About five and a half years ago, Jeffrey Bland found himself in an anguished position-he had to calm investors who'd just found out they were stuck in high-commission annuities they say they never asked for. The immediate problem: He himself was involved with the entity that had sold them, and though he and three clients who followed him say now he had nothing to do with it, a cloud of suspicion plunged over him at the time.
Leatha Trigg, a retired BP employee in Evanston, Wyo., about 75 miles from Salt Lake City, was one of those who got the startling news: She opened her mail to find that she was the owner of an annuity she never knew she'd bought, with at least $30,000 of her assets frozen in it.
A new company had taken the account over and sent a friendly hello, but it was more like the portals of hell opened. She and her partner Russ McLaughlin, a lead operator at BP's overthrust natural gas facility in Evanston, both found themselves with annuities it took a few years to get out of, she says.
Sometime after she found out, she got a visit from Bland on her doorstep one night looking "contrite and forlorn" in the cold, wearing a business overcoat. He had one message: He wanted to put things right. He said he was not the person who had put her in the annuity. She put him through the mangle for a couple of hours, but she listened.
Two other clients also recall that they gave him a beating: Bland let them vent and curse at him, taking the abuse. He then asked their forgiveness and worked to win back their trust.
"Poor Jeff had to win a lot of us over because we were all suspicious, but the more he talked it over, the more I'm glad we [stayed with him]," says client Alice Sears, who also had her liquidity locked up in the unwanted annuity. The product was very bad for Sears and her husband, Bill, because they dealt in a very cash-sensitive ranching business, commodity livestock, that needed access to funds.
"Needless to say, when I sat down with Jeff to go through all that, he took quite a beating," says another client, Kathy Ventura, a mortgage consultant who says that she was divorced and raising two daughters at the time and needed her funds for other things like retirement. "But you know I believed him. He apologized for somebody else's work that wasn't his own."
As one client says: Bland "had the balls to plead his case."
With the old firm collapsing, in any event, Bland says he started from scratch, and struck out on his own in mid-2005, moving into an attic above a bicycle shop near the University of Utah. The alarm clocks of college students could be heard through the walls in the back. There was a dip under the carpet where the floorboard had broken, and there were funny crawl spaces where gifts from clients piled up. His new wife Tina was helping out (he says they met when she was also a client of the old firm), and he recalls her typing with one hand while holding their new baby with the other. In that attic, he christened his new firm: Burrus Institutional Wealth Services.
The firm, in Salt Lake City, has now grown into one with 175 clients in Montana, Texas, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, North Dakota and California with some $70 million in assets.
The turmoil had at least one positive effect on Bland, in that he was now able to run a firm geared to the people he knew growing up back in Billings, Mont.-earthier people who ran farms and worked the oil patch.