Monday, June 8, 2009

Sometimes You Get Lucky

Todd, who has his practice in the Chicago area, sent me a recap of a recent business development experience that contains lessons for all of us. I then phoned him and got the details so you can really get a flavor of what happened. The names have been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

Todd has a 1040 client who works as a nurse at a local hospital. Her annual income from her work is in the mid 60s, but she additionally receives disbursements, amounting to low six figures, from a trust.

When “Shelly” picked up her return she unexpectedly said to Todd that she wanted to look at engaging another accountant for the trust, and would he be interested? Having come from several years of blue chip non-profit experience with a national firm, Todd replied that yes, he would.

Shelly said that she’d set up an informal meeting so her two siblings could meet Todd and he could get a feel for the situation. True to her word, a couple of weeks later Shelly called and said that they’d meet at her sister’s house and gave Todd the address which, not surprisingly, Todd recognized was located in an area of expensive houses.

The appointed date and hour arrived and Todd entered the circular driveway of a large – make that very large – estate. Impressive, with a number of upscale cars parked in front.

Shelly’s sister, “Kate,” greeted him at the door and after a brief introduction he was ushered into a formal living room and offered something to drink. There were nine people in the room, and Shelly introduced him to her brother “Tom,”
and six (!) other professionals – four lawyers and two accountants; only one of whom he had met before.

They all seemed to be sporting full briefcases. Documents were scattered around on various tables. He sat down next to Shelly with a dawning understanding he was there to represent her interests and a growing feeling of dread, knowing that he was completely unprepared to participate in a substantive discussion about any aspect of the trust. In fact, he learned there wasn’t just “a trust,” but instead three, with a total value exceeding two hundred million dollars!

Hardly an informal, let’s-chat-and-kick-things-around gathering, Todd watched as things immediately evolved into a contentious, tension-filled meeting wherein the participants were voicing strongly held and widely different opinions about the trust and how its assets were being disbursed. The lawyers postured and competed and highly detailed spreadsheets were produced by the accountants who then advocated their respective positions.

It turned out that Kate was the dominant sibling, and also the oldest. Tom was a manager of an insurance office and quite aggressive about accelerating the pace at which the discretionary portion of the disbursements were finding a home in his personal bank account. Kate’s agenda seemed to revolve around passionately advocating any position that stood in stark opposition to Tom’s. Todd learned Shelly was the youngest and both Kate and Tom were dismissive and uninterested in her opinions as they conducted their own private war.

Fortunately, Shelly didn’t have any convictions she was seeking to advance, so she wasn’t relying upon Todd to cross swords with the other participants. He spoke up every now and then, but for the most part kept his head down in his foxhole as the bullets flew overhead.

At the end of the meeting Shelly formally engaged Todd and he is, perhaps as I write this, quickly coming up to speed so he can effectively advise Shelly in the future.

He is fully aware he got lucky and hopes he learned from the experience.

As Todd phrased it – He:
a) didn’t understand anything about Shelly’s siblings or their dynamics
b) didn’t know anything about the trust(s) and the dollar magnitude
c) accepted Shelly’s interpretation that the meeting would be informal
d) didn’t ask any questions
e) was completely unaware of the agenda
f) didn’t realize Shelly was relying upon him to represent her interests
g) didn’t ask to see Shelly’s copies of the trust accounting/returns/etc.
h) didn’t know who would be at the meeting
i) (here’s my favorite) will never again show up at a shark feeding frenzy armed only with a couple brochures, a yellow legal pad, some pens and a few business cards.

Good advice for all of us.

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