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Practice Management

A growing demand for financial services for the special-needs population is spawning a niche advisory industry specializing in providing them.

This Practice Management article is intended for financial advisors only (registered representatives of broker/dealers or associated persons of Registered Investment Advisors).

On a recent busy day this spring, Scott Adams rushed in late to an appointment at his office at the Community America Credit Union, where he works as a financial advisor.

Dressed in his trademark jeans and open-collar shirt, he explained, apologetically, that he unexpectedly had to “hay the horses” before he could head off for the office. Adams isn’t in rural Nebraska or South Dakota working as a farmer and running a small advisory practice on the side. He actually works full-time in bustling Kansas City, Missouri, commuting in from his home in Lawson, about 20 miles northeast, where he lives with his wife and his six kids on a former horse farm that is now a budding goat dairy.

If that doesn’t sound like your typical financial advisor, it’s not. But the real way in which Adams has differentiated himself is with the niche he’s carved out. He and his business partner Heath Burch have a very special clientele: families with children who have special needs. It’s a market niche he has a special affinity for: three of his own children have special needs.

“I started working as a financial advisor right out of school back in 1991,” Adams says. “I had majored in political science, but there were no jobs when I graduated. A friend’s dad ran an agency in Kansas City, so I started out working there with Connecticut Mutual selling 401(k) plans. I moved into management fairly early, and worked for a series of insurance companies.”  Then he decided that management wasn’t for him, and he decided to go into planning.

That was about the time Adams met his future wife, Lisa, who had a doctorate in education with a specialization in autism and behavior disorders, and was running a private practice of her own.

They got married, and while Adams was working for MetLife, they decided they wanted to adopt a child. When they went to see about an available child, the state agency said, “Oh, by the way, there are two siblings.” Adams recalls that his wife turned to him and said he would be an “ogre” if he only would consider taking one of the kids in the family. “So we took all three.”

As it happened, all three children had special needs of one kind or another. Shortly after the adoptions were arranged, his wife became pregnant with the first of three birth children.

Adams says that as he and his wife—who gave up her practice to apply her skills to the needs of their own brood—negotiated the many issues faced by parents of special-needs children. That included finding experts, arranging for appropriate schools, and thinking about how to care for their children after they were grown.

At first, the couple naturally turned to others for help, but as their expertise grew, Adams found himself becoming a resource for the many other parents out there with children like his own. Then he realized just how big the demand is for this type of help.

“Initially, I just started doing a monthly workshop, mainly as a way to give back after all the help that had been offered to us,” he says. “But pretty soon I realized there were an enormous number of families facing these issues and others of their own.”

Growing Demand
After about six months, he says he was overwhelmed. ”I begged Heath, who was the smartest guy in our group at MetLife—very detailed and very good on the planning side—to help me.” Burch, who was already on the boards of two organizations that work with kids with special needs, including Mid-American Games for the Disabled, was a good fit. That was nine years ago. The two later left MetLife and set up an independent firm called the Special Needs Planning Center. “We kicked it off with a $5,000 investment and a prayer,” he says, adding, “I told my wife to trust me, which fortunately she did.”

Adams and Burch decided to focus their advisory business 100% on special -needs families. Why that narrow limitation? “It’s such a special niche,” explains Adams. “You can’t do anything else, really. It’s all-encompassing. To do this, you have to have a practice that focuses on the families and the kids.” Even their office, he says, is unique, with an office and a playroom that features low lighting and a bunch of toys and Wii consoles.

He says, “I have the absolutely best life now. Our clients are our friends. Their kids are friends with our kids. We wear jeans to work, because most of our clients and their kids have seen enough doctors wearing dress pants and ties.”

He adds, “Right now, we have over 300 clients, and we know everyone. When we get to the point where we don’t know all the kids of our clients, we’ll hire more people—but we’re not there yet.”

Meanwhile, the advisory business has kept growing, and not just in the Kansas City area. “We have clients from 49 states—all except Hawaii,” says Adams.

They have overseas clients, too. He mentions getting an inquiry from an Indian family in Minnesota that wanted advice on whether to leave a family inheritance in rupees in an Indian bank or to bring it to the United States.

“There’s a real hunger out there for what we’re doing,” says Adams, who adds that about 40% of their work is done pro bono.

“Of course, there’s the financial planning and the investment advice, and that’s important,” he says, “but a lot of it is about informing people about the resources that are out there and how to get them—things like subsidized transportation, help with getting job training and jobs for special-needs kids, setting up irrevocable trusts for these kids so that they can be eligible for assistance when they’re emancipated at 18, and also guardianships.”

Once children with special needs are emancipated, he explains, as long as they have no more than the federal cut-off level of $2,000 in assets, they become eligible for assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, subsidized or free transportation, “and all the things to help them become independent.”

Parents can put resources in a dedicated trust to help such children, but it has to be controlled by someone other than the child in question so they don’t end up with assets that would make them ineligible for assistance.

For that kind of specialized legal work, Adams and Burch hired and trained a young lawyer, Leslie Byram, who now has “an extremely successful practice 100% with us,” handling the legal issues of their clients, including dealing with the setting up of such trusts.

Legal services are offered at a steep discount, Adams says. The starting point of the process, he says, is developing a financial plan for any new client family. “That takes a good eight to 10 hours,” says Adams.

“We work through all kinds of scenarios with them, and we have a vault that stores all the planning documents we develop, including the continuity-of-care plan for each child. That includes the children who don’t have special needs, which we think is important.”

He explains, “Some kids who have special-needs siblings; when they’re older, will they say to their parents, ‘You neglected me. Now I’m out.’ When that happens, parents are devastated. I have to say, ‘You know, kids have a right to say no, and they may come back. Don’t alienate them. Just be happy you have them.”

He recalls a situation from long ago. A mother had lost her husband. She had a son who had just graduated from college and a special-needs daughter. While the mother was in Adams’ office, she turned to her son and said, “It’s your responsibility to take care of your sister.”

Adams immediately saw a look on the son’s face, just as he said, “Mom, that’s your problem. I have to live my life.” Adams paused a second. Without disclosing the mother’s reaction, he said, “Now if she’d just told him, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ and left it there, he might have come around later.”

In the end, he says, “We manage a fair amount of assets, but really it might be 15 minutes we spend talking about the clients’ funds, and the rest of the time it’s about the family and the kids, and that’s what makes this so fun. At the same time, you see a lot of hurting parents in our business, and many of them are facing great expenses.”

Doing Well by Doing Good
A year ago, Adams and Burch decided to cease being independent and to hitch their wagon to the Community America Credit Union (CACU), a local CUSO-affiliated financial institution with some $2 billion in assets.

“The credit union had approached us earlier,” he says, “because they did a survey of their members and found that there were 4,500 of them who had special-needs children. They asked us if we could help them.”

Eventually, they decided to team up with the credit union and focus exclusively on serving members of the credit union.

Now, the credit union does all the marketing, payroll “and the other things we don’t like to do,” says Adams. That frees Adams and Burch to focus on serving their growing client base.

“Initially we took a pretty good haircut going over to the credit union,” Adams concedes. “Being independent paid us more, but going with CACU made us more secure. And long-term, we think we’ll come out way ahead, with more advisors and more clients.” He adds, “The credit union is 100% behind us in this.”

That “long-term” prediction didn’t take long to pan out. Adams reports that his and Burch’s production—they share all the work, clients and profits equally—rose from $600,446 in 2012 to $764,606 in 2013, a gain of 27%.

Assets under management over the same period grew from $40.3 million in 2012 to $46.1 million in 2013. But Adams says the two men have bigger ideas.

“We have plans to expand our practice beyond Kansas City,” he says. “Before our merger with the credit union, we had branch offices in Dallas and New York. With the credit union, we’re still looking at what we can and can’t do. I’d love for other credit unions to do this for their customers—banks too.”

He says, “I’d love to see this thing grow. We see so many families whose plans for their special-needs kids are just wrong. And if we’re seeing that among our credit union’s members, God knows how many plans out there are wrong.”

He says it’s encouraging that the American College of Financial Services just established a new certification program for a Chartered Special Needs Consultant—a three-course program that is only open to people who already have a CFP, ChFC, or CLU certification. 

This is far from a competitive threat, Adams says. “We have no desire to have a monopoly in this field. The demand is huge. But to do it right, you have to do it full-time, not just with one or two of your clients.”

“It’s easy to see that Scott’s intentions in this business are pure,” Burch says of his partner. “He has both the knowledge base and the personal experience of living with children who have special needs. So he gets both sides of the equation.”

And that farm Adams and his wife own? He explains that his wife knew that their children—especially the kids with special needs—would do well with animals around, so they bought a former horse farm. 

Then they got some goats, which it turns out their oldest son has a real affinity for. Now Adams’ goal is for his son to basically develop and run a goat milk dairy on their farm—a career that he clearly enjoys and that could work into a profitable venture, with a little help from mom and dad.

— Dave Lindorff 


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