Financial land mines faced by executives mean big opportunities for you.

It's tough being a corporate executive these days.

Before you shed any crocodile tears, consider some of the threats the nation's executives are facing.

First, there are the ever-potential shareholder lawsuits over compensation plans perceived as excessive. Executives are also living with the realization that much of their compensation, which comes in the form of their company stock, may be worth a whole lot less when it's time to sell. And instead of encouraging more prudence, the collapse of Fortune 500 companies such as Enron ironically have had little impact on executive stock ownership requirements. Which means that many executives are still walking around with the bulk of their net worth in company stock.

"With stock ownership, there's no more sanity in corporations today than there ever was," says Alan Gotthhardt, a partner in the Norcross, Ga.-based firm of Polstra & Dardaman, which works with Coca-Cola executives and is on the preferred list of three other Atlanta-based companies. "It's highly politicized at the senior executive levels. Everyone around the board table knows who has sold stock, and it may mean they get less incentives and options next year."

Increasingly, however, some of these executives are likely to hear more about the perils of under-diversification.

More and more, corporate human resources departments that vet planners for their companies' preferred planner lists are seeking out independent advisors to include (see sidebar: "Corporations ISO of Independent Planners"). "If you have a compelling story and can get to the right person, they're open to hearing it right now," Gotthardt continues.

At AMG Guaranty Trust in Denver, which manages $1.7 billion in assets and works with 69 different corporations including AT&T, Coors and Hershey, the firm's 18 advisors report that smaller planning shops, even one- and two-person concerns, are starting to show up on preferred lists. "On one list we saw Ayco, Ernst & Young, a small local firm and us," AMG's Chief Operating Officer Steve Parsons says.

While opportunities abound for planners in this market, it's risk that abounds for executives. "It's a minefield out there now," says AMG's President Earl Wright. In addition to having both their income and the bulk of their portfolio tied to the fate of their companies, many executives still have in place split dollar, insurance-based or even questionable off-shore tax shelter plans that need unwinding.

The starting point for planners is to help executives access and understand their risks and plan ways to minimize them. John Henry McDonald, president and CEO of Austin Asset Management, which has clients from Dell and Motorola, helps executives define "critical capital." That's the amount of dollars the executives need to maintain their standard of living in retirement. It's a reality check of sorts, but an important one. "If an executive has $10 million in stock and only $100,000 in the bank, they're not rich, they're in trouble. If they buy into what we're saying, sometimes that might even mean finding a new job so they can cash out."

Underscoring diversification throughout the process is key, since many corporations strongly suggest or even require their executives to hold as much as five times their salary in company stock. "We know this and work hard to get them to maintain more liquidity wherever possible. The younger they are, the easier that is," says McDonald. "We tell them, 'For God's sake, when you get the chance to sell or invest elsewhere, do it,' If that means you have to take a 401(k) plan match in company stock, but can invest in other stocks and bonds with your own contribution, let's do it."

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