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From CPA to Financial Planner

May 29, 2011 (The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.) Some people have a friend they know they can call for straight-talking financial advice.

This friend might tell them when to buy or sell, give them tips on estate planning or a frank opinion on how feasible their retirement plan is.

Gene McManus often found himself in that position with his accounting clients when he worked as a CPA. He found people would ask him questions they weren't comfortable asking their official financial adviser because McManus "didn't have a dog in the fight."

Most financial advisers work off commission, so McManus said his tax clients would often feel like those advisers would always recommend the option that would result in the highest commission for them.

Because the vast majority of financial planners work for banks or nationwide investment houses, there's a limit to how tailored their advice would be, McManus said. These advisers often had to act on what their superiors were "pushing," and not necessarily what was the absolute best for their client.

"This isn't to say that banks are bad or anything like that," McManus said. "But I really saw a need for personalized financial planning."

Because of these concerns, he became a sort of unofficial adviser about finances.

"There wasn't a consultative approach towards planning," he said. "Why couldn't there be financial planning for a fee that didn't always have to result in a sale?"

Customers would ask McManus whether he ever did financial planning, but he stuck to accounting for years. Finally, he talked with his friend Rhett Sinclair about giving no-strings-attached financial advice.

In 2007, the two started their own fee-based financial planning and wealth management firm, McManus & Sinclair Wealth Management, charging clients based on the complexity of their financial situation and not a commission.

Over time, the men were able to polish and perfect their consultation process, trademarking it as the Lifetime Financial Solution. The process appraises, manages and monitors life and financial goals through several steps the firm has developed over time.

The first step is what they call "the candid look." The client brings every single piece of financial information, from tax returns to long-forgotten life insurance policies.

Sinclair likens this to a first checkup with a new doctor.

"It's similar to a physical," he said. "You review X-rays, lab work, MRIs and all the diagnostics of the patient."

That's just the first step, but McManus said it's the most important.

"Transparency in our business is so important," he said.

The partners then draw up a plan of action based on what the client described as their financial goals. This is called the "alignment advantage," and the adviser works to see what is reasonable for the client's financial situation. Questions range from when the person wants to retire to how current is their will.

After this meeting, there are almost always adjustments to be made to the client's financial plan. This step, tweaking and refining, is called "the living blueprint."

Once everything is how it should be, the customer has access to everything about their financial situation through a secure online portal. The client can see their investments, assets and other financial numbers in real time. Clients can store copies of important documents online in what is called their electronic vault.

MCMANUS AND SINCLAIR stayed as just the two of them for a while, but soon they realized how beneficial it would be to add a partner with significant experience in the securities industry. In January 2010, John Rhodes joined the firm, bringing 20 years of experience working on Wall Street.

The Augusta native had been commuting from Augusta to Manhattan and was ready to be able to work 15 minutes away instead of a plane flight.

Straight out of college, Rhodes decided New York was the place to be. Though he grew to appreciate his roots and eventually did move back, during his time in New York he was able to make key connections and gain valuable experience.

In August, Pat Fair came on as another partner in the firm. Fair, who has 10 years of experience in the financial sector, works with Rhodes to read and research financial writings so clients don't have to.

"We don't farm anything else; we do it all ourselves," Fair said. "We're able to cut out a lot of bureaucratic distractions."

Sinclair said he's enjoyed having what he calls an ensemble firm, with four equal partners.

Each partner has his own area of expertise, but all four are familiar with all parts of the business.

"If you're in brain surgery, do you want one doctor looking at it, or four?" Sinclair said.

IN THE PAST FEW months, McManus & Sinclair was renamed AP Wealth Management, a title all four partners feel reflects their mission statement and goals.

The name comes from "attain and protect," the two primary responsibilities the firm takes for their clients' resources.

AP Wealth has two offices, one in Aiken and one in Augusta. The partners say they would like to become a regional firm. They believe their Lifetime Financial Solution can help clients from all over.

"I think it would be a slow growth kind of thing," Fair said. "Quality is the most important thing to us."

The partners at AP Wealth all agree that it's a positive experience being able to help their clients stay informed and comfortable with their finances. In the process, they become an important part of their clients' sense of security.

"I remember the first person I officially helped as a financial adviser came around the table when we were through and gave me a hug," McManus said. "Nobody ever hugged me for doing their tax returns."

Copyright (c) 2011, The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

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