Being the African-American owner of an independent financial management company still is a rarity, even in 2014. But Ken Stone doesn't worry about that. He's too busy helping his clients.
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BLUE ASH, Ohio – Ken Stone doesn’t spend much time thinking of himself as a trailblazer.
But that’s exactly what he is.
When Stone went to work for Merrill Lynch in 1983, he was one of a small number African-Americans working as a financial advisor in Cincinnati.
“There had been maybe three or four different individuals who may have worked at Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber or Kidder, Peabody,” Stone said. “Usually one at a time.”
When he left Merrill Lynch nearly nine years later to start his own wealth management firm, he was a trailblazer yet again.
“Back then, typically when someone left one brokerage firm, they went to another or they went into the insurance business,” Stone said. “The whole independent community was not that large. It wasn’t as robust and developed as it is today.”
‘You’re More Than Your Money’
Even so, most of Stone’s Merrill Lynch clients were so happy with his work that they followed him, Stone said.
That was back in 1991, and Stone Financial Retirement Planning has been growing ever since. Stone didn’t want to discuss his company’s total assets under management. But he said the firm has grown anywhere from 20 percent to 25 percent a year during its long history.
“When I first started, the typical clients might have $250,000,” he said. “This past year, we probably opened seven to 10 accounts where there was $1 million plus. Some were $3 million to $4 million.”
Stone said he believes that growth has come as a result of taking care of his customers so well that they refer friends and family members to him.
Plus, the firm offers “true wealth management,” he said, where clients get advice about investments and advance planning and retirement.
He often counsels clients, “You’re more than your money.” And there are lots more things than a weak stock market that can drain a person financially, he said, such as a catastrophic illness or the health problems of a child or aging parent.
“We specialize in helping people, particularly successful people, who want to retire, but they have a set amount of resources,” he said. “They don’t want to run out of that money.”
But unlike retirees of the past, Stone said his clients aren’t planning to sit home and watch the world go by.
“Most of my clients are active and live robust lives,” he said. “They want to travel, see their grandkids around the country, skydive, take cruises – just see the world.”
That takes money and the careful management of whatever money those clients have when they retire, Stone said.
Stone knows how to do that, said Ralph Edwards, a long-time Stone Financial client and retired school principal who had a career with the Procter & Gamble Co. before he became an educator.
“I trust my stock and my investments with him,” Edwards said. “What’s different about Ken is he’s like a family member. He takes every individual, and he handles them like they’re the most important person from that standpoint.”
Educating Clients About Their Options
Edwards has been so pleased that he said he’s referred at least a dozen friends and family members to Stone, he said.
Stone Financial takes time to communicate with its clients, Edwards said, keeping them up to speed with tax code changes and how investment trends are moving.
“It’s not only an investment firm. He educates you,” he said. “And part of investments is trust and knowing that you’re going to the best place to make money.”
Stone also has taken the time and effort to learn about investments beyond stocks, bonds and cash, said Scott Crawford, a regional vice president for Realty Capital Securities based in New York.
Realty Capital is one of the businesses that Stone partners with in order to serve his clients.
That partnership gives Blue Ash-based Stone Financial the flexibility to invest clients’ money in Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs.
Very wealthy individuals and big institutions, such as university endowments, invest in REITs to diversify their investment portfolios, Crawford said. By partnering with Realty Capital, Stone can offer his clients that option, too.
“One of the reasons he likes alternatives is the stock market’s never been higher, bonds have never been riskier and cash has never paid less,” Crawford said. “So what are some alternatives to stocks, bonds and cash? And typically that’s what you get if you go to a Merrill Lynch or an Edward Jones.”
Stone understands the market so well that he knows when to recommend stocks, bonds, REITs or other investments to help his clients reach their goals, said Bob Buechner, president and founding partner of Buechner Haffer Meyers & Koenig Co. , a downtown-based law firm.
Not A Black Or White Thing
Buechner specializes in estate planning and probate law. He’s been a business associate of Stone Financial’s for about 15 years –
and a client for the past 10.
“He’s done an excellent job for me so I’m always happy to sing his praises to my clients,” Buechner said.
“He’s very thoughtful and careful with risk taking. He has a good grasp of when to be aggressive and when to take a step back,” he added.
When the stock market “meltdown” occurred in 2008, Buechner said, Stone helped Buechner’s investment account recover “faster than anyone I work with or than anyone else my clients work with.”
He added, “Ken did a very good job through all that.”
And even all these years after starting his company, Stone’s still a trailblazer.
Of the nearly 1,000 independent financial management firms in the Kentucky-Indiana-Cincinnati territory that Crawford oversees for Capital Realty, only six have African-American owners, Crawford said.
Still, Stone said the biggest challenge has been convincing people that his small business can provide the quality services clients need.
“It’s not a black thing or a white thing,” he said. “It’s people understanding what it is you provide."
READ MORE: Stories by Lucy May FOLLOW: @LucyMayCincy