It was 2011, the beginning of Julie Bird’s 18th year as owner and CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Strategies, when she decided it was time to completely rethink her business and take her clients in a new direction.
But even though Bird was eager to implement her newfound strategy, she knew that only through patience and persistence would she be able to persuade her employees and then her clients to go along with such a seismic shift.
What to do when you see cracks in the system
For almost two decades, Bird and her associates had provided sound financial advice and planning for their faithful customers, mainly seniors 60 years old and over. She had helped couples and individuals weather market setbacks and recessions and endure unexpected life events so that they could enjoy a long and stable retirement. But the Great Recession of 2008, had been especially difficult. As a Certified Financial Planner, Bird urged her clients to stay the course, but she saw the cracks in a system that was primarily tied to the markets.
“At 65, you have to live off of what you saved,” says Bird. “When all the money is market-based, that means you have no control. When the market goes down 20 percent, you have to cut your expenses 20 percent. You want to enjoy retirement. And I saw the pain people went through, firsthand.”
So Bird started looking around for another way. And after the crisis had largely passed and she had brought her clients through to the other side, she decided it was time to adopt a new strategy—LEAP.
L.E.A.P – a new investment strategy
Lifetime Economic Acceleration Process (LEAP) is the notion of using multiple investment products to keep your money in constant motion. Instead of being bound to one instrument and one rate of return, LEAP emphasizes diversity to mitigate risk. Specifically, Bird found that investing in a permanent whole life insurance policy could produce a steady rate of return for her clients and their loved ones as they approach, enter into, or continue retirement.
“I did a lot of research,” says Bird. “I’ve always tried to be objective and look at the whole industry for opportunities to better serve our clients. I looked around at my peers whose clients were in the best shape and this was a common theme. I decided to bring it to my clients.
But finding a solution and deciding to move her business in a new, progressive direction was only the first step. Next, Bird had to convince her clients that this was not only the right thing to do but that it was also worth risking their financial futures on. Anytime you’re dealing with peoples’ hard-earned money, especially that belonging to older clients close to retirement, a mere whisper of “change” can be unsettling and downright scary.
“All of our clients were hesitant at first,” says Bird. “They said ‘no way.’ We made it a point not to push them up front. We just tried to gradually educate them.”
Nurturing client adoption of a new idea
Patience was key for Bird and her associates—even if it took more time and energy on their part. They began by introducing the idea, just as an option, at one meeting. Then at the next appointment, they mention it again. If the client shows interest, Bird continues. By about the third meeting, you’re getting into the details of life insurance, and many clients, especially those in their late 50s and 60s, are horrified. But they take it home and let it resonate. And after the fourth or fifth meeting, a few clients had changed their minds and were actually eager to try it.
“Interestingly, after we did it with several clients, they came back and wanted to do it more,” says Bird. Gradually, success beget success as other clients witnessed what was happening and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. “Eventually our clients totally embraced it. I’d say at least 90 percent of them implemented the new strategy.”
And so far, so good. Even during the economic uncertainty spurred by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, while financial advisors’ phones across the country were blowing up with calls from panicky investors, Bird says Cornerstone got maybe three calls. She attributes that calm and confidence not only to soundness of her new strategy, but also to the fact that she and her team had taken the time to carefully explain the approach to each client so that they understood and felt comfortable.
“My clients have been better off financially by leaps and bounds,” says Bird. “If the clients win, I win. And I like to win.”