Within John Hancock Financial Network, being named “Practice of the Year” carries bragging rights. Client 1st Financial holds the 2012 crown, which its CEO, Michael Fischer, attributes in part to rigorous strategic planning.

Five years ago the Fogelsville, Pa.-based firm consisted of Fischer, who managed about $60 million for 570 clients, and an assistant. He then instituted a formal strategic plan focusing on business processes, technology systems and people relations. Today the firm has three advisors and three assistants and manages nearly $120 million for 700 clients.

“You just can’t wing it,” Fischer says. “You’ll always get the same result if you always do what you always did.”

Strategic planning starts with an assessment of an organization’s present standing, moves on to determining the choices before it, then choosing a strategy in support of growth or some other overriding goal and finally to allocating resources in pursuit of it and monitoring its progress. Proponents say it’s invaluable for setting goals and bringing about tough changes, but that few financial-advice firms bother with it.

Michael Fischer

One that does is Beverly Hills Wealth Management in Beverly Hills, Calif. Its chief information officer John Stuart says short, comprehensive plans of one page can be sufficient busy practices.

Squiggly Lines

In his view, strategic plans exist to help firms stay on target to meet goals, certainly, but also to cope with change — something he and his colleagues have seen a lot of. This year, just three years and several acquisitions since its inception, Stuart expects it to exceed $450 million in assets and 1,000 client relationships.

“We are very aware of pivoting our plan to help us define our goal,” he adds. “When we are looking five years down the road, our goal is not a straight line. It’s a squiggly line.”

Internal buy-in is crucial to the success of a strategic plan. And if getting a team to understand what’s required is tough, getting them to act on the changes needed to effect a plan can be tougher.

That’s something Brock Moseley of Miracle Mile Advisors puts at the heart of his strategic plan. The Los Angeles firm, which manages about $208 million for 60 families, strives to compartmentalize tasks and delegate duties related to its plan. The team has six full-time employees and three part-time analysts, all of whom handle some aspect of the operations- and marketing-focused plan. Moseley sees weekly check-ins as essential to staying on track.

“Progress is not something that happens overnight,” Moseley says. “It’s been a labor of love.”

And it pays to recognize what a strategic plan is not, says Nick Georgis of Charles Schwab’s RIA-custody business. It’s not a method of accomplishing an isolated task, and it’s not a business plan. A proper strategic plan addresses several major tasks, he explains. A business plan is limited to only start-up phase, funding or operations.

Contrarian

To be sure, some successful advisors see little benefit in formal strategic plans.

David John Marotta is one of them. He runs Marotta Wealth Management, a 10-person firm in Charlottesville, Va., that manages about $250 million for 207 households. Back in 2000, Marotta and his father were the entire staff, and assets then totaled $10 million of the family’s own money.

“I’ve looked at lots of strategic plans for growth, and most of them go down the traditional lines,” Marotta, a prolific writer on personal finance and related subjects, says. “Unfortunately I wouldn’t say that marketing always happens that way. You could say we don’t have a plan, or you could just say that blogging every day is our plan.”