From the moment Percy Bolton's receptionist picks up the phone, it's clear that his is a different kind of advisory practice. "This is Wildfire," intones a velvety female voice. "Would you like to leave a message or would you like me to find Mr. Bolton?" It only takes a few moments of chit-chat to recognize that the perfectly polite and pleasant Wildfire is not a real person but a virtual secretary, and an extremely efficient one at that.

Bolton is a freak for gadgets, but it's not the love of technology that sets this Beverly Hills financial advisor apart. Nor is it the fact that Bolton works for some of the wealthiest and most demanding clients in the nation, an elite group whose poorest member boasts at least $250 million and whose principals routinely control assets in the billions. Most are self-made businessmen who have created companies that have gone public or been sold in the founders' lifetimes.

What truly sets Bolton apart is that, unlike the vast majority of financial advisors, he's not interested in forming long-term relationships with these clients. Quite the contrary. He can walk away from any engagement at the drop of a hat-and he often does. "As soon as you get too friendly with these families, you lose your objectivity," he says. "To be effective at what I do, I have to be perceived as an outsider."

What Bolton does-intervene in the short-term, high-stakes drama of family business succession-is such an obscure specialty that he has had to invent it as he goes along. "My job is to bridge the gap between generations and translate the financial intentions of the leadership team to the children," he says. So demanding are these clients that Bolton has suffered practically every indignity, from being awakened by frantic phone calls in the middle of the night to having a contract taken out on his life by an angry scion worried that the advisor's counsel might serve the parent's (Bolton's client) interest in ways inimical to the offspring's.

Bolton draws the line on walking his clients' cats, or even their dogs, but he will don a three-piece suit to visit a client lounging in his pajamas in the middle of the night. These relationships are so intense that Bolton likes to keep them short-generally no longer than one year. But intensity aside, Bolton has strategic reasons for cultivating his image as an outsider. "Most of my colleagues will tell you they want to be the primary relationship manager," he says. "My niche is that I don't ever want to lead the team."

Bolton's ability to walk away from relationships makes him extraordinarily valuable to family offices, which use his services with confidence partly because they know he is not trying to curry favor in return for a lucrative sinecure. But it also gives him an authority and objectivity with super-rich clients who can buy almost anything they want-except honest advice. All too often, super-rich tycoons find themselves surrounded by sycophantic family-office personnel who tell them what they want to hear. Enter Bolton.

Over the telephone, Bolton speaks slowly and simply, as though he were addressing a child. That's not surprising, given his job.

Bolton has always been something of an outsider. For one thing, he was raised in the segregated South of Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1950s. For another, he grew up surrounded by women, the eldest son of 11 children in a working-class African American family. His parents, neither of whom had more than a fourth-grade education, made considerable sacrifices to send their children to private Catholic schools.

Bolton's sense of being an outsider was reinforced when, in the 1960s, his family moved from Fort Worth to Berkeley, Calif. "It was a total culture shock," he says. "There was only one high school in Berkeley. I went from segregated classrooms to the totally integrated classrooms of Berkeley, where most of my classmates were white or Asian," he says. "I was actually scared. My culture told me it was dangerous to let white people know what you were thinking. So I never signed my name to my homework."

Bolton laughs now, remembering one occasion when a teacher read his paper aloud in class, and then placed it on his desk. "I was the only one not signing my work, so it was pretty easy to figure out," he says. Bolton stood out in other ways. Shortly after moving to Berkeley, his academic work prompted the high school to move him into honors classes, where he was usually the only African-American.

These days, Bolton has learned to sign his work-but he has not lost the sense of being an outsider looking in. "When I go into a session with a client, I don't say much," he notes. "I let them ramble and run. Sometimes people just need to hear themselves talk to create their own solutions. I'm almost a hearing aid to them." In the meantime, of course, he is forming his own conclusions. "You could say I'm a watcher," he says.

In addition to his academic prowess, Bolton excelled at basketball in high school. But when it came time to enter college, he decided to turn down an athletic scholarship in favor of an academic one. In those days, academic scholarships had better perks. As a freshman at UCLA, Bolton was recruited to play on John Wooden's basketball team. At that time, there were 25 high school All-Americans vying for a position on a team that was a perennial NCAA champion; pick-up games, says Bolton, were "war zones."

At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Bolton realized his future in basketball was questionable. Wooden told him that he could play for the freshman team, but warned him that he'd probably sit out the varsity games on the bench, already knee-deep in stars like Curtis Rowe, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who then was known as Lew Alcindor). Big money in pro sports was still a decade away, so for many of his colleagues, basketball was a ticket to college, not instant wealth. One friend, Warren, turned down an offer from the Boston Celtics and later co-starred in the TV series "Hill Street Blues." Yet the connection to superstar athletes would eventually give Bolton entrĂˆe into a world far from his humble childhood in Fort Worth. Over the years, he became close friends with NBA All-Stars like Jamaal Wilkes and Phil Chenier.

Bolton studied economic history, an independent major that delved into the history of economic institutions, vehicles and theories. He learned French, German and Kiswahili, worked his way through all of the coursework for a Ph.D., taught undergraduates in both history and economics and began his dissertation on the development of a skilled labor force in Zaire.

While working on his thesis, Bolton was hired as a statistician by the Los Angeles Police Department, a job he held from 1977 to 1980. At the same time, he ran into a friend from college who had started a financial planning practice and asked Bolton to be his client. "It turned out I knew more than he did," Bolton laughs.

He agreed to work part time for his friend. And he never looked back. "I just fell in love with financial planning," he explains. "I had always wanted to teach, but now I could teach directly to clients."

By 1982, Bolton had received his certified financial planner license and operated a private practice that was structured in a traditional manner around the retention of long-term clients. Those clients included up-and-coming sports stars and some regular folks like himself, people of color who were largely ignored by the financial-services industry.

At one time, Bolton's practice consisted almost entirely of athletes, but that was before the era of marketing and sponsorships, he says. It was also before the market was taken over by lawyers. Bolton exited that arena when he realized he didn't want his reputation to hinge on a newspaper article about some washed-up, bankrupt 21-year-old star.

Yet Bolton's connection to the high-profile athletes of his younger years provided his ticket to the world of the super-rich. "I got involved in this market when one of my sports clients introduced me to a wealthy friend," he says. One thing led to another, and over the past 15 years, Bolton has been recommended by one wealthy family to the next.

"Percy is a magnet," says David Diesslin, who heads his own firm in Fort Worth and served with Bolton on a practice-standards task force in the early '90s. "He's an intense, charismatic person who you want to be around and who comes across as very caring."

Bolton also served on the Institute of Certified Financial Planners' board of directors in the early '90s and his performance there provided a glimpse of his unique abilities. "Percy had a way of sitting quietly in a meeting, taking careful notes about complex issues, and then making a few comments that cut right to the heart of the issues we were grappling with," recalls former ICFP president Dick Wagner, founder of WorthLiving LLC in Denver.

To give some idea of intensity-and profitability-of these Bolton's engagements, he has worked with only 15 families in the 15 years since he established his specialty practice. "You can only do one or two cases a year because once they retain you, you're on call 24 hours a day," he says. His assignments can range from helping families interview competing trust companies to assisting in structuring a succession plan. "But mostly I am brought on to talk to the children," he says. That means translating the financial intentions of the leadership team, which can include lawyers, accountants, trust officers, business managers and family-office executives.

To even begin a relationship with a family office, Bolton charges $5,000 up front. "The retainer shows me that the principal's advisors are serious about working with me and don't just want to pick my brain for two hours," he says. It also allows him to prepare a scope of work and prepare for interviews.

The interview process can take weeks. "How do I find a client?" asks Bolton. "I don't know. The referral source is strictly confidential. I don't know who recommended me, and sometimes, I don't even know who I'm working for." It can take a year to meet the principal, he says; in some cases, he never finds out who the principal is or how much money they control.

The private-client world is distinguished by its secrecy, explains Paul Perez, a friend of Bolton's who has set up two family offices, one in New York and the other in Florida. Prior to that, Perez worked as a trust officer at U.S. Trust and also trained for eight years as a novice in the Jesuit order.

"It's hard to succeed in this world because there's no real public-information source," Perez explains. "That automatically means you're going by referral, which is much slower. And then you not only have to be very competent, as Percy is, but very patient, and you have to have complete integrity because this is a small world and families talk among themselves."

In fact, families are talking more frequently these days with the advent of forums such as the Institute of Private Investors in New York and the Fox Family Office Exchange, based in Oakbrook, Ill. Trade meetings for these membership organizations, which can cost as much as $10,000 to join, are held in the utmost secrecy, in places like the Bahamas and Palm Beach, Fla., with participants identified by first-name-only nametags. The suspicious glares at these events could wither a rock.

The most intense scrutiny can come not from the principal, but from his "surrogate" or "proxy," generally an accountant or lawyer, Bolton explains. "They may be the most powerful person in town, but they are aware that they exist entirely at the whim of an individual," he says. "This is probably the only relationship with a billionaire they will ever have."

However, Bolton knows advisors who receive equity stakes in any business deal they structure. "One client sold a subsidiary for $300 million, and the executive director got a $3 million bonus on the sale, and the guy has more companies to sell."

The world of the private client is the last great undertaking, Perez maintains. "First, the corporate pension funds were saturated with consultants and money managers, then the state pension funds, then the endowments and foundations. Now what's left is the wealthy." As a result, he says, competition is intense.

Nevertheless, Perez says, it's still rare to find someone like Bolton who offers dedicated consulting services to the wealthy, but is not hawking his own products or money management services. "Percy's market focus, objectivity and experience are not the commonest thing on earth," he allows, noting that most high-end consulting firms have grown out of the ERISA phenomenon, and thus tend to be huge and highly institutional.

Bolton charges $250 to $500 an hour, plus expenses, depending on the nature of the work. Many of his clients are older than Bolton, but their children may be his age or younger. "Often I bridge the gap between those in their forties and those in their sixties or seventies," he says.

Bolton describes his clients as "kings and queens, princes and princesses" who exist in a paradoxical world of sycophancy and iron wills. "These are people who have created success against significant odds and naysayers," he says. "Yet in many cases, their children are just not cut from the same cloth."

In one case, a son expected to inherit his father's textile business, but "his father decided to sell the business because his son was an incompetent." Bolton left that project when the man's wife warned him that her son had taken out a contract out on his life.

A more typical case involved a business owner with a nine-figure net worth "who was patriarchal and condescending like a slave driver, and all his children hated him, and he couldn't figure out why," Bolton says. "The team was working hard on a succession plan, but none of the kids would go the meetings, they just said, 'Go to hell.' I was hired by the family office to talk to the children and see if I could bring them on board." Bolton hit it off especially well with two of the kids, who still call him to this day.

The self-made tycoons Bolton advises frequently are incredibly demanding individuals accustomed to getting their own way, creating strains in both family and business relationships. "Often the kids have never met anyone who can stand up to their parents," he says. "All of the advisors have grown up with the founder or person in charge, so the children are naturally distrustful of them." Bolton does not relay messages and keeps confidences, even when he is called by a frantic parent at 2 a.m. wondering why 32-year-old Johnny didn't come home last night. "I often tell the kids, 'If you suddenly notice I'm not here one day, you'll know why.'"

As complicated as it is to get hired by a family, being terminated is a breeze. "Half the time, I don't know why I've been terminated or where the order has come from," Bolton says. "A major characteristic of this marketplace is that they're constantly looking for something bigger and better; that's how they made their money in the first place. A lot of times in the world, the relationship just sours. If I walk into a room and have an empty feeling in my stomach, that's a sign."

Nevertheless, Bolton has terminated more relationships than the reverse. "In this world, the solicitation of you is never, ever over," he says. "There is no middle ground. If they like you, they want you around them, and they are extremely persuasive and don't give up. That's why I try to keep my relationships short."

Bolton has been seduced with everything from a brand-new Jaguar to vacation homes to job offers. "Friendship with clients takes away your objectivity, and they start to own you the way they own things," he says. "They want you to drive a certain car, so they offer to buy it for you. They want you to show up at various functions to speak on their behalf. They want you to give to their charities and provide free financial advice to whatever boards they're on. Whatever their activities are become yours. If they play golf and you don't, you better learn. If they walk around the mountain at 2 a.m., you better get your gym clothes on. If a client tells you to take off your tie, it may be time to terminate the relationship yourself."

The few permanent clients Bolton retains come from his earliest days as an advisor. They are generally "people of color who are only super-rich in relation to what they've come from," he says, "and who would be torn to shreds if I let them go." If there were other African-Americans with his skills and ability in the area, he says, he would refer these clients to them-but he doesn't know any.

In his spare time, Bolton's main concern is children. Besides having been on the boards of numerous children's charities, including UNICEF, The United Way, The Boys & Girls Club and The Orphan Society, he and his wife, a dentist, have adopted four young children of their own. "I've never been safe," Bolton says. "I like change, and I like to be an agent of change."

At times, Bolton has toyed with the idea of restructuring his practice along more traditional lines. While his role as a consigliere to the superwealthy has proved to be a fascinating experience, it is a business based solely upon his skills at understanding interpersonal dynamics and has little, if any, residual vlaue.

Looking back, Bolton considers his background and education the ideal training for his current work. If he seems detached when discussing net worths that would make some advisors do a double-take, that's because he has managed to place his mostly white clients into the economic and historical framework he studied in grad school. "My training allowed me to become aware of cultural differences, including my own," he says. "I understand the issues of race in this country, but I don't allow it to color my dealings with people."

Nevertheless, Bolton considers his background a plus. "I think it's a benefit because it reinforces my image as an outsider," he says. "How can I go after their wealth when I can't even be in their country club?" Ultimately, it's his ease at being a "stranger" that so seduces clients.