Over the past decade, Cheryl R. Holland has transformed Abacus Planning Group in Columbia, S.C., from a successful boutique wealth management firm into a major regional presence, largely by encouraging employees to go the extra mile-in some cases, literally.

Take Barbara Griffin, a client service manager at the firm. One of Abacus's clients had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and didn't know where to turn for treatment. Abacus staff members turned to other clients, including a number of prominent physicians, and asked what they would do in similar circumstances. They were told treatment at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York was the best option, so Abacus made the connections in New York for the client and then Griffin accompanied the client to New York.

This kind of client commitment has helped Holland grow her firm from a single computer sitting on top of a card table ten years ago to one with $525 million in assets under management whose clients must have a minimum of $5 million in investable assets. Holland demands high standards from her staff, and they are rewarded with shareholder status and unique company perks. Because the team devotes extra effort and caring to each client, they ask that each client entrust them with their complete financial planning.

The firm's expansion in the last decade has been nothing short of remarkable. It has grown from 40 clients with $20 million in assets under management a decade ago to 170 clients today, including most of the original 40 who came with Holland from the firm she worked for previously.

One thing that has not changed over the years is that Holland, and now the rest of the professionals she works with, want to do comprehensive financial planning for every client-and all clients must be comfortable working with everyone at Abacus. "If somebody thinks they always have to talk to me, we do not want them as a client," says Holland. "We work as a team because I am almost allergic to hierarchy. We are designing a new office where no one will have separate offices and we will all be able to talk to each other and learn from each other."

Holland started out in the financial planning field when it was a relatively young profession. Graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1980 with an A.B. in economics, she went to work for an econometrics research firm and then as a stockbroker. She found she liked both analytical work in the research job and working with people as a broker.

"Then in 1982 I went to a conference where they said fee-only financial planning was the wave of the future, and a light bulb sort of went off because I saw I could do both," says Holland. She earned her CFP designation and went to work for a fee-only firm in her hometown of Columbia.

"I was able to use both my left brain and my right brain-I could do the analytical work to crunch numbers and also work with human beings and communicate the concepts of investing and listen to their needs," she says. "This is a great profession for those of us who are good with spreadsheets and enjoy setting up complex models but also enjoy the human element and being empathetic."

Holland became a partner at another firm, J. Wilson Advisors, but eventually decided to start her own business so she could do more comprehensive wealth management and collaborate with a team. "If there is a scale that ranges from 'investment only' to 'comprehensive financial planning,' we are far to the comprehensive end. If someone wants only investment services, we will not take them as a client. Also, the client has to be comfortable delegating decisions, or, if they want to be hands-on, they have to be quick decision makers. We want to do financial planning and understand the whole picture," she adds, and that keeps many clients at Abacus.

Holistic advice is the key draw for clients. "Cheryl pulled all of our finances together," says Cathy Callahan, a client of the firm with her husband, Mickey. "No one else we had worked with did that. She looks at real estate, insurance, stocks, bonds, cash-the total picture. They do our estate planning and they looked over our tax returns and made three good catches that no one else had seen."

In fact, the Abacus team now knows the entire Callahan family, which owns an in-store digital television company and previously owned a successful advertising firm. "They have met our children and this may be multiple-generational planning at some point," says Cathy. "I wish I had had this kind of advice when I was my children's age."

"There is a dimension to Cheryl's planning that goes far beyond wealth accumulation," adds Mickey. "She spends time getting to know our feelings about money and what is important to us."

Using the comprehensive planning approach, Abacus has grown from Holland and one employee working on the card table to 15 full-time employees, including five CFPs and three people who are sitting for the CFP exam. The firm also includes a CFA, a CPA and an attorney, and it has entered into partnerships with other professionals as well. Abacus does not do taxes, but it does include them in a review of their clients' finances and always considers the tax implications of investments. The firm goes far beyond finances alone, and also helps clients with mortgages, education funding questions and other problems.

Abacus recently reorganized, creating shareholder positions for Griffin, as well as for chief investment officer S. Bart Valley, who is a CFA, and for X. Alexandra Chastain, a CFP. Holland plans to bring in other shareholders as well.

"People who have significant input into decision making should have recognition and a share of the power. They helped make the firm what it is," Holland says.

She has not been hesitant to reach outside the firm for help either. One person she has sought assistance from is a business coach, Tracy Beckes, who Holland praises for helping her and her staff set goals and remain focused. "Having a coach who understands your goals and your values, and who keeps you honest about achieving one while holding on to the other, is invaluable," Holland explains.

The firm also works regularly with Dr. James Grubman, a wealth psychologist, to help broaden the range of talents the staff can develop and the insight they can bring to clients' problems.

Holland says she rates only a B- when it comes to accepting critical feedback of herself and her business. That's one of the reasons she also turns to Dr. Gene Barger, a corporate psychologist. "Without Dr. Barger coming in once a year, interviewing the team members and giving me much-needed feedback on our weaknesses, I would have a D in that area. Critical feedback is a gift even if you do need a gin and tonic after an afternoon of discussing your blind spots and weaknesses. Change is even harder than listening to the feedback, but our company's future depends on the effectiveness of its leaders," she admits.

That means that Holland must be able to quickly admit mistakes, and her staff has to as well. In assessing her own weaknesses, Holland says she does not spend enough time mentoring and managing other team members, whether they are new or experienced. New financial planners face a different industry than those who have been in the business for many years.

"It is difficult to find people with ten years or more experience. You have to sort of grow your own staff," she says. "My generation had the advantage of being able to invent ourselves. The new people now have the advantage of being able to learn from us. Another thing I found in the beginning was that I made the mistake of trying to leverage myself when it was the business and the entire team I needed to leverage."

It's important to keep clients informed when there are mistakes as well. "A big part of what we do is education," Valley says. "We are all teachers at heart. Because of that we have not gotten a lot of calls from clients in the last few bad weeks on Wall Street. They know there will be down times but we get more questions about how to make sense of all the changes rather than concern about what we are doing."

In its focus on asset allocation to achieve steady returns, Abacus spreads assets among U.S. large-cap stocks, U.S. small-cap stocks, international large- and small-cap stocks, emerging market stocks, bonds, real estate and commodities, as well as into investments yielding absolute returns such as options hedging. "We use mutual funds and limited partnerships, and we may have 15 to 18 different funds or partnerships in a portfolio, as well as individual bonds," Valley says. "We also go into such things as natural gas and timber."

Holland adds, "Five years ago we added 5% commodities to each portfolio. We also buy into junk bond mutual funds and hold them only until they get to a targeted level.

"While we tend to set long-term, strategic goals, we also look at opportunities like distressed real estate and energy, usually through limited partnerships," she says. "In addition, as long as the spread between high-yield bonds and Treasurys is rewarding enough and the number of corporate defaults is high, we might make allocations of about 5% of a portfolio in those areas and then we will make adjustments when the spread narrows and the economy is back to a growth mode.

"Multiple layers of diversification are the key to good returns. Abacus also focuses on carefully managing portfolio expenses, rigorously rebalancing to target allocations and a thoughtful focus on managing the tax drag on clients' portfolios through tax-loss harvesting and asset allocation. The biggest challenge, especially in today's markets, is managing clients' emotions and helping them maintain a long-term focus," she explains.

The most conservative of her portfolios may have up to 50% fixed income, while the most aggressive growth portfolio may have only 10% allocated to fixed income. The median returns for most clients was 8% over the past 10 years.

Mickey Callahan says, "The team at Abacus explains how they arrive at the investments so that we understand their decisions. Cheryl talks about the importance of asset allocation. They believe in a very strong allocation of small, midsize and growth assets, with some real estate, some international and some commodities. We have only been with them for a short while, so with this market it is hard to say how well we have done, but if we had stayed with the investments we had, we would have been killed. They position us to minimize the downside and capture the upside of the market."

Henry Poston, the owner of a synthetic fiber company in Kingstree, S.C., with his son David, moved with Holland to Abacus from her old firm. "We have gas wells and do very well. Now we have timber," Poston says. "But we do not make any decisions personally or for our business without consulting Abacus first. They need to know my business in order to protect my finances, but the best part is their personal touch. Cheryl has an excellent team and they do a huge amount of research before we act."

Clients who start with Abacus now must have at least $5 million in investable assets, or have a potential for growth to that level, although some clients who have been with her for many years have fewer assets. Some, however, have as much as $30 million. Most are based in or near Columbia, though some have begun to move and spread out across the country. New clients are usually referred from existing ones or from professionals the firm works with.

Holland has been able to build a business based on very wealthy clients in an area of the country that has a relatively low median income in part because there is not a lot of competition for comprehensive financial planning. She also has something of a niche among the many physicians and professors in the area.

"We have become known for handling the more complex situations and the wealthier the client, the more complex the financial planning needs, as well as the investment needs, become," says Holland. "Columbia is a small market, so, in some ways, the competition for clients is kind of tough, but it is also easier for us to establish our brand and to stand out here."

Those organizational skills are one way Abacus has branded itself. "One client came to us with $10 million in 70 different real estate holdings. They had no idea what they owned. Deeds were incorrectly titled and everything was disorganized," Holland says. "We organized it into a paperless system. Now, when a buyer approaches them, they know what they have and what it is worth. They also would have had a huge estate problem because they have family members with issues between the mother, father and four adult children. Because of our training with the wealth psychologist we are patient and are resolving the issues. I am proud of that."

In another instance, Abacus helped the owner of a highly successful consulting firm position his business when he was ready to sell it. In the process, they worked with an investment banker and a business evaluation expert. That evaluation expert later referred other wealthy clients to Abacus based on the earlier work the two firms did together.

"Much of our new client base comes from referrals from other professionals. At the same time, we have friendly competition with other wealth managers and financial planners in South Carolina," says Holland. "If we see someone who is a better fit with another financial planner, we will refer them to that person and be happy to see them find the right planner."

In addition to physicians and professors, Abacus also has numerous widows and widowers and small business owners as clients. Some include multiple generations in a family.

Abacus charges its clients a combined fee for services and for assets under management. Depending on the complexity and time involved, the service fees range from $6,000 to $25,000 a year, while the sliding scale fee for assets under management is 60 basis points up to $2 million, 50 basis points for the next $2 million and 40 basis points above that. The firm handles all work in house, except for some IT functions.

The successful client mix and investment strategy is enabling Abacus to expand into new offices in a converted older building. Holland's husband, Doug Quackenbush, an architect, is doing the design work, fulfilling a dream that the couple has had for years to work together on a project.

Abacus has developed a culture that helps it achieve a 99% retention rate for clients but has also developed a unique culture among its staff. "We had a chocolate-tasting event recently," Griffin says. "We went on a camping trip and another time we took a three-hour walk in the woods with a nature expert. For our tenth anniversary, instead of having a big expensive party, we decided to do ten gifts of ten. We sponsored a mobile food pantry for a food bank, planted trees for Arbor Day, and we gave ten financial planning books to 15 local libraries.

"Every five years, each staff member is required to take a four-week sabbatical when he or she has no contact whatsoever with the office," Griffin says. "Bart [Valley] just got back from Alaska, and I am about to take my second sabbatical, so soon no one will be able to communicate with me."

The firm also helps assist clients with charitable giving, and staff members are involved with such things as the local children's hospital, churches and community organizations. Abacus often works with Central Carolina Community Foundation to help clients with their charitable giving. The firm also makes donations to the foundation and decides as a group where the money should be used.

For clients, the most valuable asset may be the personal touch rather than the investment advice. "Our greatest contribution may not be the technical part of the investment process," says Valley, even though the investment process is his main duty at Abacus. "It is the fact that we are passionate about being great listeners. That sounds easy, and everybody says they do it, but it is hard and we have become even better at it in the last several years. We listen first and then listen again. The work is not about us, it is about the client."