A business strategy that runs directly contrary to both conventional wisdom and a powerful trend in the financial-advisory profession begs the question: Why? So when a handful of seasoned advisors look beyond their high-net-worth practices and create or spin off new firms designed to cater to middle-class clients, others take notice.

Take Cindy Conger, her partner and two competing financial planners in Little Rock, Ark., who have anted up $140,000 since last summer to launch a separate firm devoted exclusively to middle-class clients.

In southern California, Eric Bruck gave up a booming brokerage and insurance business to create a firm that allows him to work with middle-class clients.

Daniel J. Candura gave up a vice presidency at American Express in 1998 to hang a shingle in Braintree, Mass., a middle-class community where he's lived most of his life.

Why are successful advisors putting their careers and their hard-earned cash on the line to work with middle-income America? Three reasons, all revolving around enlightened self-interest: numbers, potential profit and altruism.

Middle-income investors have had to become more responsible for funding their own retirements. As a result, IRAs and 401(k) plans have proliferated, helping newer investors to accumulate more assets than ever before. That's triggered the need for planning, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments. The fund giant discovered that middle-class investors, including many preretirees, moved more than $100 billion in rollover money in 1999. One of seven investors has an account size of more than $250,000. The reason for moving their money? They want more assistance and help in managing their assets.

This confluence of events has made middle-income clients more willing and able to pay standard financial-planning fees. It's also made more advisors realize that planning for middle-income individuals can be a serious and even profitable pursuit.

For Conger and three other advisors, there were additional reasons for forming a new middle-class, fee-only firm last summer. "The number of middle-class clients we were having to turn away was soaring," says Conger, who with partner Rick Adkins has run a more upscale advisory firm, The Arkansas Financial Group, for 15 years. Competing Little Rock advisors Barry Corkern and Larry Waschka were also finding they couldn't accommodate middle-income clients in their existing firms, where custom investment portfolios and upscale services are standard.

The answer for Conger and her professional colleagues? Create a firm that would give middle-income clients access to a sound initial financial plan and asset-allocation model for $300. For an additional 75 basis points, the new firm will implement investment recommendations for clients, "even if they only have $1,000 initially," says Alvin Rogers, the managing advisor chosen to run the new firm, Financial Decisions Institute. Clients can get follow-up or more complex questions answered for $50 an hour.

"Most of my friends and family fall into the middle class," says Rogers. "Some have made mistakes. Some have recovered, and some haven't. Everyone deserves sound advice, not just those with money."

Since its doors opened in May, Financial Decisions Institute has attracted 28 clients and $3 million in assets. The firm should become profitable at the $10 million mark, says Conger. The partners already are considering how to franchise the concept, possibly across the country. In the meantime, Conger and Adkins have adapted a similar tack that caters to doctors at the Arkansas Financial Group, their more upscale firm. They're offering what she calls "baby doc plans" to young doctors and interns. The plan includes insurance-needs analysis, a savings-to-spend account (to help them reduce impulse spending) and an entry-level investing plan (to help them develop good habits). Retirement- and college-planning projections are thrown in for good measure.

Why not wait until doctors have made their way in the world financially? "It's important to help them before they get their first paycheck, get on a spending binge and stay on it," Conger says. "When they're 55 and have $3 million, they'll already have planners who they trust. If we can get them young, we can bring them into our family and keep them."

Budgeting? Savings-to-spend accounts? In years past, advisors tended to avoid anything to do with that four-letter word, debt, often associated with middle-income households. These days, depending on where a planner practices, dealing with client spending habits and their aftermath may be crucial. Luckily for Rogers, most of his clients have below-average credit card debt and higher-than-normal money market balances.

Noel Reitmeister, senior vice president, investments, at A.G. Edwards in Merrillville, Ind., says a number of his clients come to him with significant debt. "Many of my best clients come to me with little or nothing to invest and bills to pay. I have no asset or income requirements, but if they want to work with me, they have to pay down their debt."

To give them a taste of early success, Reitmeister, who has been a commission- and fee-based planner for 30 years, tries to get clients started on an investing plan early, even if it's only a small contribution each month to a mutual fund. When assets increase, he switches them to an asset-management program. Depending on the plan, fees can vary widely, Reitmeister says. It's not debt or lack of assets that will force him to turn clients away, but a refusal to be open and learn, he adds.

One of Reitmeister's calling cards, he says, is his willing to work with clients on an as-needed basis. For some clients, that may mean creating a comprehensive financial and investment plan. For others, it might be assistance investing in their first mutual fund. The result of his labor is 1,000 clients and approximately $100 million in assets under management.

Bruck, a fee-only planner who left an upscale brokerage and insurance practice five years ago to found Bruck & Caine Advisory with Gary Caine, doesn't let client debt deter him either. In fact, in his Culver City practice, just a stone's throw from Los Angeles, credit-card bills can be a major stumbling block, even for households that earn six-figure incomes.

Bruck's focus, as he intended when creating the fee-only firm with his partner, is working with the middle class. He takes a holistic approach that focuses clients' attention on quality-of-life issues and what the firm calls "the heart's core values." His work includes debt management as needed.

To Bruck's delight, there is little fee resistance. To compensate the firm for the time it takes to create a comprehensive financial plan, clients pay a minimum of $1,500, with the average cost at about $3,200.

It was a rocky start for the first few years, when he gave up $60,000 in renewal commissions, but lately clients have been lining up, Bruck says. One reason is publicity, most notably the money makeovers the partners have done in the Los Angeles Times. Today, the firm has 150 clients and $55 million in assets under management.

The goal is to get people to the point at which they have enough funds to make the firm's asset-management service economical. That starts at $125,000, and clients pay 1.25% or a minimum of $1,500 for asset management.

Bruck admits that some clients come in the door with a way to go. A couple-he a struggling actor, she a $300,000-a-year surgical equipment trainer-came in last May with $40,000 in credit card debt, no assets and no savings. Today, with the help of a debt-reduction and emergency-savings plan, they've paid off all their debt and have tucked away $40,000 in a money market account. They started investing for the first time in January.

Bruck seems as excited to have encouraged the woman to find a way to cut back her hours to have a baby as he is that they're turning into decent clients, ahead of schedule. "This is much more meaningful to me than working with the country-club set," Bruck adds. "This is what I've chosen. These are my roots. I expect to develop relationships and protect client assets over half a lifetime, so it's important that I like the people I work with, and I do."

After a decade, Daniel Candura walked away from a job as vice president of financial-planning quality at American Express. His goal? Start a small Amex franchise in Braintree, Mass., catering to middle-income clients. After traveling 90% of the time for 10 years, Candura's aim was to become part of his community again. That was two years ago. The locale has proven to be successful in more ways than one: It's walking distance to the town's diner, where he often meets his two good friends, Braintree's chief of police and its cabinetmaker.

Although targeting wealthy clients has been a central tenet of many advisors' marketing plans since the profession's inception, advisors today don't realize that the middle class has assets and pays fees, says Candura, echoing the findings of Fidelity's own study. "The middle class is accumulating very large IRAs and 401(k)s. It's one thing when you're dealing with small amounts, but there's a lot more room for error as the balance grows," the advisor says.

To earn his clients' respect, the former Braintree teacher and school principal says he takes on four roles: counselor, facilitator, coach and analyst. He's a stickler for comprehensive planning and charges clients $1,500 to $2,000 for the product. In his first two years, he's attracted 50 clients. "I'm building this practice because middle-income folks need to get this right," Candura says.