Northwest Business Magazine

DiBenedetto & Associates: Seeing Clients as More Than an Account

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Generations of stability underlay the DiBenedetto family’s confidence of a successful future. Meet these family members and get a glimpse of how they operate their investment advisory firm.

The DiBenedetto & Associates team: Jeffrey C. DiBenedetto, Charles J. DiBenedetto, Tracy Gresty and Alex J. DiBenedetto (Blake Nunes photo)

The DiBenedetto & Associates team: Jeffrey C. DiBenedetto, Charles J. DiBenedetto, Tracy Gresty and Alex J. DiBenedetto (Blake Nunes photo)

Many clients of DiBenedetto & Associates happen to be doctors. That’s a constant reminder of what this family-owned firm is really all about: caring for people’s financial health.

Chuck DiBenedetto incorporated the boutique wealth management firm in 1980 and moved from suburban Chicago to his native Rockford in 1982. Some of his clients have been with him from the beginning. That’s not luck; it’s Chuck’s personal care. He reasons that it’s much easier to keep a good client than to find a new one.

“As long as you take care of people, they will take care of you,” he says. “It’s all about trust. People don’t like to change doctors or accountants, for example. Once you build a relationship – they’re happy, you’re happy – it’s there forever. It really is. And I’m grateful for that.”

As business grew and evolved into an investment advisory firm, Chuck brought his two sons on board: Alex in 1998, Jeff in 2002. “He said, ‘I want you to go someplace else and get some experience, and then you can come work for me,’” Jeff says smiling.

Both brothers had worked in banking and investments and both brought their father’s approach to the family business.

“A lot of what we do is not dissimilar to what physicians do and how they help people,” Jeff says. “You go see your doctor and you tell them your most private matters. Well, when they come see us, they tell us their most private dreams or concerns. They open up and they say ‘I made some mistakes here.’ Or, ‘This is something I’d really like to do. Can you help me get there?’ They’re not going to tell everybody that. And so it’s fun to help people and see them achieve their goals.”

That process starts with something Chuck believes is a lost art: listening.

“We don’t do a lot of talking,” he says. “We’ll ask a question and then we’re quiet. We listen to our clients – what’s important to them, not what’s important to us. Then we devise a strategy to get them where they want to be – whether it’s retirement, educating their children, building a vacation home or all of the above.”

Those conversations can take a while as people eventually open up and talk about their goals and dreams. “Our best clients call us about a variety of topics,” Jeff says. “Usually, the financial piece is just a small part of their needs.”

“We help them buy cars, we help negotiate home sales, whatever they need,” Chuck adds. “Because, many are novices at those things. They’re good at what they’re doing. So, when they need help, they call us and we help them.”

The question they hear most often: “Do I have enough money to retire?” Often with longtime clients, the answer is yes, because they’ve heeded Chuck’s advice over the years.

“We’ve got some really good, compulsive savers,” he says. “They have a lot of money now. And they can’t even believe it. You have to explain to people the magic of compound interest. It’s not how much you save, it’s the regularity with which you do it. So, it doesn’t matter what you save every month. Just do it. Start out small and let it grow. I always make sure that they maximize their retirement plans, because those are all tax-deductible. And then if they have anything left over, we’ll manage it for them.”

Jeff adds: “The stories and the praise they have for my father, of teaching them how to save money and being with them through the years – that goes to what our plan is as a business. A lot of advisers our size are focused on selling the practice or acquiring to grow. We want to take care of our customers.”

That care includes conversations about much more than money. For high-capacity, high-income professionals, retirement can be a jolt. Chuck mentions a longtime physician client who retired a couple of years ago.

“I saw him in Florida. He said, ‘God, there are a lot of hours to fill, Chuck. I never thought about that.’ So, now he’s volunteering in a free clinic.

“Most business people or doctors are used to having somebody call them and ask their opinion,” Chuck continues. “When they retire, they don’t get a call any more. Their identity was always their work. And now they don’t have that identity.”

Stories like that educate the DiBenedetto’s during their retirement planning with longtime clients. The conversations may start about money, but the deeper issues eventually surface.“That’s what we do,” Chuck says. “We are financial psychologists.”

They’ve also attracted a niche client: those with investable assets between $2 million and $8 million. Larger firms look for a larger number than that, Jeff says. Smaller firms want anyone.

“So, there is this niche that’s being ignored,” he says. “That’s where we’re seeing a lot of success. We’ll listen to what they have to say. We won’t just put them in a fixed plan and forget them. While our account minimum for new clients is $500,000, if a client is a good fit, we welcome them to our family.”

Part of the DiBenedettos’ success has been their fee-only structure, as opposed to charging commissions.

“As a fiduciary, it puts us on the same side of the table with our clients,” Jeff says. “If your assets grow, you make more money and we make more money. If assets decline because we made poor decisions, we make less money. It’s in our best interest to nurture that relationship and make sure that we’re meeting their needs. We want the assets that we have under management to continue to grow.”

They also aren’t going anywhere. With Alex and Jeff firmly entrenched, the succession plan is already in place for whenever Chuck decides to retire.

“We’re not going to be acquired by a big bank,” Jeff says. “And our plan isn’t to acquire and grow and have some no-name all of a sudden calling our clients. That’s another thing that we feel sets us apart.”

The firm’s stability helps clients feel confident about the Rockford area, too. In the face of the state’s economic woes, another common question is, “Should I leave Illinois?”

“The overarching answer is, you can’t make all your financial decisions based on taxes,” Jeff says. “Secondly, if you are rooted in Illinois, whether it’s your business or your family, you sometimes have to swallow a pill. And you also have to look deeper – when the media talks about what Illinois is doing with pensions and taxes and all that, not everybody knows what different fees other states have. And fees are taxes. So, it’s not always rosier on the other side. It just appears that way up front.”

For Chuck, who has served on civic boards for decades, there’s no question.

“We like Rockford. We really do,” he says. “You see things being built around here, companies expanding. But I want to live here. So if I pay more in taxes, that’s the price I pay for staying here. And to me, it’s worth it.”

The Inside Story:

What’s With That Logo?

What appears at first glance like three red Y’s in the DiBenedetto & Associates logo is actually an Egyptian hieroglyph. The characters represent support.

For Chuck, Alex and Jeff DiBenedetto, it was a perfect symbol of their stable, fly-under-the-radar approach to family business. The logo has been a conversation starter for sure, says Jeff. Even his license plate reads “YYY”.

“Because I couldn’t get hieroglyphics,” he laughs.

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