My guest on today's podcast is Tony Hixon. Tony is the Co-founder and COO for Hixon Zuercher Capital Management, an independent RIA based in Findlay, Ohio, that oversees more than $300 million in assets under management for nearly 330 client households.
What's unique about Tony's journey, is how the tragic death of his mother just 6 months after she retired, made Tony realize that even though retirees may be prepared financially for their retirement, they may not be prepared mentally for the transition to a life that is separate from their career identities. Which inspired him to change the way he engages with his clients around financial planning… and ultimately led him to write a book to honor her, and help his clients (and other retirees) learn from his mother’s story.
In this episode, we talk in-depth about how, just months after her retirement from nursing, Tony’s mother became depressed and decided to take her own life, which made him see first-hand how entering retirement means so much more than just being financially prepared (as even though his mom was financially stable, she lacked purpose and was not mentally prepared for life after her successful career), how Tony decided to add retirement transition coaching sessions to work more deeply with his clients to help them prepare for retirement by finding their own purpose in life beyond their careers, and the way Tony has expanded his in-person and now virtual retirement workshops for both clients and non-clients to further increase access to tools and information on how to mentally prepare for retirement.
We also talk about why Tony and his partner have taken an active approach to managing their client portfolios even as passive ETF models have become increasingly popular amongst advisors, why Tony and his partner Adam changed the firm name from Freedom Financial Solutions to Hixon Zuercher Capital Management (because they felt that adding their founder names into the name of the firm was the best way to build a legacy with name recognition that would continue beyond them), and the way Tony and his partner implemented 5 core values for their firm (of integrity, professionalism, excellence, abundance, and teamwork) to further establish a personal identity for the firm that can last beyond their leadership.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Tony shares why he and his firm follow the mantra “We win or we learn” because they don’t view mistakes as losing but rather as learning and growth opportunities, why Tony feels that younger, newer advisors should focus on working on their designations before starting a family so that when the time comes, they will be able to devote their full attention to their spouses and children instead of studying, and why Tony believes that feeling fulfilled in life begins with finding your ‘why’, and how by telling his mother’s story and helping others find their purpose in life he has found his ‘why’… and plans to continue to help others retire well through financial planning and coaching for the foreseeable future.
So, whether you’re interested in learning about why Tony uses the proceeds of his book to fund a scholarship for a nursing student at a local college in honor of his mother, why Tony and his partner decided to launch their firm together at 25 years old, or how the firm’s life coach is a former client of theirs from their previous niche of dentists who decided to give back during his retirement and help others find their purpose, then we hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, with Tony Hixon.
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- Tony Hixon
- Hixon Zuercher Capital Management
- Retirement Stepping Stones: Find Meaning, Live with Purpose, and Leave a Legacy by Tony Hixon
- Retirement Stepping Stones Workbook
- The Pamela M. Hixon Memorial Nursing Scholarship Fund
- Mitch Anthony
- Strategic Coach (Dan Sullivan)
- Limitless Advisor (Stephanie Bogan)
- CliftonStrengths (formerly Clifton StrengthsFinder)
Looking for sample client service calendars, marketing plans, and more? Check out our FAS resource page!
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Michael: Welcome, Tony Hixon, to the "Financial Advisor Success" podcast.
Tony: Hey, Michael, how are you?
Michael: I'm doing well, I'm doing well. I'm excited for the discussion this morning and talking a little bit about retirement and the ways that we get to work with clients in retirement. I know when I got started in my career, I was really excited to do retirement planning because I was really into numbers and financial planning software and spreadsheets and it's like, "Retirement planning is awesome, there's so many numbers you get to the project, and all these assumptions," and then we can put the tax planning in on top and adds more value and all these layers that we would do. And then I remember very early on in my career going to a presentation from the great Mitch Anthony. I say that like he's passed, he’s still active. The currently active and awesomely great.
Tony: The currently active, Return on Life Guy.
Michael: Yes, Return on Life Guy, Mitch Anthony, who at the time was talking about what he was calling his new retire mentality. And it was this discussion of the...when we all put retirement up on this pedestal, it's this great journey that you finally reach, congratulations, you did the work, you did the saving, you did the diligent investing, you did all the good stuff, you're finally ready to retire and we have the Adirondack chairs and the walks on the beach and all the wonderful pictures that we put of retirement. And he told the story of a gentleman that went and retired and like, "This is great, I'm going to get to go golfing and do all the golfing that I want," because he was big into golf.
And then he started golfing and then he golf again and then he golf again and then he golf again. And then 6 months into retirement, he's like, "Wait, this kind of sucks. It's like I have done the same 3 courses in my area with the same foursome 27 times each course and I'm starting to get bored and I got 29 and a half years left on this 30-year retirement thing. What am I going to do?" And for me, it really hit home as I was getting deeper into working with clients in retirement planning and just kind of noticed there's sort of this phenomenon that some clients are retiring...they're moving into retirement, they're retiring to something.
They're retiring to grandchildren or a certain lifestyle, or just some change and transition where they've been working towards it and they want to retire to that. They are excited to get there. And then others I find really are more...they're retiring from something, like, "I got to get away from this job, I got to get away from this career, I got to get away from this industry, my body is wearing out, I can't do the thing I've been doing anymore." They don't have a vision, expectation, excitement about what they're going to do. It's really just about getting away from wherever they are.
And I could see in my own world this noticeable difference between the folks that were retiring to and the folks that were retiring from. And so, I know you have lived a lot of this journey because you've gone many steps further than I ever have. You have a firm that is actually built out retirement workshops and private coaching of how to help clients actually get to a good retirement and maybe not just being retiring from something. And so, we're going to talk a lot about the advisor business overall today. I know you built many hundreds of millions of dollars under management and a great team of what you do. But I really wanted to start the discussion by understanding more about these retirement workshops that you created and what exactly you're doing to help people in the short term and transition. Because a lot of us talk about being retirement experts, but I feel like you have taken it to another level with these workshops.
Why Identity And Purpose Matter In Retirement [07:07]
Tony: Yeah, well, first, let me say, Michael, thank you for having me. Thank you for all that you do for our industry. I've been a follower of you for years on your platform and your podcast, so I really appreciate the opportunity to be on today. So, yeah, to articulate a little bit of what those retirement workshops look like and why we developed them. We'll probably get into the backstory of the real reason why, but in general, we do feel that the financial industry does...I don't know if I go so far as to say they do a disservice.
But they don't do a full service of really helping clients transition to a life of meaning and significance beyond retirement. The financial industry does a great job of checking all the financial boxes, and that truly is their responsibility. But we really wanted to take another step because what we were seeing and what we've seen over a couple of decades of being in business, is that retirees can often get stuck in the vacation phase. And so, let me explain what I mean by that.
Michael: Get stuck in the vacation phase. Okay. I guess this is like a version of my...like Mitch's story of like, yeah, golfing sounds great on vacation until you're doing that every week for 30 years.
Tony: Exactly. And it really comes down to, I guess, the advertisements of that walk on the beach and golf daily. When you're suffering from career burnout, those images do look attractive and that's okay and that's awesome. But once you're there and you start to possibly get bored and your life does feel a bit unfulfilling and the question of "Who am I?" is now resurrecting itself and you can't quite answer it. The question of "Who am I?" Michael, it's easy in your career when you're busy, you're trying to climb the corporate ladder, you're earning money to pay off the mortgage, you're raising kids, you're raising a family, it's easy to crowd that question out. Upon retirement and you're confronted with that question once again, "Who am I?" And there's not that busyness around to really crowd it, you're faced...you have a moment of reckoning, "Who am I? What's next for me?"
Michael: Well, I feel this is like, I don't know, a particular thing in just our world, just our American world. One of our team members on the Kitces team is from Brazil and she said one of the strangest things for her when she first immigrated to the U.S. was that it's just like when she meets people socially, everyone asks, "So, what do you do?" And she said like, "Nobody starts conversations that way at home." To me, it's so normal. I sort of joke the DC greeting is like, "What are you doing and where are you from?" Because I need to know what your political identity is by who you work for and where are you from because no one's from here.
They're just here in the area for a while for the political system. And so, this whole our jobs and the work that we do is part of our identity, I sort of found and learned over the years, I think, is something we particularly wrap into our fabric here in the U.S. But it's so become part of our fabric that just answering the question of like, "Who are you?" when you don't have a job anymore and that doesn't define you, it gets...
Tony: Yeah, it's like trying to answer that question, yeah, without using your title, right?
Michael: Yeah, without using your title or anything about your work. It's even just an interesting exercise, imagine if someone said like, "Tell me about yourself," and you're not allowed to talk about work or your job or your career at all, how do you even answer that question? Do you have a comfortable answer?
Tony: Right. Yeah, and so that's exactly where we find a lot of retirees are at. They're faced with this, trying to answer that question without using their career because they've retired and it's not there. So, what our goal and our vision was to kind of assist with that transition from a non-financial perspective. And so, we launched a platform, a service within our company called Refocus Coaching. So, refocus, the R-E, it's just like try to focus again, right? And we're focused on our career at the first half, what are we refocusing on for the second half? And so, we had developed retirement workshops, where in our conference room between 4 couples, 8 people, 8 individuals, however it works out, we'll gather for a workshop that's put on by our life coach.
And a backstory to our life coach, his name is Scott Miller. Scott and myself and my business partner, Adam Zuercher, we had a great friendship with him over the years. He was a dentist for...in his career over 32 years and he was wanting to transition out, but he also wanted to retire to something. And he's just a great individual, a great coach, and what he wanted to do, he wanted to make an impact and derive meaning in the second half.
Michael: He's a dentist turned life coach.
Tony: Dentist turned life coach.
Michael: I'm not trying to be negative to dentists by any means. It's just that's not the transition that necessarily comes to mind to me at first off hand.
Tony: I know. It's like when you try to talk to your dentist, they got their hands in your mouth, so you can't really talk back. But he's a super-gifted individual and he just has a passion for...as he transitioned into...this is what his second half is, he wants to be a blessing to others to help them in their transition as well. So, these workshops are filled in 2 two-hour sessions. So, for example, there would be one on a Monday evening for a couple of hours, that would be session one, and then there would be homework in between, and the attendees would gather the following Monday evening for a couple of hours to continue through the content. And ultimately, the summit of the workshop, the last hour of the workshop, by the time you've done, you have a retirement summary plan. No numbers at all, no "Should I do a Roth conversion or not?" It's really all about looking at life from a non-financial perspective to discover what you're retiring to.
How Tony Provides Retirement Workshops To Clients And Non-Clients [15:59]
Michael: And so, is this like a workbook or a template thing that they're working through to fill out their retirement summary plan?
Tony: Yeah, so we...upon the release of my book, which we can also discuss here in a little while as well, we wanted to put action to the content of the book. And so, what we did for about half a year, it took us 6 months to develop the curriculum and content for these workshops. And Scott, myself, and my business partner, Adam, our marketing department, we worked tirelessly to develop the content for this course. So, you are correct, there is a 3-ring binder full of content, worksheets, and planning guides and agendas for the workshop attendee to walk through, and then there's a PowerPoint presentation that Scott walks them through along the way. And it truly is a workshop, there's work, there's breakout sessions, they leave the conference room and sit with their spouse or significant other or by themselves and really take time to think through who they are and what's next for them.
Michael: I know you had told our team you are willing to share a copy, like a PDF of the whole workshop workbook that accompanies it which I really appreciate, thank you. So, for those who are listening, this episode 338, so if you go to kitces.com/338, we’ll have a link out to the PDF of the workbook that Tony uses for facilitating these workshops if you want to check it for yourself.
So, ultimately, the workshop series is literally like the 2 sessions that are 2 hours each, like 4 hours in total, with a week between the first and the second to do some homework?
Tony: That's correct. We debated this a thousand ways of, "How do we do this? Should we do like a Saturday morning for a full 4 hours?" And ultimately, we've tried and, I don't know, ultimately settled on 2 two-hour workshops with a break in between seems to be a good timeframe and a good commitment level for attendees to be able to keep.
Michael: So, help me frame up just where are these fit overall. Are these workshops you're doing for clients? Are these workshops you're doing for prospects to get people in the door? Where does it fit for the overall business?
Tony: Yeah, good question. So, the way we think about it is we are a wealth management firm, and oftentimes, wealth is defined by money, monetary dollar signs, right? We add to that definition of it, we think that you can be wealthy in purpose. We think that you can be wealthy in friendships and social connections, we think that there can be wealth of physical activity as well. So, we define wealth a lot broader than just dollars and cents. And so, it does fit into our fee structure. So, when a client is paying us an asset management fee, we are fee-only RIA, it is included in their fee. Now, that being said, we think that the content of this workshop is so meaningful and necessary that we do offer it to non-clients and prospects as well. So, non-clients would be charged a fee, a very nominal fee, it covers the cost of our materials. But nonetheless, it gives them a bit of a buy-in to make sure that they do show up and listen to the content along the way.
Michael: And what kind of fee are we talking about for non-clients? Is it in the $30 or $50 kind of neighborhood if we're just basically trying to cover printing materials?
Tony: Yeah, so I come from a lot of executive coaching that I've received. My business partner, Adam, and I have undergone Strategic Coach with Dan Sullivan, that's fun, and Stephanie Bogan with Limitless Advisor. And so, we often hear, "Charge a lot, there's value to it," and I agree, there is. At the same time, this is a new service. We launched this in January of 2022, and we need to fill workshops. So, we are charging $49 for non-clients. Again, it basically covers our costs. It's not so high that it would prevent a person from coming, but it's also enough for us to be able to recoup our costs of it.
Michael: So, how often do these run in practice? Because you said, you're limiting to 8 in capacity, so you've got some real limitation for space. So, how often are you putting these out to try to just work through however many clients and/or prospects want to go through this?
Tony: Yeah, and actually, 8 was purposeful as well. We thought and we tried to demo larger workshop events and we just felt that it wasn't as intimate. People weren't as comfortable sharing or talking out loud in front of a larger group of individuals. So, we found that 8 was kind of that magic number that would allow for really fruitful conversation and meaningful interaction. And so, what we're doing is we offer them both live, so here on site, here at the office here in Findlay, Ohio, in our conference room, and those are fun. And we also offer them virtually. So, we do have...we are set up to be able to offer virtual workshops as well.
So, we offer on-site workshops once a month. Summertime, we experimented with that last year, not a lot of people want to spend a total of 4 hours in a conference room during midsummer in Ohio. So, we may back off this coming year in the summertime. But in general, monthly, we're offering on-site, and then every other month, we've settled on offering a virtual workshop cohort as well.
Michael: Interesting. So, monthly on-site, and then every other month, virtually as well. So, you can put through a good number of people. Just monthly through the year, 12 workshops at 8 ahead, you can get almost 100 people through, and then another 50 virtually. So, you're gearing up to do a good number of folks.
Tony: And that's correct, yeah. Yep, and we've had a lot of really good traction in the virtual side. We were blessed to be able to have been featured on "CBS Evening News." They were doing a retirement segment, a series that they were going through on the "CBS Evening News," and somehow, they tripped across our social media post with our Refocus Coaching and that generated quite a bit of interest throughout the country for our Refocus Coaching platform, so our virtual events have been going really, really well.
Michael: I was going to ask how that came about that you launched this thing a year or 2 ago and it ends out on "CBS Evening News." So, social media was how they found it. I guess some producer saw it on social media and was like, "Ooh, that's neat, let's go get that person."
Tony: Yeah. Basically, what happens is we are big on social media platforms and Refocus Coaching. Scott does a weekly YouTube video, basically a 3- to 5-minute coaching tips, and there was one that he did in particular on the mental health challenges of retirement. And that particular one, some news anchor down in Houston, Texas Googled retirement mental health, and that YouTube video popped to the top of her list. And she watched it and thought, "This is legit, these guys know what they're doing," and we landed up on the "CBS Evening News" as a result.
Michael: Interesting. Well, I'm struck even just where that was, I don't know, modern social media area. Just you're saying social media, I'm envisioning, "Oh, man, what's the tweet? What's the 280 characters that gets you on the "CBS Evening News?" It was like, "No, no," so this was YouTube content. This was YouTube videos because it's super searchable, so when people are Googling around, they find their way to it. So, this was YouTube content that you had posted that they actually found their way to and then came to your website and went deeper.
Tony: Yep, yep, came to the website and ultimately...it's one of those...you've obviously been contacted by the press, it's one of those phone calls where, "If you don't respond within the next 5 minutes, I'm moving on to the next person."
Michael: Oh, yes, particularly the TV producers more than anything else. There's a lot of like, "We're working on this segment and we're interested in having you out for it, but you have to respond in the next hour and get to a video studio in the next 4 hours. So, hope you didn't have anything going on in your life today." But it's a great opportunity.
Tony: Yeah, that's it, 100% So, yeah, it was like a 2-minute and 30...yeah, a 2-minute and 30-second clip on "CBS Evening News" that took about 8 hours of our time to record. So, it was great.
Michael: Very cool, very cool. So, I guess so a few follow-on questions I've got. So, you said every month on-site, every other month virtually. When? Have you found these are better in the daytime, these are bad in the evening, these are better on weekdays, these are better on weekends? It sounds like you like trying things and experimenting. So, I'm going to guess you've done this in a couple of different formats to figure out what works.
Tony: And we absolutely have, and what we're finding is that these workshops are being attended by pre-retirees. We have a mix, but the main avatar for the workshop is a pre-retiree to do the work before the transition. So, they're still working...
Michael: So, you're not targeting folks that are in retirement and, "I'm not happy and I'm not enjoying it, so I want to refocus my retirement because I'm unhappy." It's a lot more, "I'm getting ready to retire, but I have no idea what that's actually going to mean in my life and what I'm going to do, so I'm going to come to this workshop to figure out what the heck retirements supposed to be for me really."
Tony: Yeah. To clarify, the latter is the avatar, but we've had the former come, so those who are in retirement and not quite sure where to go. They definitely attended and found value, but we really want to get them before retirement so that that way, they're prepared better. So, that being said, they're still working, they still have office hours, so to get them during the day into 2 two-hour workshops is not a great idea. So, they are evening workshops. We've settled on 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on evenings and then we toggle that, each month has a different weeknight. So, for instance, January would be Monday, February would be Tuesday, March would be Wednesday, etc.
And then for the virtual workshop, time zones are our nuts. So, there, we've actually landed on doing virtual workshops during the day, right? So, a lot of stay-at-home people, virtual people, they take their lunch break plus another hour, and we found that doing the virtual workshop during the business day, at least in the Eastern time zone has worked well for us.
Michael: Interesting, interesting. Yeah, I guess there's sort of the...as you said, if it's virtual, I can kind of hop in for an hour on my lunch break, and then maybe I tag on another hour. But if it's in person, it's not even those 2 hours, then I got to drive to your office and drive back again, maybe I got to pick up or coordinate it with my spouse as well. So, this gets to be a little bit longer, which just gets messy in a workday context in person. But the flexibility of Zoom, it's not just for meetings that you get rid of commute and travel time back and forth, it works for offering workshops as well.
Tony: Right, yeah.
Michael: I got to ask, just do you find differences in...because either delivery from your end or engagement from their end when you do it virtually versus in person, is one seeming to be more impactful than another just from what connects with the people that you're serving?
Tony: Yeah, 100%. So yeah, I'm going to date myself here, but I am old school. So, having that face-to-face on-site tangible interaction with a person does have a more meaningful connection, we think. The emotions that can come out from some of these discussions and content. We're dealing with a sensitive topic. It's not black-and-white numbers and Excel spreadsheets. This is, "How are you feeling? What's next for you?" It's deep. So, we are finding a deeper sense of connection on the on-site workshops. But that's not to negate the fact that the virtual workshops are going well. We understand that in order to have a larger reach, we need to offer these for people. And oftentimes, those who have chosen to take the virtual workshop cohort, the feedback we're receiving is that emotions aren't being lost in translation, they're still receiving the connection that they need and the impact that they want, and putting the time into the workshops.
Michael: And so, I was going to ask as well, just how you manage...I'm start thinking of capacity. You do this thing for clients, but it's limited to 8 per month. At some point, just I'm envisioning this, 5 client couples want to do it at the same month and you have to tell one of your clients, "No, I'm, I'm sorry, you can't come in. You're a wonderful client but the registration is full." Does that actually crop up as an issue? Or am I just making that up in my head as unnecessary logistic management?
Tony: Yeah, that's an insightful question. It does crop up as an issue. That being said, delaying them a month often has not become an issue yet. So, "Sorry, this one's full, would you consider signing up for our June cohort?" And we haven't had any pushback at that point. If there's something really pressing for them, there's a career transition looming on their recent horizon, Scott does offer private coaching as well, which we can certainly chat about also, but we would typically then have them meet with Scott one on one.
Michael: Okay. Okay. And so, how do you, I guess, think about results, measure results of...it's nice to have people feel fulfilled from the workshop and maybe that's fine in and of itself, but do you look at this from a business result end? Do you measure retention or referrals or the percentage of prospects who came to it who then ultimately became clients? Are there measurements that you've tried to put in place of how you figure out whether a program like this is having a positive impact for the business itself?
Tony: Yeah, we do. So, obviously, I'm a financial advisor, so yeah, I'm a spreadsheet junkie and numbers junkie, right? So, we are not measuring results from revenue. And the reason for that is obvious because it's baked in for our clients, it's baked into our AUM fee. And then from a non-client perspective, it's covering our costs. So, what we are measuring is kind of a funnel to private coaching where we do charge a bit higher. So, if they attend a workshop, it's from a very high-level-ish, right? All 8 people are receiving the same content. And it's canned, right? It's in a workbook, and there's a PowerPoint that goes with it.
So, if we can...once they get to their retirement summary plan, if they want a more tailored plan, they want accountability to their plan, they want further coaching beyond the workshop, we would then really encourage them to sign up for private coaching services. So, that's kind of a measurement is to see if we can get them to sign up for private coaching. And then secondly, we do in the feedback forms, we have a scale of 1 to 5, rate this, this, and this, right? It's a survey feedback form. And so, it's easy for us to build a spreadsheet and see, "Are we getting positive results? Is the feedback we're receiving increasing? Are we getting better scores, better feedback from the workshops?"
And we've taken feedback from each workshop that we get and we've improved it. I think Scott told me yesterday when I was meeting with him, there have been 51 iterations of this workshop based on content and feedback that we've received from clients. So, it's been an exciting ride. And so, I don't know if that completely answers your question, but we do not measure it by revenue. We measure it by can we upsell them to private coaching and are our scores improving.
Why Tony Offers Private Coaching In Addition To Workshops [31:01]
Michael: So then, help us understand private coaching because it sounds this is actually a...this is business model level for you, this is a service that you actually mean to deliver on a profitable basis and this is what makes the business revenue impact in that manner.
Tony: Yep, that's the goal. So, the concept is, is that once they've gone through the workshop and they've decided that they want the next steps, they want help, they want someone to walk beside them in their journey...I want to be clear too that this coaching service, I think, oftentimes humans get it confused with counseling. It is not counseling, there doesn't have to be anything super wrong with your life in order to engage Scott in a conversation. He's a coach, he wants to draw the best out of you. Our service offering is that you retire to your best life ever and live a successful second half.
So, he's a Bill Belichick of a wealth management firm, he's doing a really great job of making people's futures bigger than their past. And so, if we're able to convince or to...or if a client is willing to go into private coaching, that's where we do charge per hour. And Scott feels that or we feel that, basically, 3 hours of his time will get a client on a really good path. So, we would sell a 3 block or 3-hour, 1 hour at a time, right, over 3 weeks or whatever is tailored to them at $450 or $150 an hour.
From that point forward, it's kind of up to the client if they'd like to continue to engage him in his services because he can go deeper, he can go longer, he can ask better questions, he can provide more accountability. And so, each session thereafter remains $150 per hour. So, we've had clients who have engaged him upwards of 10 private coaching sessions. We've had some clients pay the 450 for the 3 sessions and found so much value that they're good to go and the retirement summary plan is set in motion and they don't need his services anymore. So, that's really how the private coaching sessions work for our firm.
Michael: So then, I've got to ask, how does this work relative to Scott as your coaching workshop expert in this program? Is he a salaried full-time employee of the business? Is there a...you pay him each time he does a workshop and you split the private coaching dollars? Just how does this work from the business end?
Tony: Right. So, again, the way that this works is definitely a God thing. He's a dentist, and you and your listeners know that those who have been in the dental industry for 32 years typically would have financial independence. So, in the end, we are paying him hourly and it's a fair hourly wage, we believe. And because this is his second half, his second act, he is not full-time, he is part-time. And so, he's working the hours that he wants and needs to be able to make this successful for him and his clients and for us, but ultimately, it's not a large burden of expense for our firm.
Michael: And so, it really comes down to function, you pay him some fee for the workshops, which is good for investment into the firm, and then he gets some portion of the private coaching fee and you get the other portion, which then helps to cover the costs of the workshops so that the program kind of pays for itself?
Tony: No, he is paid hourly, he does not get a portion of either of the revenue.
Michael: Okay, you get a top-line revenue, he gets an hourly rate for his cost, and then you get to manage that.
Tony: Yep, and he gets full benefits from our firm, 401k, etc., etc. So, yeah.
Michael: So, I guess I'm just wondering, is the goal to make it a profitable service? This is a profit line for the business? Is the goal like, "We just want to make this cover its costs and breakeven because this is a good value add and a good service mostly to clients and maybe we'll get some prospects from it?" Is this like are you happy to lose money on it because this is a good service to the community? How do you...because I know we haven't gotten to it yet, but you have a wealth management firm with many hundreds of millions of dollars. So, I know just the general numbers, the other part of the wealth management business makes much bigger numbers than this. Not to be negative to it, but I'm just wondering. So, how do you think about this from the business end as a program you offer?
Tony: Yeah. The third option you provided was, "Is the goal to lose money?" No, we're definitely in this to make sure that we cover our costs to make it. So, the first option you gave is, "Is the goal to make this a very profitable venture?" I wouldn't say so. We wouldn't mind the profit, but it's not the end goal. So, your middle option, "Is the goal to break even?" Yeah, yeah, we really want to help our clients. The wealth management fee they're providing, that they're paying, we want to provide this service to them. And for the non-clients who are going through it, we want to cover our costs. So, it is, to us, a breakeven venture.
Michael: And out of curiosity, just how do you administer all of this? I'm just envisioning the number of workshops when you're doing 18-plus workshops throughout the year, at some point, you can end up with a non-trivial amount of time from a team member who's just like, "Let me pull out the spreadsheet for the...wait, wait, you wanted the June workshop? All right, let me look it up and see if there's a space." Just how do you handle just registrations and administration and that end of things?
Tony: Yeah. Well, the beauty of technology is that we put a lot of work on the front end of Eventbrite. So, we're using Eventbrite to administer how a client or non-client would register for events. And then secondly, we have an administrative assistant here, her name is Melinda, and she's a rockstar. And so, she comes to work every day, serves our clients, well from the wealth management side, and then also was instrumental in administering and making sure that the logistics of our Refocus Coaching workshops and private coaching events are going well also.
Michael: Okay. Because again, the bulk of them you're doing on-site, so there's even just a physical like is the room prepped and clear? Did we make sure...?
Tony: Is the water available? Do they know where the bathroom is? Yeah, etc.
Michael: Did we clear the food out from the prior meeting? Someone forgot to pull off the table, all that good stuff.
Tony: All that stuff, yep.
How The Tragic Loss Of Tony’s Mother Inspired Him To Help Retirees Find Their Purpose [38:05]
Michael: So, now help us understand how this comes about. You're talking about months of time to build this workshop, all this energy pouring into it to get it created and built out. Where did this come from that you decided to build this into the fabric of what you offer clients?
Tony: Yeah. Well, yeah, it's born out of a story or a tragedy that happened in my life. I guess if I recall from...are you in the northern hemisphere of the United States? Do you live in cold winter climates, Michael?
Michael: Yes, yes, I'm in the Northern Virginia area, so we get our good fair share of winter. It only lasts about 3 months. But we get a good 3 months of winter here.
Tony: Yeah, yeah. Well, then exactly what March looks like. So, March is that period of time where winter often has not yet lost its grip, and yet, spring has not yet sprung. So, I invite you to kind of allow that feeling to wash over you of a cold, still, and grey day in March of 2011. It was on that day that my dad called, and I was on my way to work and I just couldn't help but notice how gray it was, it was just so bitterly cold and chilly. And yet, spring, I knew it was coming, it just wasn't there yet and it's been such a long winter. I arrived at the office that day and my dad called, and the voice I heard on the other end was out of sheer emotion.
And he exclaimed my name in a loud voice and said, "Tony, she's dead. Pam, mom, she did it. She committed suicide." And Michael, my legs gave way as his words pierced my heart and my mom's decision that day would change the course of history for me and my family and my grandkids, but also for my clients and my career. Would you mind if I told you a little bit about my mom?
Michael: Please, please, tell us about her.
Tony: Her name is Pam. So, Pam Hixon graduated as a registered nurse in 1971 and she quickly climbed through the ranks of the healthcare system. She first started as a floor nurse at a local hospital. But those long hours and swing shifts, they proved really difficult in raising her young family including me and my older sister. And soon, she'd find a job in home health, where they offered more regular hours, steady income, and this ultimately led her to finding her calling as a hospice nurse. And Michael, I want to make sure that we clarify what a hospice nurse is, right? The healthcare industry has kind of, for all intents and purposes, given up on that particular patient and wants to really send them home so that they can be surrounded by loved ones and familiar surroundings.
And she fell in love with this calling, and she soon then became a director of hospice at a local agency. And it was this career in hospice that she found her greatest joy and her ultimate calling and her purpose and significance, and it was this career in hospice that led to the greatest burnout I've ever seen. So, if you think back to the mid-2000s, that's around the time that electronic medical records or EMR became a thing. And my mom, technologically challenged, right? Do you have anybody in your life, Michael, that just isn't great with technology?
Tony: She's the generation that just didn't enjoy computers, and she found herself behind a desk more often than she was at bedside, and she long to get back to providing care for the terminally ill as they passed from this life to the next. But instead, right? Bureaucracy, administrative work, EMR became her begrudging focus. And she suffered from emotional and spiritual and relational and career burnout, and she wanted nothing more than to retire, to exit the rat race, and enjoy a quiet life on the farm that my dad and her still lived on. Well, we separated family from business, so she had a different financial advisor than me.
And so, she ran the idea past her primary financial advisor, to which this advisor pulled out her credentialing, experience, and software, and won't you know, she gave her the green light, she and Dad had enough money to retire. And I? I was 8 years into my career as a financial advisor at the time. And she loved me, right? It's my mom. She wanted to give me the opportunity to give a second opinion. So, what did I do? I pulled out my credentialing, my experience, and my software, and I too came up with the same result, Mom and Dad had enough money and I also gave her the green light to retire. And so, she did.
And shortly after retiring in the fall of 2010, something was wrong. She felt a drift in retirement. The care and purpose and significance that she had in her career were now nowhere to be found. Dad still working, he hadn't retired yet. Her network of social connections at the office was still at work, unavailable for connecting throughout her day, and she was bored. She was wandering. She was faced with that question, "Who am I apart from my career?" She knew exactly what she had retired from, but had no idea what she was retiring to. She had enough money to sleep at night, but not enough purpose to get up in the morning, and she fell into a deep depression as her future became bleak and her mental health spiraled downward.
And then 6 months after retiring, on the morning of March 22nd, 2011, my mom, Pam Hixon, chose to take her life and the ripple effects of that decision were staggering. My dad now left with no one to spend life with, my sister and I, no mom, my kids, her grandkids would miss the blessing that she would be to them as they grew up. And I? I was left to pick up the pieces. Michael, I was one of the financial advisors that gave her the green light to retire, the very thing that drove her to her death. And I felt an immense amount of guilt and shame, and I couldn't let...and I could have let that guilt and shame define me, to ruin me. But I chose, by God's grace, to turn this tragedy into triumph, stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
And I now know that money is only part of the equation to a successful transition to retirement. Meaning and purpose and legacy, they all carry equal weight in the transition to what's next. I discovered the hard way that it's not nearly as important to define what you're retiring from, it's critical that the pre-retiree do the hard work of defining who they are apart from their career and to find significance and purpose second half of life to discover what they're retiring to. So, we've spent the time talking about these workshops and why we went through the time and investment of time and investment of energy, and Michael, that's why. My mom is why, and we want to honor her legacy and the lessons that she taught so that we can help those who are retiring avoid the mental health challenges that can come from an unplanned retirement.
Michael: Thank you for sharing. Do you share that journey with clients, with prospects to help frame this for them as well of why you may be challenging them on some of these questions?
Tony: Absolutely. The workshops, I start them, I'm the introduction, I share that story, and I want to be clear that I'm not so naive to think that every retirement ends in suicide, that's not my point. But the statistics would reveal that over 40% of retirees will experience some form of anxiety or depression within the first 6 months of retirement. I think we can avoid that. Statistics would also reveal that divorce rates spike within the first 2 years of retirement because you go from a bit of healthy separation during your career phase to now being together all the time. And if you're not prepared from a relational level with your spouse, divorce can be an option and we don't want it to be. We want to help retirees. And so, I do share this story because it's so important that we help retirees overcome the challenges that can result from an unplanned retirement.
Michael: Do you find it resonates with them? Certainly, the story in and of itself is powerful. But when you try to have this conversation with pre-retirees, do you find they get it once they hear the story? Or is there still a lot of like, "No, that's not me, I'm just so excited to get out of this job, I'll be fine." How do they tend to take it?
Tony: Both. A hundred percent shocked that the seriousness of this decision, the unsettledness of this transition, because they've been...they've watched the commercials, they see the beach, they understand what golf is.
Michael: Like, "This is not what I heard in the commercial."
Tony: This is not it, yeah. "What your story just revealed is not matching up with what I know in my heart to be true, I'm going to enjoy retirement, it won't be me." That being said, it's a wake-up call. And so, it gets them to scratch their head and think, "What if? What if the vacation phase, the first phase of retirement ends up in boredom? What if I can do the hard work of planning for what's next and avoiding the possibility of anxiety and depression? And what if I can work on my marriage so that we can thrive in our second half instead of get on each other's nerves?" So, yeah, the clients that I tell the story that I revealed to you lands both ways. "It can't be me, it can't be me, no, no, no." But at the same time, I've planted a seed that it could be, and it's important for you to do the work.
Michael: And so, I guess that's also why in the broader context, no, this doesn't necessarily have to be the next major scaling revenue-generating driver for the business, this is valuable for clients, this is important for clients, this is impactful for clients, and this honors your mother.
Tony: That's right.
Michael: So, I'm struck as well that just...the story you shared, this happened in 2011.
Michael: I think you said you launched the workshops in the past 2two years.
Michael: And so, I guess just help me fill in a little bit of, I guess, the journey of how this impacted you, I guess, over the decade. I'm sure there's a lot that you have to go through and process, some wonderful benefits of therapy, just to talk through a lot of what comes from when a tragedy strikes in the family. But I guess I'm just wondering more of like how this impacted and showed up for you over the past decade. This is your business that you're in, and then tragedy strikes very close to home.
Tony: Yeah. It didn't happen right away. The 7 stages of grief were long and hard for me because I was one of the financial advisors that ultimately gave her that green light. So, it was tragic and it took me years to process whether or not I was even going to remain a financial advisor. It was a tough...
Michael: Was it at that level of like, "I don't even know if I want to do this anymore?"
Tony: A hundred percent, 100% at that level. But I'll tell you what, I've got an awesome business partner who's walked beside me through this journey as well and it really...because he's one of my best friends and business partner, it was a tragedy for him too. It affected him as well and it really alerted him and us to the importance of education to our clients from a non-financial perspective. So, we incorporated it unofficially and loosely in conversations during client meetings, but nowhere near to the impact that we're having today. About, I don't know, 3, 4 years in when I started to...as we were navigating this as a family, my sister and my mom had such a beautiful mom-daughter relationship, right? So, she had to take her time to process it.
My dad, my goodness, Michael, they were high school sweethearts. They had dreams of what was next for them. It was so devastating for him. So, for me to articulate this story on a larger stage and platform without allowing them to process it and giving them time to understand what had happened and how they were going to deal with it, that wouldn't have been right. So, it did take a long time for us to come to the point where we were comfortable sharing the story. And I would say there was a point in 2017, right? And I know the dates because I've thought this story through quite a bit. 2017, we're in NAPFA, right? And they do press requests for their member firms from time to time.
And in 2017, they did a press request for...the topic was, "Have you gone through a personal situation or tragedy, a hard circumstance that's changed you as a financial advisor?" And that kind of struck me, I'm like, "Yeah, I did." And I saw this particular author, his name is Morey Stettner. He wrote for "MarketWatch," still does I think. And I saw some articles getting posted for, "Yes, I overcame cancer and I'm still an advisor, maybe a better advisor," or, "I was in an accident but I was able to go through physical therapy, and I healed and it made me a better advisor." And those stories were super great and should be celebrated.
But my story was a bit different. The story I articulated to you was really impactful and I came at it from a different way. So, I responded to the press request and Morey set up a 30-minute phone call with me to get my answers to his question. That phone call ended up lasting over an hour as he dug deeper into the story. And before we parted ways that day, over the phone, he said, "Tony, you have a book in you, you just don't know it yet." And that planted the seed like, "Maybe I do, maybe I do, maybe I have a book inside me." Because I can tell the story to you, Michael, one on one and to my clients one on one, but there has to be a better way, there has to be a way for me to reach the masses. And that's exactly why I chose to embark on the journey to put these learnings into book form.
Why Tony Decided To Write A Book To Honor His Mother’s Legacy [54:25]
Michael: And so, that ultimately come...I know you put out a book in the past few years as well, so like that was the book, that was this book was sharing this journey?
Tony: Yep. So, in late 2019, my goal was to release the book after I got...we had a family meeting. I remember it very well. I sat in the coffee shop with my dad and my sister and cried and asked them if they would mind or what their thoughts were of me putting these learnings in book form to help others. And at that moment, 8 years later, 2019, they had processed their grief enough to give...to nod their head, "Yes, we're okay with that." And so, in the fall of 2019, I started the journey of trying to write a book. I'm not an author, I'm a financial advisor, but gosh, darn it, I'm going to try my best.
And it took about a year for me to get all my learnings into book form with the goal of releasing the book on the 10-year anniversary, and the celebration of her life, so 2021. So, in September of 2021, we released the book into the world. And it was at that time it all just kind of mixed together when Scott was transitioning out of his career in dentistry and wanting to know what was next and he couldn't help but think this would be a good alignment and ultimately, he agreed. And it was a beautiful synergy that we released the book in September, announced that he would be our life coach, and literally released and started the Refocus Coaching workshops in January of 2022.
Michael: So, how did you go about writing the book? It's a lot of book to sit down and write when, as you said, I'm a financial advisor, not an author. So, just how did you actually tackle the process of writing a book? Were you on your own? Did you hire a service? Did you work with the publisher? How do you actually bring this to life?
Tony: Yeah, good question. I didn't know either what to do, but I knew I wanted to do it and I knew it was figure-out-able. And needless to say, you remember the fall of 2019, what was on the horizon, right? COVID. COVID hit March of 2020, so I was about 4 months into my writing project when that hit. So, not only was I navigating the wealth management side, the fastest bear market in history and COVID policies, and etc., etc., but I was also pecking away at the manuscript. So, to answer your question, I just did it. I don't know how else to explain. When you're committed, when you have a goal, when you have a deadline, you embrace the suck and you just put fingers to the keyboard and go.
And yes, I had an editor to help me ask more questions about this paragraph to help just clarify the points I was trying to make. And ultimately, that led to me interviewing a good friend of mine who had sold a New York Times bestseller, and I'm like, "How did you do that? What publisher did you use?" And he told me, it was Greenleaf Publishing out of Austin, Texas. I've had a phone call with them, they were engaged with the story. They're a small boutique publisher, they only publish about 100 books per year, they get over 2,000 pitches for books, and mine was one that they accepted. And so, we launched into engaging them as the publisher and getting it into book form, getting the cover design, the interior design, all the things that you don't even think about when you start your first word, but all the things that are necessary in order to make an impact to the world.
Michael: So, how did you find the editor that was going to help in this process for creating the book? Did that come from Greenleaf? "We have editors, we'll help you get this sorted out." Or did you have to go and find that yourself first?
Tony: I had to go and find it. It was a person that was in the industry and knew enough about the story...a friend of mine, knew enough about the story to be able to...not a professional or anything, but knew enough about the story to ask the right questions and help me clarify points. To say that it was, I guess, a professional editor, I wouldn't maybe go that far, but it did help me get my points clarified better.
Michael: Okay. And so, how does it work, I guess, just from book economics? Did the publisher help you sell it? Do you actually get book revenue royalties? Was that even something you were worried about? Or you just wanted to get it out there because you want to get the book out there? How does that work?
Tony: Right, yeah, we went in...when I say we, my business partner, Adam, and I, we went into this project with eyes wide open, knowing full well that releasing books to book space is really difficult. I think statistics would show that over 3,000 books per day are released into the world, right? It's a crowded space. And we weren't so blind as to think that we had this massive marketing budget to be able to penetrate Dave Ramseys of the world or the Suze Ormans or name your author, but we did know that we had an awesome story to tell. And so, from the beginning, this never was a project where we desired to be profitable. If it happened, high fives. If it didn't, we're sleeping really well at night, knowing that those who chose to purchase a copy of this book would be blessed by it. Our hope would be that they were blessed by it.
That being said, Michael, our goal truly is never to make money on this thing. I do get revenue from the book, the book is still selling. It's humbling to think that we're not really putting many marketing dollars toward it right now, but on Amazon, I'm getting a weekly report of book sales and it's pretty humbling to see. And upon its release during September of 2021 into October into November, I actually became an Amazon Best Seller in 5 categories, including books on suicide, personal finance, wealth management. So, it's just a humbling experience. But upon embarking on this journey, both myself and Adam, we agreed that we really didn't want to benefit financially from this book, we want it to be a blessing to others.
And so, all net proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Pam Hixon Memorial Nursing Scholarship Fund. It's set up at a local university and the scholarship goes to a nursing student who displays financial need and good grades and will be graduating into the healthcare field just like my mom. And the fun part about that is that the scholarship has been growing, the book sales have been great. and I get to meet...my family gets to meet the scholarship recipient every year. And this just happened about a month ago where my wife, my sister, and my dad, we all got to do lunch with the scholarship recipient, meet her, congratulate her, tell her this story, and encourage her on her journey to care not only for others, but to care for herself, so that she could avoid some of the mistakes that my mom made along the way.
Michael: And we’ll have a link out to the book “Retirement Stepping Stones” in our show notes as well. So, for those who are interested, go to kitces.com/338 for episode 338 and we’ll have a link in the show notes to buy a copy of Tony’s book and support the scholarship fund.
So, what was it that ultimately led you to stay as a financial advisor just when you got to that moment?
Tony: I don't know that I can pinpoint a moment or a day. But it was definitely a feeling I had deep inside that this is a unique opportunity for me to stay engaged and to help others. I became a financial adviser to help others. If you're going into it for any other reason, you're probably in the wrong profession. And that's what my mom did, too. She was a nurse and what did the nurses do day in and day out? They help others, they help care for others. And I just felt an extreme sense of a desire to steward the story well, to not allow Mom's legacy to fade away, but to really engage in the story and to deal with the grief, to be an overcomer just like I've been taught all those years as...growing up on a farm, you had to grind it out and show grit. And I decided to remain engaged and ultimately, hopefully, use this platform, this message to help others.
Hixon Zuercher As It Exists Today [1:03:31]
Michael: So now, help us understand the advisory firm itself as it exists today. You've mentioned a few times working alongside Adam as your business partner and we've said a bit that it's grown to a sizable business. But give us a little bit of the broader context of that whole advisory firm thing that pays some of the bills that's out there in the periphery, as it were, as well.
Tony: Yeah, no doubt. Well, I guess it kind of starts over 20 years ago. So, I worked at a...I graduate and worked at a CPA firm out of college. My now business partner, Adam, also did the same thing. He worked at a local CPA firm. We were actually high school buddies of all things. Went to different colleges, lost connection, but once we kind of came back into a career after college, we just reconnected over lunch, and he was working at a different CPA firm than me. But nonetheless, this was around 1999, right? I'm dating myself. 2000. And we know from an economic standpoint that that was roughly around the time that the tech bubble burst, right?
Tony: So, being working at a CPA firm, what do you do all day? You do tax returns. And I couldn't help but notice as I prepared Schedule D after Schedule D after Schedule D, the form that would report capital gains and losses, I was seeing clients report a lot of losses, selling great companies at the low. Right? And there's just something inside me that was like, "Why are they selling Microsoft?"
Michael: Yeah, this is the tech boom and bust. There were a lot of companies that...a lot of high-flying stocks that were down 70%, 80%, 90-plus percent.
Tony: Correct. And I just couldn't convince myself that these companies were going out of business. So, to see these losses that these clients had locked in, basically, selling at the low, was pretty unsettling to me. And just having great conversations with Adam throughout those years as well and ultimately settling on a desire to help investors avoid those behavioral mistakes to help them invest wisely. And then, oh, my goodness, 2001, September 11th terrorist attacks that occurred, and that just was like the nail in the coffin. There was just a deep, dark economic cloud over our country, and, man, it just wasn't...it didn't feel good at all.
But nonetheless, we had a passion and a desire in our hearts to help our clients make wise decisions. And so, in 2002, Adam quit his job, we started the firm, we had done the business plan together, knew that we had 0 assets, 0 clients. He had a covenant not to compete in the city that we're located in, so we operated out of a spare bedroom in his home for the first year while that covenant not to compete expired. I finished my last tax season out with my current employer so that I didn't burden the business with any more expense, and ultimately joined the firm in April of 2003. And, again, just took a lot of prayer and commitment and grit for us to be able to start at age 25, convincing clients to trust their life savings with us.
And yet, one by one by one, slowly but surely, trying our hardest and getting the results, we were able to build a small, little firm. And then guess what? A few years later, 2008, right? 2008 global financial crisis occurred, and I'll be darned if that didn't disrupt things and disrupt our growth plans by quite a bit. But with sheer determination and hopefully, some good investing, we avoided a lot of the downside, not all of it, but a lot of it, and we grew out of that. And in 2013, we added our first financial advisor to the team. So, basically 10 years in, we added our first financial advisor. By the way, he's still here, he made partner last year. Fast forward to the balance of the time into 2023, and we now steward around 330 client relationships in and around Northwest Ohio, we're able to work virtually along the way, around 300...a little over 300 million in assets under management, starting at 0 and have built it to the level that we're at today.
Michael: And how big is the team at this point?
Tony: We're a team of 12 plus an intern, so a full team of 13. And we have 5 client-facing financial advisors and the balance of the team then would be on the operations side, led by our client service manager, our operations specialist, a couple of executive assistants, administrative assistant, and our marketing department as well.
Michael: I was struck on your website, you still have the launch picture from 20 years ago where...as you said, you were 25 and just...I don't mean to say it in a negative way, but you and Adam look 25 in this picture.
Tony: Yeah, we did. Look almost 12.
So, I don't know, how do you think about it reflecting back on what the heck were you doing to get people to give you their money and trust you as a 25-year-olds just getting started?
Tony: Isn’t that a great question. I don't know. I don't know why people were interested in those guys on that picture. We brought a different way of managing money to the town that we're in here in Findlay, Ohio, the corporate headquarters of Marathon Petroleum and a few other large businesses. We are a fee-only RIA, and back in that timeframe, Michael, that just wasn't popular or known. It was present, but only present in small pockets in large cities. And so, we kind of had a different story to tell than the local Edward Jones and the Merrill Lynchs of life. We were not a broker, we were not a commission-based advisor, we offered a service and we wanted to do it well.
And I think the other differentiation that we provide and still do to this day and that we brought to the market at that time was the way that we manage money. And we are an active shop, we're not passive, so we were able to, again, coming out of those dark days of 2000 to 2003, we made some really...as Providence would have it, we made some really good investment decisions that allowed the clients that we did have, the friends and family that did trust us, to have some really good performance. And so, we were able to really drill down on our discipline, our investment discipline, and share that discipline with others and it resonated and people began to trust that fee-only concept and our active management style.
Michael: Interesting. So, being a fee-only in a not-as-big mega-dense metropolitan area was an effective differentiator for you at the time as a way to stand out.
Tony: We think so. And quite honestly, the third one, I would respond with. I don't maybe know how true this is but it was my hunch. We know that our industry is getting older, right? The financial advisor's average age is...you probably know it better than I. And so, there was a bit of newness. We were young and we had a big career in front of us, big growth plans, big goals, and I think people resonated with that, that youth, that vitality, that excitement that we brought to the industry. And maybe that was also another reason is that they saw a couple of young guys that knew what they were doing, that had credentials, that they could see growing alongside them as they transitioned near and into retirement.
Michael: Yeah, I do know a couple of younger advisors in their 20s and 30s who have gotten started on a career change or got going, and a part of their pitch to clients, particularly working with retirees was just, "I'm going to actually be here for your whole retirement, what other advisors you are interviewing who are actually going to be here? Because it looks to me like everybody else you're talking to, you're going to have to change advisors when you're 80. They're going to retire and you're not going to want to change advisors when you're 80. I'm here for your whole retirement." And that's compelling for some clients.
Tony: Yeah, it was. So, yeah, I would say those 3 things really helped us in those early days.
Michael: You had said coming to the table with credentials had helped as well. I think you said both you and Adam were in CPA firms doing tax preparation works. Are you both accountants, like CPAs turned financial planners?
Tony: Right, yeah. Yeah, I should write another book about that. But yeah, we're recovering accountants. I have an accounting degree, so does Adam. Adam is a really smart guy, like he just...and a great test taker, so he passed the CPA exam the first time, which is really rare. So, yeah, he brought that credential to the table, which also when we started this career, they offered the PFS designation, Personal Financial Specialist. And so, he achieved that. Me, I don't want to say I'm the dumbest person in the world, but I'm not a great test taker and I couldn't get that CPA under my belt. I sat for it quite a few times, but it was unable to achieve and quite honestly, by the time I transitioned out of the CPA firm into financial planning/wealth management, it wasn't as necessary or it wasn't incredible. And so, I actually have my CIMA designation, Certified Investment Management Analyst, and RFC, Registered Financial Consultant, which tend to lend better to the industry that I'm involved in now.
Michael: So, I've got to ask you in that context, just when you're starting out in the CPA world and finance world and having trouble getting through the CPA exam, was that...I don't know if I'm even going to stay with this, like there have to be some self-doubt that started kicking in at some point there.
Tony: Oh, my goodness, you're so right. Yeah, it was a big deal. I tried so many times and yeah, I just couldn't get it up to that point. Whether I would have kept trying if I just stayed in the accounting industry, I'm not sure. But I'm a pretty...I've done the StrengthsFinder. One of my top strengths is consistency. So, I think I would have stuck with it and ultimately got it. But for the first few years, I was unsuccessful. But I think I would also say that ultimately, it didn't really align with my interests. I thought it did, I got a degree in it, I paid for a college education in it, but actually practicing it in an accounting firm working long hours for 1040s during tax season, it didn't overly align with my interests. And I ultimately found that my interests really lied more in the wealth management, investment management, and the designations that I have now, I passed likely because I had more of a desire and more of an interest level in them.
Michael: Interesting. I think that's a powerful framing that you had like, "Maybe in part, I just got through these designations because I was actually interested in them." There's nothing like enjoying and being interested in the subject matter to get you through what...any of them, there's a level of slog that just goes into learning the program, learning the content, and getting down the material enough to be able to get through the exam at the end. It goes a lot further when you're studying something that's just actually of interest in the first place.
Tony: Yeah, no doubt. And do you find that true for yourself? I know you have quite a good list of designations as well.
Michael: Oh, yeah, absolutely, I mean, to the point that...the counsel I give for a lot of advisors that are trying to figure out what designations to pursue, or particularly these days, it's like, "I got my CFP marks but I feel I need to do something else, what else should I do?" Because there are other designations out there, but they get pretty hard pretty quickly. And the counsel I always give is like, "Look, if you've got some baseline designation, that's good, that kind of gives you an initial level of knowledge and credibility, and you're trying to go after what's next, pick the thing that's actually interesting to you because it's going to be a lot of work."
So, pick the thing, A, that's interesting because it helps you get through it, and B, if it's not interesting to you, maybe you'll actually do it on the other side of the designation and you can use it because there's nothing that stinks more than starting down the road of a designation and then getting to the end and then finding out you don't even use it because that's not where you focus after all.
Tony: That's right, yep. Yep, Adam also then studied for and passed his CFP as well, so he's kind of got a unique skill set and designation set with being a CPA and a CFP as well.
Michael: Now, I'm struck as well, you said that you are a firm that manages more actively, you have to receive a certification as well. So, obviously, I'm sure I'm not the first person to bring up...there's a little bit of an industry debate these days around active versus passive, a little bit...
Tony: No way. No, I've never heard of that.
Michael: Yeah, I read it in an article somewhere.
Michael: So, I know you end up being on the receiving end of some of that. And granted, you don't necessarily have to answer to your peers if you don't want to, you answer to clients, but I'm sure there are clients that ask questions along these lines as well because the industry media has taken this up.
Tony: Right. Yeah, this is probably the most controversial part of your podcast here. But bottom line, we are an active shop, and I think that really comes from, I guess, our competitive nature. Starting a firm at age 25 is not the norm, and so we were competitive people, Adam and I, and we wanted to succeed, we wanted to win. And I think that translates into our investment philosophy and discipline as well, where you'd have a hard time convincing me the S&P 500, that all 500 companies are good investments, right? There has to be a way, there has to be a strategy or philosophy that you would find the good or the best investments out of that particular index.
Michael: And so, I know the entire detailed investment management process can literally be an hour conversation unto itself, we don't have quite that much time remaining. But can you share a little bit of just how you go about this in practice? What is that investment approach of how you're managing actively?
Tony: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, Adam is our Chief Investment Officer, so he leads the team. I'm a co-portfolio manager, so we operate by co-decisions. And then ultimately, we have a full-time research analyst on staff. I would say that we live in a small micropolitan community. I think I said it before, Marathon Petroleum headquarters are across the street. I think there...I've heard once, I'm not sure if this is true anymore, but there are 6 Bloomberg Terminals in Finley, Ohio, 4 of them are at Marathon and 2 of them are at Hixon Zuercher Capital Management. So, we take our research rigor as an advantage. Austin, our research analyst has no client-facing responsibilities, he has 4 screens up each and every day to provide Adam and I with content, decision points for us to be able to process in order to make wise decisions for our clients.
And I guess ultimately, we are stock-centric. We have a couple of strategies, we are a GIPS-verified firm, so Global Investment Performance Standards. We've been GIPS verified all the way back to the beginning of our business. And it's not rocket science, we build our strategy on durable companies that have economic moats that are managed well, that meet a lot of the growth metrics that we want to see. And we just want to see those companies continue to operate well, to innovate more and more to improve the way we live, work, and play. We invest in what we know, and instead of owning 500 to dilute, we own a concentrated portfolio of between 30 to 35 names that we think will outperform the market and hopefully provide downside protection when the market is out of favor.
So, we have our flagship strategy, if you want to call it that, the one we started around 20 years ago, it's focused equity portfolio. It's basically where two-thirds of the names of the holdings have to pay a dividend, one-third does not have to pay a dividend, so it's more of our growth tilt. And then we have a sister strategy to that, focused equity income portfolio, and it's for all 100% of the holdings have to pay a dividend. So, that has more of a value feel and a little bit better downside protection for retirees who still want to, keep pace with equity markets and have a good return, but also want to avoid the volatility that the growth side of the market can have at certain points.
Michael: And as you implement these, how often are stocks trading and turning over? Are you a buy-and-hold-ish kind of firm within these, so stocks may be around for 5-10 years once you find a longer-term durable company you like? Or are you still moving amongst them more actively because markets and companies change a lot, and so you've got to do more stuff more often?
Tony: Yeah. So, Adam and I come from an accounting background, so fundamental analysis is key and important to us. So, in a bull market and fundamentals are going well, you're not going to see a lot of turnover. But in a volatile market with downside volatility, you're going to see us with a bit of a technical overlay to ensure that we are protecting clients' wealth.
We do have the ability to go to cash. We've never gone all to cash. There's only been a handful. I would say I could count on one hand the amount of times that we've raised cash in a portfolio. The one was in '08 and another one was in COVID times and the other one was here more recently with the inflation bear market that ensued in 2022.
The Surprises Tony Encountered On His Journey [1:23:03]
Michael: Interesting. So, as you look back on this journey, what surprised you the most in this 20-year path of building a [$]300 million AUM advisory firm?
Tony: Well, it's a good question. I think I'll answer in a couple of ways. The first is how much I appreciate the clients' trust and confidence that they placed in us. Oftentimes, my clients have become not just a paying customer, but rather a friend. And I know their career, their accomplishments, I know their kids, I know what their kids might be involved in or their grandkids as well. And so, I think what's possibly surprised me is just how exciting it's been getting to know new people and developing friendships along the way. I think another surprise is how...I don't know if cooperative is the right word, but the financial advising industry, we're in this together. There's not a lot of fierce competition where there's bad things being said about others. That's not the experience I've had.
While I may have embraced an active management philosophy, it doesn't mean that I think passive is wrong. And while we may be fee-only, it's not because I think that commission-based advisors are evil, they just do it differently. And so, it's just fun to interact with other financial advisors and colleagues at conferences and throughout social media, and on and on it goes. So, the friendly industry that we're a part of has been a welcome surprise for me for sure. Maybe the third way I would answer it is that it actually worked. I don't exactly know how to say it, but there's a large percentage of businesses that fail within the first 5 years and I'm not blind to those statistics.
I don't want to quote it, but possibly 90% or 80% of businesses fail within the first 5 years. And last August, Adam and I gave each other high fives as we celebrated 20 years in business. And I don't know if I should be surprised by that but God has been good, our clients have been great clients, our team puts 2 feet on the ground every day to help our advisors...or to help our clients win with their investments, and it's just been a fun journey and it's been rewarding, and I just appreciate the clients' trust and confidence that they placed in us for such a long time.
Michael: So, out of curiosity, in the context of that journey, we mentioned earlier you have the wonderful picture on the website, you and Adam when you're getting launched 20 years ago versus today. But part of what I was struck by in the picture aside from just we all look a lot younger when we look back at ourselves 20 years ago, you took a picture of yourself in front of the signboard for the firm and the firm name is different. You were Freedom Financial Solutions then and you're Hixon Zuercher today, and I'm struck both by the name change because candidly, I find most advisory firms, when they change their names, if they do a name change, it goes the other way.
They go from...they found it with their names, and then they make it something that's not their names because they want it to feel broader than them or bigger than them or something to that effect. So, I'm really curious about the name change from Freedom Financial Solutions to something that is your name and Adams's name and putting your names into the firm name after 10 years.
Tony: Yeah, it's an insightful question as well. So, yeah, in the background of that picture, Freedom Financial Solutions. So, I guess, learnings we had along the way, it sounded like a cool name, right? We wanted to be that place where we offered freedom with your finance and we provide solutions and all that, and it just had a good ring to it. However, within a few short years after starting, we began getting phone calls, "Do you do debt consolidation? Do you do mortgages?"
Michael: "I want to be free from my debt, do you do freedom?"
Tony: That's it. So, the name implied that we did a lot more than what we did and we are really hyper-focused on wealth management and investment management. So, ultimately, we really knew that a rebranding needed to happen. And as we thought about the impact that Adam and I, we wanted to have on this community and our clients, we wanted to have a generational firm. And when I think through some of these notable firm names like Edward Jones and Schwab and Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, these are all names that their legacies are still being expressed through the management of client funds.
And in the micropolitan community that we're in, we've been here long enough that our names carry some weight. There's some credibility there because we've consistently tried to show up every day and do good things, do the right thing, the next right thing for our clients. And so, we thought and we ultimately determined that branding with both of our names was the right decision for us. So, Hixon Zuercher Capital Management was rebranded in 2012, so 10 years after the start of our business.
Michael: I'm still struck by that, you said like, "We saw ourselves as being a generational business and we wanted it to last beyond us, so we put our names into it." And I think you make an interesting point in the examples where Edward Jones, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Schwab, these are all companies that have the names of the actual people who were there and that has not stopped them from growing to companies that ultimately went far bigger and beyond just being like a founder-led business. Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are a couple of generations past their founders now. So, I do find that fascinating that for a lot of firms, I find the biggest driver of changing away from their names is that they want the business to be generational beyond them, and you put your names into the business because you wanted it to be generational beyond you.
Tony: That's it. And we just hope to...we just continue to hope that it will be a reminder of the core values that we embrace and express every day. So, beyond us, we've implemented 5 core values into our firm: integrity, professionalism, excellence, abundance, and teamwork. And those 5 core values are going to stick with the name of myself and Adam beyond our careers here. So, hopefully, that will be a good connection point for future generations, future owners, future team members of the firm to know like, "These guys started this business, they operated with integrity, professionalism, excellence, teamwork, and abundance, and that we're going to continue to express those too."
The Low Points Tony Experienced On His Journey [1:30:14]
Michael: So, what was the low point in the business-building journey for you? I know there were some very real challenges and personal tragedy that we've talked about. But I'm wondering just from the pure business end, building and scaling a business gets bumpy and messy from time to time, so what was the low point in this 20-year of business-building journey?
Tony: Yeah, '08. And basically, the story there is the 2008 great financial crisis was just a slow-motion train wreck, right? It didn't happen like COVID, it wasn't the fastest bear market in history, it was one of the slowest and also one of the slowest recoveries. So, I don't think we recovered market highs until 2013. So, it was just a really challenging time to manage client portfolios, to manage client expectations, to manage a business, to behaviorally coach clients to stay invested and to be and have an abundant mindset when I was questioning it myself. It was just such a surreal time to be preaching these principles that you know to be true, but then having to live them out was just so difficult because day in and day out, you weren't sure if you were going to see that next 1000-point down day or the next 800-point up day. What bad news was going to flash across CNBC at that moment? It was just a really challenging time.
But you know what? We stuck with the principles and we stuck with what we know to be true. We stuck with those great investors that had taught us through their books and their podcasts that we have learned from, including, obviously, Warren Buffett, including Nick Murray, all of these great advisors who had also gone through bear markets and volatile times in the market and come out ahead. And we put our heads down and we put our accounting degrees to work as we manage the business from a financial aspect, and we came out on the other side better for it, and more prepared for the next time and we learned a lot of lessons. One of our mantras here is we either...well, let me ask you, Michael. Finish this sentence, you either win or you...?
Tony: Yeah, no. So, our mantra is we win or we learn. We don't lose here, we learn, and we give ourselves plenty of opportunities to learn. But we've learned a lot of lessons along the way and mistakes that we won't repeat. But we put our heads down every day to succeed in managing our client's wealth, and '08 was a tough time but it taught us a lot and it made us who we are today.
Michael: Out of curiosity, just who else were you turning to for counsel, wisdom, guidance, solace through that time? You mentioned Warren Buffett, Nick Murray. Just wondering, were there other people or books or resources that were helpful for you in that time?
Tony: Yeah, there's a good friend of mine, a business mentor that goes to my church, wrote a book, has sold a successful company for a lot of money. And it was good from just a personal connection and business mentoring connection to meet with him time and again. And then from a personal level, quite honestly, Michael, Scott Miller, our life coach today. Even back then as he was a dentist, he was a great friend of mine and he provided just that settling column that I needed to keep my mind straight, to keep my family intact, to try to keep work at work and when I went home, I had a...in 2008, I had a two-year-old and a newborn. So, I needed to really be a good dad as well. So, I leaned into books, podcasts, my faith, and that helped carry me through.
The Advice Tony Would Give His Former Self And Younger, Newer Advisors [1:34:12]
Michael: So, anything else you know now that you wish you could go back and tell 25-year-old you when you're getting started about how to do this journey?
Tony: Yeah. I think the one thing I would be quick to tell my 25-year-old self is to try to look older than you do in that picture. But no, I would tell myself...I would just remind myself that we often suffer more from imagination than reality. That's a quote from the stoics, I think Marcus Aurelius is the first who had said it, but it's so true. I tend to be...
Michael: You are self-conscious about looking 25 years old in the picture, yet in practice, here you are with a $300 million firm where apparently that didn't actually stop you.
Tony: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And the worst-case scenarios that I painted in my mind ultimately didn't turn out, and going out of business in 2008, I was sure that I was going to have to find another job. That didn't happen, we were able to navigate that. There's just story after story, and financial advisors and business owners that will listen to this podcast will be able to fill in the blank of the imagination that they portrayed, that they thought was going to be the worst-case scenario that would play out but ultimately didn't. And that's certainly something that I would...that I try my hardest not to do is paint this imagination of worst-case scenario that ultimately often does not pan out and does not actually happen, it's not reality.
Michael: So, any other advice you would give younger, newer advisors getting started today?
Tony: I guess practically, Michael, I would say get your designations early. I find that what happened to me, I got married in 1999, so I wanted to be a good husband to my wife, and trying to study for designations along the way takes a lot of time away from that relationship. And then when you toss kids in the mix, game over, dude. Kids just make life so much more full, so much more complex, and you really don't want to, at that point, spend your time studying, you want to spend your time building into your children. So, I guess just a practical coaching advice is do the hard work, get your designations early before life really starts to crowd out your ability to do so.
What Success Means To Tony [1:36:38]
Michael: So, as we wrap up, this is a podcast about success, and one of the themes is just the word success means very different things to different people. And so, you built this wonderfully successful advisory business that's in a great place, but how do you define success for yourself at this point?
Tony: I love that question. I'm going to answer it. Do you mind if I tell you a story as I circle back around to the answer?
Michael: Sure, please.
Tony: Well, as you can see, we spent some time together, you can tell that I've learned a lot from my mom's tragedy. And I've told you that in 2019, I embarked upon that quest to document my learnings in the book form. March of 2020, COVID hit, that made it really difficult, in addition to navigating that bear market and enforcing COVID policies. I continued to peck away at that thing, and I concluded my 35,000-word manuscript. So, 35,000 words, that's like one blog post for you, right, Michael?
Michael: It's a couple but yeah, it's a good week for what we put out.
Tony: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: We're a little nutty that way.
Tony: So, to me, 35,000-word was insane. So, I concluded that puppy in the fall of 2020, and I submitted my manuscript to my publisher, and it would go through 3 rounds of edits and the first would be the developmental edit. And I'd felt I had done a pretty decent job of writing, I was actually looking forward to the feedback. I noticed that my manuscript was assigned to a lead editor, whom I immediately looked up on LinkedIn, only to find that Lisa had a doctorate of literary science from Harvard. I thought, "This should be interesting." Listen, Michael, 5 weeks later, all right, I got my manuscript back. That's how long it took her. It was so bad. Perhaps you've used the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word.
Michael: Yeah, when it comes back, it's more red line than the actual original text.
Tony: Dude, I saw a sea of red. And quite honestly, I was not in the right mindset when I opened that document and I just wasn't prepared. I really felt like this lady had destroyed my work and I had put a year of my life into this thing. I was devastated, absolutely devastated. I wanted to give up. I wanted to stop. And, yeah, over a year of my life, I had dedicated to this book and now each page was littered with critique. So, I immediately called Adam down to my office to show him what she had done. He looked and he saw the destruction. He put his hand on my shoulder and as a good friend would do, he said, "I understand, but you can't give up now, you're so close. You wanted to honor your mom's legacy? Don't stop now."
Well, that evening, I went home to my wife and I showed her, "Look what she did!" And my wife, my support system, and my best friend, she looked me in the eye and said, "I understand, but you can't give up now, you're too close. I believe in you." And later that night, Michael, I shook my fist at God and I cried, "How could this happen? I don't have time for this. Why?" And I never heard God respond to me audibly, but in my spirit, I heard him say, "Tony, I gave you a doctorate of literary science from Harvard. You're welcome." And with that, my attitude changed and I realized how blessed I was to have Lisa as my editor. And for the next 5 weeks of my life into the beginning of 2021, I patiently and painstakingly combed through her edits.
And around that time, February of 2021, I scheduled a coffee with a business mentor and a friend of mine, and I wanted to check in and reconnect and see how retirement was treating him. You see, he had retired about 6 months earlier and I expected our conversation to be full of stories of his travels and connection with grandkids and how his nonprofit passion points were filling his time. But instead, Michael, I saw a man who was lost and I spotted those same traits in my mom. I would say he was downright depressed. And in that moment, I decided to dig a bit below the surface and I asked, "Joe, how was retirement treating you?" And as Providence would have it, Joe decided to be vulnerable with me that morning and he declared, "I checked all the financial boxes, Tony, but something's still wrong, I just feel lost."
Michael, need I remind you, I was midway through my edits at the time, right? To say that I knew my content was an understatement. So, when my friend opened his heart to me, I knew I needed to steward this moment well. And having spent an ordinate amount of time combing through my book edits, I was ready. And I began, "Joe, have I ever told you the story about my mom?" Later that day, my wife Carrie came into town so we could grab lunch together and I told her the story about what had happened. The book hadn't even been released yet, it's still months away, and Mom was already having an impact on others. And as fate would have it, at that moment, I received a text from Joe as we ate and I asked her if it would be okay if I checked it. I hate when married couples stare at their phone at a restaurant.
And, "Absolutely," she said. I opened the text and tears began to flow, and that text that I still have to this day read, "Tony, thank you for your time this morning, thank you for sharing your story today. Whether you know it or not, you quite literally saved a life." Michael, my mom was a nurse. And as such, she cared for her patients well. And I'm a financial advisor, and as such, I care for my clients well. And this message, this platform, this opportunity you're giving me today allows me the opportunity to join my purpose with my mom's as we help others, as we care for their transitions and mental health challenges that come from an unplanned retirement.
And so, when you ask me what is success, I can't help but think of the quote from Mark Twain, "The 2 most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day that you find out why." I found my why in February of 2021 when that particular person heard my mom's story. And after the release of my book, thousands of people have now heard my story. And after the few dozen podcasts that I've been on and now including yours, thank you, you've now heard my mom's story. And this is what drives me, this is what success is to me. Michael, you were made on purpose, for a purpose. We all are. Find your why, find your success and live it today.
Michael: That's beautiful. Thank you, Tony, for joining us, for being vulnerable, for sharing all of this on the "Financial Advisory Success Podcast."
Tony: Thank you for the opportunity.
Michael: Thank you.