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Advisor Spotlight Interview

Advisor Spotlight on Merv Rudner

Merv Rudner, AIF, RFC and RMC, is the founder of in metro Atlanta. He projects a laid back spirit and describes his attitude toward life as “low stress.” While he takes his job very seriously, he also likes to keep things simple by concentrating on the big picture and long term relationships with clients. Wise beyond his 12 years in the business, he’s learned the key: do right by people and good things will happen. His book of business is focused on the retirement plan space And he’s been successful at it, experiencing solid growth annually. Enjoy! By Amy Rehn

Merv grew up in Florida but moved to Atlanta almost 30 years ago. “I loved Atlanta and knew I wasn’t going back.” He earned his undergraduate degree from Mercer University and is a graduate of Duke University’s CFP program. But financial advice represents a second career. “I was working for a publicly traded company that did payroll, benefits and 401k plans. Our target clients were small to medium size businesses.” Merv managed the Southeastern states and had a successful career developing relationships with their larger clients. The company was sold to Fidelity and key management moved to Boston. Unprepared for such a move, Merv used the opportunity to transition into the role of financial advisor and control his own destiny. In speaking with some of the larger clients at his prior firm, he saw the happiest people often owned their own businesses. When he decided to start his own, “I was lucky to have the support of my wife. And thankfully I had relationships with CPAs, attorneys and banks I could leverage. These centers of influence gave me the opportunity to demonstrate I could do a good job.”

Merv was also lucky to learn from a gentleman who had been in the business for 20+ years. His practice was very much insurance based, but he had just started managing assets when Merv stepped into the industry. “Those few years allowed me to learn both sides. I was able to make an informed decision about focusing on retirement plans versus insurance.” Merv describes his role as a Coach, taking a comprehensive approach with his clients. He concentrates on a long term strategy and retirement planning. “What I’ve found is most people have no idea what type of income will be generated from their savings. They know they are saving toward a goal, but when they hit it, they don’t know what that truly means in terms of lifetime income.” Merv helps translate.

In regards to plan management, Merv provides guidance on a comprehensive investment lineup and also leverages third party investment managers when discussing the investment options. When deciding on the best plan of action, he says that comes from interviewing the plan sponsor. “I need to hear what they’ve experienced, what they respond to, and how they feel about fees.” He is strategic in his approach.

Merv entered the 401k space in an interesting manner. “When I first started, even though I had a background in 401ks, I avoided them. I felt if I went in the door as the 401k guy, I would never be a true financial advisor; I would be viewed similarly to their payroll and benefits person.” So for the first 4-5 years he only worked with individual clients. As time progressed, some of his clients eventually asked for help with their plans. “I recognized it was a business we happened to be very good at and my background helped. I also put forth the effort required; I did my homework to fully understand all the nuances.” Today has done a 180 degree turn. They lead with the 401k discussion and are focused on this business model.

Their ideal 401k client has between $500k and $5mm in assets, is a closely held business and views their retirement plan as a valued avenue to accumulate tax advantaged wealth and reward employees. “We’ll do a startup if it’s referred to us, but we typically look for owners who are willing to aggressively participate. If we get the impression they are setting up a plan just for the sake of having one, we don’t want that business.”

From a service standpoint, Merv tells me every client is different. “We let them tell us what their expectations are. Most clients will have us on site 1-2 times per year.” He gets positive feedback from vendors, fund companies and even clients as a result of the time he spends onsite. “After a meeting, we see participation increase, contribution percentages increase, and the result is the owners are quite happy. Some advisors may farm out the onsite meetings, but it’s an important part of my service model.”

The majority of the time HomeTown401kacts as the 3(21) fiduciary, as the Department of Labor defines it. “We try to bring in something that has been Morningstar approved and most programs will have an add-on program that will provide fiduciary protection to the owner.” Merv will utilize a third party manager if the business owner is open to it. “The culture of the business starts at the top. If they want to use a third party manager, I’ve found 50-60% of employees will do the same thing. If the owner encourages participation, the employees will follow suit.” There is an additional cost when using a private wealth manager so Merv ensures employees understand it’s different than using a target date fund.

On the regulatory side, he is concerned about the government placing limits on how the average person can save for retirement. “It doesn’t make sense to me. The social security system is already overburdened and additional limitations will only contribute to the problems versus relieving them.”

Merv attributes new business almost exclusively to referrals. “My clients who are business owners are typically in an organization, professional or otherwise, with similar types of people”. “When I get referred to a business owner, it’s almost predetermined they will be a good fit because they already know how we work and the prospect is typically very similar to the existing client.” Describing his ideal client, personality is at the top of the list. “In general we work with a lot of professionals, people who are family and goal oriented and who are good savers.”

Merv also has a solid network of professional alliances. He has a couple of CPAs he feels confident in referring clients to and the same goes for attorneys. He also works with benefits and payroll companies. Though referrals aren’t always a two way street, he is more concerned with sending his clients to someone who will do a good job and communicate with him. “I’m not worried about getting referrals back; I’m a firm believer that it will all work out.”

Merv sends out a monthly newsletter to his clients. While he meets with 401k plan sponsors at their place of business, occasionally a plan participant will want to meet at his office. “We host a client event once or twice a year. And we invite clients to small dinners and wine tastings on different occasions. We try to keep it small scale.” While he has done a seminar or two in the past, he says it’s not his preferred approach. “It’s not really me. I’m a relationship person.”

Last year he conducted a client survey to evaluate whether or not they were meeting their clients’ expectations. “We asked about their preferred method of communication and frequency, for example.” What they discovered was our clients want a little less communication. “They have busy lives and want to be contacted on a need-to-know basis.”

When it comes to future goals, Merv is concerned with succession planning and growing efficiently. Last year he held a board of advisors meeting. He asked a few key partners, ones who care about his success, to come in for a few hours and talk about his business. “We laid our cards on the table and solicited their counsel about how we can continue growing responsibly.” He and his Client Services Manager, Hollie Wood, put together their own thoughts to share with the group. Both Merv and Hollie thought the other needed help. As a result of the meeting, they decided to hire additional staff. “One is a project manager who really does everything I don’t have time to do like updating the website, locating newsletter content or planning a client event.” They also have added a retirement plan service coordinator and enrollment manager.

Merv has also spoken with a couple of fellow Triad advisors about working together and backing each other up. “Whether it’s just stepping in should something happen to me or doing more like proactive marketing together or leveraging administrative overhead, it’s an important topic for me and my clients.” His existing clients have already asked about what happens when he retires. Though he, like most advisors, doesn’t ever really want to totally retire, having a succession plan is vital. However he proceeds, Merv knows his philosophy and business must be maintained. “I don’t want a partner in this business who will impede my vision. I want someone who has a similar perspective and who would serve my clients well.”

On the personal side, Merv describes his family, pastimes and community involvement with great enthusiasm. “I have a wonderful wife and three daughters.” Two of his daughters were married in the last fourteen months, and the oldest just had their first grandchild. He and the family spend a lot of time at his lake house, affectionately dubbing it Merv-aritaville. Golf is also a passion.”I play as much as possible.” In the community, Merv is involved with Heal, Inc. which provides medical, nutritional and mental health services in lower income areas. He currently serves on the governing board and is excited that they will add dental services by year end. Especially near and dear to his heart since his son-in-law is in the military is the Wounded Warrior Project. Merv recently received a Service Recognition Award for his support and contributions this year.

If he could share one lesson learned, “This business is about building long term relationships and trust. I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not the smartest or most technical person, but my clients know I’m working diligently on their behalf.” Merv knows he has obligations and a family to support, but compensation is far from his mind. “I want to do the right thing.”

If he wasn’t helping clients with their long term goals, what would he do? “If you had asked me that question when I was younger, hands down I would have said a professional baseball player. Today though, I’d be playing on the senior PGA tour.”