By his mid-20s, Kevin Kroskey seemed to be on track for something good. He started his professional career as a high school physics teacher, but later entered the financial services business and got the bug to become a financial planner. He landed an internship with an independent broker-dealer in Akron, Ohio, which led to a full-time job there. His MBA studies in finance were going well, and he had a solid relationship with his girlfriend. The future looked bright.

Then one day after work he got back to his apartment complex and noticed a few big Chevrolet Caprice Classic vehicles parked out front. He walked up the stairs to his second-floor apartment and saw three plainclothes policemen standing outside his door. They said his name in a way that was more of a question than a statement, and when he said yes they arrested him and took him down to the Akron courthouse.

Kroskey was charged with selling methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, better known as ecstasy. The alleged crime had occurred while he was still an undergrad at the University of Akron. Some of his cohorts had been arrested a couple of years before, and eventually the law caught up with Kroskey. He was processed and released that day, but not before they took the laces from his shoes.

"When they finally let me go I was trying to walk to someone's house and I didn't have any shoelaces in my shoes," he recalls. But Kroskey had much more to worry about than his footwear.

"Your world comes crashing down," he says. "I went through disbelief and shock, then I was scared wondering what was going to happen to my career and to my life." It would be another half-year before his case was resolved, and in February 2003 he pleaded guilty and was sent to prison. 

Nine years later, Kroskey, 35, is running a small, successful financial planning practice in Akron. His company, True Wealth Design LLC, is a five-employee registered investment advisor with roughly 70 clients and $40 million in assets under management. His business is growing, and he aims to boost the firm's revenue to $1.5 million in five years, or triple the expected year-end 2012 amount.

On the surface, the firm looks like any number of young advisory practices on the rise. But Kroskey's backstory is different from most of his peers', as his felony made it difficult for him to get his professional licenses and hang out his shingle. Kroskey regrets his youthful indiscretion, but he's proud of how he forged his own path in the advisory industry. "It's a story about perseverance," he says. "It's about overcoming hurdles and doing good on the other side."

The Wrong Crowd

Kroskey grew up in a self-described "upper poor" household near Pittsburgh. His father was a steelworker who became a mail carrier after the mill shut down, and his mother worked in food service. Kroskey says his father was an alcoholic who was physically and emotionally abusive. "I was the oldest of three and probably took the brunt of it," he explains.

Kroskey's social circle didn't do him any favors, either. "They were a fairly unproductive group of friends," he says, adding they went from alcohol to pot to other substances. He hung out with a similar crowd in college. "I didn't set out to be a drug dealer," he says. "You have a lot of friends in a certain environment, and it just sort of happens."

Kroskey's involvement with ecstasy occurred over roughly six months in 2000, but then he quit that scene after some of his friends were arrested. He majored in education and minored in physics at college, and eventually graduated with a 3.4 grade point average. He thought he had put his ecstasy past behind him.

He got interested in the financial markets during the tech boom, and after his teaching job proved to be desultory he switched gears and entered the financial services industry. He briefly worked with an insurance company, and then was hired to do technical market analysis with Valmark Securities, an Akron-based independent broker-dealer. His job duties there included portfolio analysis and working on an ETF platform the company was developing at the time. Meanwhile, he says he was carrying a 4.0 grade point average while pursuing his MBA at the University of Akron.

And then one day the police grabbed him outside his apartment door, and Kroskey's life was upended. "Look, I screwed up and I take personal responsibility for my actions," he says. But he claims he was charged with selling a quantity of ecstasy that was "several hundred percent" more than the actual amount.

The roughly half-year period between his arrest and his sentencing date was a bizarre period of uncertainty. He thought he might avoid sentencing because the prosecutor's evidence was based on testimony and phone records, so he didn't tell the people at Valmark. He continued with his MBA studies. But it wasn't a happy period. "This was probably the toughest time because I didn't know what was going to happen," Kroskey says.

Based on the amount of drugs Kroskey was charged with selling, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years behind bars if he fought his case and lost, so he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 51 months imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised probation. He finally told Valmark in an e-mail when he was about to plead guilty to drug charges. "Their reaction was surprise and shock," he says.

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