To stay ahead of the curve, AMG also has a knowledge-training program designed to track and analyze state and federal tax changes and train planners on the opportunities such changes present.

Delivering advice in a meaningful and yet cost-effective way also is crucial to AMG's vision, which is why the firm uses 21 planning teams, which consist of a lead planner, an analyst and an administrative assistant, and are located in Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia and outside New York in Parsippany, N.J. "We instituted this approach quite awhile ago," Bergmann says. "As we grew, the issue quickly became: How do we service more clients effectively? You need more than one individual who knows a client."

Ken Chwatek, who heads up the firm's planning operations and is a planner himself, says being in a small shop or an individual planner must be getting tougher and tougher. "I think it's overwhelming to imagine keeping up with technology, all the changes in the law and tax rules, being able to leverage your client base to come up with meaningful costs savings, plus do investment research."

Because of its size, it is not unusual for AMG planners to go head to head with competitors these days. Many corporate clients that provide planning services for executives sign up two or three firms who then have the opportunity to compete for executives' accounts. Advantages Chwatek and his planners appreciate? Objectivity and in-house investment management. Many other firms competing in the business-executive market ship out their investment management to broker-dealers. "Our clients like our objectivity and the fact that we create and manage our programs in-house. Clients really don't like to introduce a broker-dealer relationship into this mix," the senior vice president of personal financial management services says.

Above average investment-management programs continue to be one of AMG's prized calling cards. Wright credits Bergmann with the long-term success of the firm's investments.

Bergmann is the chief architect of the firm's proprietary investment models and its ongoing economic forecasting. He also brings in an outside auditor annually to further refine his approach and objectively evaluate whether he's actually adding value to client accounts. So far so good.

Bergmann's customized screen for fund-manager selection has yielded performance that over the past 10 years has added value to every stock sector except the Standard & Poor's 500. "Using our asset allocation and weightings, we've added 400 basis points over the past five years (when compared with the performance of Chicago-based Morningstar's five-star funds in each sector).

"The real art form is figuring out how to diversify to get the tradeoff that makes the most sense," Bergmann says. "We're looking for reasonable risk reduction without taking materially lower returns over the long run."

To do that, Bergmann also develops alternative investments-lots of them. "We're strong believers that there is more to the world than the financial markets," Wright says. "The vast amounts of wealth that have been preserved over the years aren't all preserved in the stock market. Broader diversification in private equity or venture capital or real estate stabilizes portfolios and runs counter to what the financial markets are doing."

To date, the firm has created more than 50 limited partnerships since 1981 and four funds of funds, which run the gamut from real estate and oil and gas to private equity, derivatives and hedge funds.