for a lot of our clients, you know, the zoom feature is something that I think they like, so, you know, that’s there, we also have a lot of young staff that are having babies. So we had been trying to, before the pandemic, figure out how to do remote work, and for people to be accountable for it and different things. And obviously, we get thrown into the fire with that. So it’s worked out? Well. Our business has been okay, you know, is, I mean, as the, you know, I would say the third big, black swan event in the last 20 years, it’s, I think it was more taxing this time, you know, from some of the other ones. And, you know, especially around New York last March and April, the kind of that dread and the you know, that it felt like the black cloud over the city in the whole country and different things, was a tough one. So I think we’ve, you know, we’re more valuable to our clients in tough markets than we are in a good market. 2019. You know, the market did amazing clients were happy, you know, no big deal. I think getting through clients through the tough times, these black swan events are, are the key for what we do, and to have had a build lasting relationship. And probably, I would say, this pandemic, for some reason, because I think, you know, it just hit people so close to home net, probably more people panicked a little bit this time than in the past. and stuff, but, you know, businesses, again, is we grow our top line, probably seven to 10% a year. So last year was a little bit different in, you know, the new business part, you know, we still, we still grew nicely, but I would say, you know, not necessarily referrals, but new business slowed down a little bit only from a standpoint of, you know, all the lunches that you have, and seeing people that I think, are a good catalyst from that stuff, but we’re starting to see it pick up again, and I think, you know, for our clients, a lot of it became is figuring out life, you know, do they stay in the city, do they, you know, they move the Hamptons, I’ve always spent a lot of time we deal with tax issues in New York and everybody thinks it’s easy to get out of New York. taxes because they’re living in Connecticut for a year or, you know, upstate New York or things like that. So, you know, sometimes we have to be the bearer of bad news on certain situations, but our clients been amazing, you know, they, they are our greatest resource. And, you know, I would say, you know, again, we got them all through good, I don’t think at the, you know, the middle of the pandemic, you know, back last March, April, I don’t think anyone would have felt that it would finish the year up like they did, it was a, you know, crazy year overall,
Seth Greene 10:31
absolutely, who’s an ideal client for your firm?
Joel Isaacson 10:36
You know, we, you know, it’s a, you know, for us somewhere, just someone that really could use kind of that one stop shop of, you know, having, you know, things all in one place, so, from corporate executives, to doctors, to lawyers, to anyone in the five to 25 million ranges, that kind of our bread and butter, and then probably 20% of our clients are in the 25 and up category. So, again, it’s, you know, for us, we also try and do sets a little different is, you know, fair fees for clients. So in that in a you m shop, generally, you know, so we try and do fair fee. So wherever we can add value for the money, that’s the most important thing, because, you know, what we find is with that kind of relationship where it’s more retainer based, that, you know, clients look at your as their advocate, and and, and that is an adversary, which I think sometimes with the IOM, you know, you’re always trying to take assets away from someone else with us, we don’t care what the assets are, as long as it’s the right thing for clients and the people that are handling money and doing the right thing. And again, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s nice sometimes to have co pilots on things,
Seth Greene 11:44
you’ve achieved so much success over the decades, what’s your biggest challenge now?
Joel Isaacson 11:50
Um, you know, I think part of this, Seth is, you know, and for some of those on the back nine, I think, you know, it’s, you know, like, right now, we are transitioning, like, I turned over a CEO role last year to one of my younger partners, because I think it was necessary on some of the technology and different things. And for me, to kind of get back into the, you know, into the area of just, you know, dealing with clients and mentoring staff and things like that, I think the biggest challenge going forward for the industry is finding good professionals, you know, people that, you know, want to make this into a profession want to have a career with this thing, and go forward. And then I think, you know, what we saw also is like, I don’t know, probably in the last few months, just the whole Bitcoin, you know, Reddit rally, you know, just dealing with clients who all sudden their kids are geniuses, you know, that a buying GameStop and different things. And everybody all sudden became a risk taker, you know, with the, you know, the Tesla’s of the world and all the, you know, all the crypto currency and everything like that. So, you know, it’s really, I think the challenging point now is just to really for clients to understand fundamentals, and that valuations matter, and investment fundamentals will be a sense, to me, part of it is, you know, whether, you know, on the investment side, you know, things change radically and every time you think that they do they kind of tend to you know, revert back to the old ways of doing things.
Seth Greene 13:14
Your Passion is obvious, what do you like best about what you do?
Joel Isaacson 13:19
You know, it’s, it’s, it’s an interesting one, because you kind of think about stuff in life and say, like, did you do you make a difference on things? You know, I’ve been doing this for 40 years. And, you know, you, you know, you see all these people that are doing things in the military or in science, you know, Dr. Fauci and everyone fighting this virus, and you say, you know, are we just making rich people richer? But, you know, I think part of that I would say, Seth, is our relationship with our clients is that type is like, you know, like, I’m in the middle one of my clients died three weeks ago, where I’m the trustee, I’m the executor and now dealing with her, you know, her nieces and sister in law in different things. And it’s that kind of trust that people have in us in the relationships we have that are there. I mean, sometimes it’s, you know, it’s above and beyond certain things, like, you know, just dealing with having to watch someone, you know, slowly die is not an easy thing. But, you know, the intimacy of our relationship is is hard to, it’s hard to be, you know, it’s just that and I think that part of being, like being the client advocate and being on that side, I think, is the part that really is the driving force. And I you know, I think the pandemic for me set it up so that I look at this and say like, my dad retired, never really retired. He, he liked working, I mean, his clients started retiring, and dying off and different things, but I really like working with people and helping them and and i think that part of, you know, just seeing, you know, the family relationship and kind of working with people to get them like, again, another one my favorite clients was from publicity. In the 80s we were in the Daily News and someone that probably never made $60,000 or more than 60,000 our life she was a secretary of the firm and I don’t know I helped her with a, you know, project last week, she got very emotional about and stuff. But you know, someone that was just, you know, save scraps and you know, little bit in the 401k. And she’s, you know, she’s probably worth three or $4 million. Now, I’m not sure we would have taken her on as a client, like we did in the 80s. Now you know, where we started with it, but to see where she is, and be able to tell us go buy a car, don’t worry about it, you know, you don’t have to worry about money and different things and to see, you know, how smoothly we made her life has been very rewarding overall,
Seth Greene 15:30
that’s beautiful. You’ve also built an incredible team, how do you get everyone doing what they’re supposed to do at the right time? in the right way? How do you how do you develop yourself as a leader, because I know, you are always improving, you’re kind of committed to learning and committed to growing talk a little bit about that aspect of the business. You know, I
Joel Isaacson 15:54
and thank you for all the nice things you’re saying. So that’s, I think the part of, you know, for, you know, IT staff is, I think, for staff, a lot of it is that, you know, the on the job training, you know, that there’s not a lot of the people that came to us that necessarily thought of financial planning as career but through friends or, you know, relationships, they still work for us. And then I think the way they saw us treat clients and their relationships for clients was, I think that, you know, that’s our, that’s our greater resources, those relationships with clients. So it was always you know, was it you know, like, you see in some of the boiler room stuff, you know, where they treat him, like, you know, this is just way to get money and take money from people. In ours, it’s really the respect, that’s client in that part. And now, you know, I see the next generation is the relationship, our staff is having babies, and the clients are sending them gifts, and, you know, it’s like, it’s just a nice family relationship there. So I always treated you know, I think staff to learn, brought them into client relationships, I’ve had some people like, you know, within the first six months to sitting in meetings, and it’s just a, I think, a chance, and then, you know, they see these very high level executives and doctors and, you know, hospital, people that are running companies, and they, they see their reliance on us, and it’s a it’s a very heady thing, and it’s, it’s intoxicating, to, you know, to work with people and for them to listen. And, and again, we also learn from clients, I’ve, I had my anniversary, I actually thank my clients, because, you know, over time, I just seen their ethics and, and the treatment and the way they handle things in business, and they’ve inspired me.
Seth Greene 17:35
What else do you want to share that we didn’t think to ask you?
Joel Isaacson 17:39
Um, I would just say, you know, again, from a standpoint of the field, I do think that, you know, aspects of the field that there’s still more to be done with the schools, I don’t think the professional organizations necessarily do as much with the schools, but I do feel like with accounting, you know, the big thing will be is more and more of the undergraduate programs, and then, you know, kind of the job placement. So I think they try, like, again, there’s programs here, but it’s always kind of like dependent on who’s running the program and who they have relationships with. But I do feel like for the field, that is more and more that at the undergraduate level be helpful. And I think for people in school, you know, if they saw it that way, I think it kind of goes in a cycle to take it to that next level is profession. To me, the CFP is nice, but I don’t I don’t consider passing exam as really the thing that’s there. I think people need to learn more. And I’ve taught, and I remember when I used to teach, and I’d get off the curriculum a little bit, try and give practical knowledge. People didn’t really want to learn that way. They just really wanted to pass the test.