When Larry Elkin was a 30-year-old associate on the personal financial planning team at Arthur Andersen in Manhattan, he had his first big breakthrough with a client—just in a different way than he expected.
Elkin had a meeting with Bill, a 70-something who had just stepped down from running the family business. Elkin had prepared heavily, figuring out a way to save his client $1.2 million that could be set aside to grow, tax-free, for his heirs. “I had just learned all these wonderful estate tricks and techniques, and I knew I could save this man a lot of money,” Elkin recalls.
Bill listened patiently to Elkin’s earnest presentation before giving a polite “No, thank you.” Bill didn’t want to save any more for his heirs, he explained. He had provided for them already and wanted to give his assets to his current wife so she could be worry-free.
Rather than pushing back, Elkin smiled and thanked his client for the important lesson: People aren’t always motivated by profit or return on investment, and he had to understand their individual priorities before working with them. Bill was so impressed that he retained Elkin, became his first client when Elkin set up his own firm in 1992, and sent additional work his way for years to come.
Bill is hardly the only one excited with Elkin’s work and his company, Palisades Hudson Financial Group. Originally headquartered in Hastings-on-Hudson and now in Scarsdale, the firm is thriving. Made up of 24 advisors in four offices across the country, Palisades manages the assets of 65 families with more than $1.3 billion in assets, and provides financial services like tax and estate planning to an additional 135 families. Publications including Investment News, Financial Advisor Magazine, and AdvisorOne, all named Palisades on their national lists of the best financial service suppliers. And many of Elkin’s clients have been with him for more than 25 years.
“He has the unique ability to maintain genuine interest in each of his client’s goals on both a personal and financial level,” says Andrew Pulley, a Utah music producer who calls Elkin a friend as well as an advisor.
Elkin, a Bronx native some might call a silver fox with his gray hair and disarming smile, will be 57 in December. Yet, while most of his friends are at least thinking about retirement, he brags that he doesn’t have to yet.
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He is still heavily involved with clients on a daily basis, visiting each one (even the clients in Montana and Brazil) and playing roles beyond financial advisor. Sometimes he is a therapist, explains David Walters, one of Elkin’s early hires who now heads the firm’s Portland, Oregon, office. “We get into very intimate stuff. I’ve been in meetings with clients who have cried or broken down,” Walters says. Other times Elkin plays matchmaker or supreme networker. Elkin gave Pulley, for example, the CEO of the Country Music Association’s contact information, hoping to propel Pulley’s business.
Elkin also writes the company blog, posting almost daily about current events (“Obama Oozes Back to Iraq” is one recent post), tax laws, country music—even summer camps for adults. He claims it serves an important business purpose, allowing him to share insight into industry developments with clients, and helping them get to know the company better. “We are advisors,” Elkin says. “People pay us for what we think, and I believe we owe them our best thoughts.” (Pulley actually became a client after reading a blog post Elkin wrote.) Elkin is also active on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
While these avenues help forge an identity and boost business, they also might be part of Elkin’s yearning to practice, even if just a little, his earlier profession: journalism.
Elkin may be the only person who doesn’t find it odd that before he was a financial planner, he was a writer and reporter. “As different as they sound, the mental process is the same,” he says. “You have to figure out what your audience wants and needs to know; you have to gather the information; and you have to present it clearly and accurately so they can make decisions and use it.”
Elkin’s journalism itch started in the early ’70s when he attended The Bronx High School of Science, a New York City high school where “you were supposed to be a doctor, and if you weren’t smart enough to be a doctor, you were supposed to be a lawyer.” He loved the idea of being a nonconformist almost as much as he loved current events, especially in the era of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the ongoing civil rights movement. So he decided on journalism school at the University of Montana. (Part of being a rebel is getting as far away from home as possible.)
Having skipped a grade in middle school, he was young when he graduated college and started out in the journalism world. The Associated Press sent him to cover the state senate in Montana, and his assignments quickly expanded to include “blizzards, floods, droughts, locusts, and grizzly bears who eat the occasional tourist.”
After he proposed to his girlfriend, they moved to New York City where he covered federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan during the boisterous Rudy Giuliani era. One assignment was covering the trial of Paul Castellano, the boss of the Gambino crime family in New York who was killed outside Sparks Steak House in Manhattan.
But journalism eventually lost its luster for Elkin. “I had essentially done everything I was going to do [in journalism],” he explains. So he went to business school at New York University with the goal of landing a job at one of the “Big Five” accounting firms. The mid-’80s was a boom time for these firms, and Elkin felt it was the job to get in New York City. When Arthur Andersen accepted him, he was thrilled, but unlike his peers who wanted to do work for banks and brokerages, he was interested in working with families and individuals. Because the firm had only a tiny personal financial planning team, they let him have a go. “The audit practice was the dog, the tax practice was the tail on the dog, and there I was in personal financial planning,” he said. “That was the flea on the tail of the dog.”
Over the next six years, with a huge brand behind him, Elkin learned how to work with and please high net-worth individuals. (Palisades Hudson now serves clients with $500,000 to hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.) Eventually, he felt so secure that Arthur Andersen became unncessary; so in 1992, almost a decade before the Enron scandal that caused Arthur Andersen’s eventual downfall, he opened Palisades Hudson Financial Group.
Elkin knows he should have been nervous. He had a wife and two small children living in Hastings-on-Hudson (where he still lives), had just quit his job, there were no clients, and there was no desk in his tiny office in the Moviehouse Mews building on Warburton Avenue. For the first six client-scarce months he even turned back to his earlier career, writing a book that advised unmarried couples, especially gay partners, on how to manage their finances. (In 1995, when it was published, laws didn’t exist to protect unmarried couples financially. He had a few friends who were in this situation who came to him for advice, so he thought to write a book while he had the free time and help others as well.) But then Bill came to him from Arthur Andersen. And then another client. And another.
By the time Elkin made his first full-time hire in 1995 and had moved to larger digs in Scarsdale, he was building a practice that reflected what he thought financial planning should be. While other practices only dealt with investments (lawyers, CPAs, and insurance agents dealt with the rest, like wills and taxes), Elkin did everything so clients could look at the big picture and create a comprehensive strategy for their assets. “Investment planning in a vacuum makes no sense,” he says.
Elkin also deliberately designed his practice so it could outlast him should he be found one day lying “face down in the cornflakes.” Unlike the “Big Five” firms, where it is common for employees to leave after a few years, Elkin wanted to invest in entry-level talent and keep them as long as possible. He insisted associates do everything alongside partners so they were challenged from the get-go, and he instituted flexible schedules so employees, especially women, could keep a proper work-life balance.
Elkin practices what he preaches regarding work-life balance, whether it’s by taking long walks or skiing with his family at their home in Quechee, Vermont, or kayaking at their place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I am a fairly inept captain, so I’m always having these various misadventures,” he says.
He takes this approach to work-life balance surprisingly far. When a manager needed to move to Fort Lauderdale to be with his girlfriend, Elkin suggested he open an office there instead of leaving the firm. He made the same decision seven years later when David Walters needed to head to Oregon for family reasons. “He was way too valuable to let go merely because he had to move 1,000 miles,” says Elkin. “And in the long run I am better off. [These employees] are going to become active in their churches, synagogues, school groups, and charities, and find new clients.”
Only with the right team in place, insists Elkin, can he serve his clients so they keep coming back for generations and generations.
Then he brings up Bill once again. “He lived to be 98 and was a lifelong client,” Elkin says. “By the time Bill passed away a few years ago I was working with five generations of his family together, the youngest of which was 2 months old.”