Kathy Stepp and Howard Rothwell are business partners and husband and wife, so they are a team on and off the court, so to speak. Calling them a "team" is also appropriate because the couple frequently use sports illustrations to describe their successful financial planning firm, Stepp & Rothwell Inc., located in the suburb of Overland Park, Kan.
One of the first sports metaphors that a visitor hears from them is that though they themselves may be the quarterbacks, they have gathered a good team of players to back them up in their business. They both have years of experience and have been on the financial planning scene nearly since its infancy. Stepp, who is 45, and Rothwell, who is 48, both started in financial planning when it was a fairly young profession and that is how they met.
"We were both fee-only financial planners in the 1980s when the industry was relatively new," says Stepp. "NAPFA [the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors] was young, and there were only a small group of us around the same age in our early and mid-30s, so we all knew each other. I was on the board of NAPFA and Howard was running national NAPFA conferences, so we kept running into each other."
The two found they shared similar business philosophies, as well as personal attitudes, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is now history. But it is a history that is still in the making.
Each had a business and a partner. Rothwell, located in Philadelphia, had been in the field since 1983, while Stepp started her own firm in 1992 in Kansas. After meeting through business conferences and other events, they eventually got married and merged both their personal and business lives, creating Stepp & Rothwell Inc. in 1998. They each retained about half their clients and gave the other half to their partners.
"We worked out of both cities for a while, but then we relocated everything to Overland Park because we love the Kansas City area and I had children in school and Howard didn't," Stepp says. They still have about 25% of their approximately 160 clients in the Philadelphia area, 60% in and around Kansas City and a few others scattered all over the United States. The clients are mostly high-net-worth individuals, and some have been with one of the two principals since long before the merger.
Since the firm was created, Stepp & Rothwell has continued to grow and has developed a reputation as one of the leading fee-only financial advisory firms in the Kansas City area. Assets under management and advisement grew from $280 million in 2004 to $470 million last year, and the client base expanded from 121 individuals to 165.
The firm does not require a minimum amount of assets, but their minimum fee of $10,000 a year in effect limits the clients to high-net-worth individuals. Stepp & Rothwell does work for some foundations and not-for-profits, though these have mostly been organizations formed by their clients. The fee schedule is based on assets and ranges from 0.75% of investment assets to 0.40%, plus a financial planning fee of 2% of earned income for the first year, 1% of earned income for the second year and 0.5% for the third year and thereafter.
Fees are not based strictly on investable assets because managing clients' investments is only a small part of what the firm does. "We do invest their money. That is true, but that is just a piece of what we do," says Ken Eaton, a principal in the firm who started with Stepp before the merger. "We help clients understand how each decision they make affects everything they do, no matter how big or small the decision. And we will help them make and carry out those decisions. That could mean anything from negotiating a mortgage for them or helping them buy a car to revamping their portfolio.
"Many of the people who come to us have amassed an amount of wealth but they do not even realize it. So instead of being just money managers, we help them manage their lives. We may end up telling a client to spend the money he or she has accumulated and enjoy it, not saving everything," Eaton says.