On collaboration, great friends, and a life well lived

Jeff Bernier |
By Jeff Bernier

If you visit our offices in Alpharetta, one of the first things you’ll notice is our “Collaboration Café.” Complete with cozy couches, a gourmet coffee machine, and an “idea wall”, it’s our space to share ideas and get creative together—with our internal team, our clients, and our professional partners. The best part is that it’s not a marketing gimmick or a whim. It represents everything about who we are and how we work. And it all started on a Wednesday morning way back in October of 1997.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was in Chicago for my first-ever Strategic Coach session. The meeting itself was eye-opening for me, but what excited me just as much were the people. For the first time in my life, I found myself basking in the company of other advisors—founders and principals at firms across the country—who shared my values and my way of looking at both my business and my world.

Soon the larger group was distilled down to just a handful of us who were remarkably similar. We were all right-brained, future-based entrepreneurs who thrived on creativity. We were all spiritual people who were married to our first wives (a rarity even back then!) and committed to creating a healthy work/life balance for ourselves and for our families. We all cared about our clients deeply and strived to be true fiduciaries (whether legally or not) that served in their best interests. And we were all big thinkers who wanted to grow smart, profitable enterprises—but never at the expense of our clients.

The friendships that took root over those three days grew stronger every time we met. It wasn’t long before we began flying to the Strategic Coach sessions a day early for some close, and often intense, collaboration. We’d spend those days together sharing ideas and teaching each other about what was working in our businesses, and what wasn’t. We’d focus on transferrable skills (What technology are you using? How are you delivering the most value to new clients? What does your investment management look like?), and we’d talk about everything from business to parenting to how to be better spouses. We were extremely vulnerable with each other, and every one of us left our egos at the door.

Fast-forward 20 years and I see that those friendships have influenced my career in more ways than I could have possibly imagined at that first meeting in Chicago. Larry Maddox grew his practice out of a CPA firm, so his tax planning insights and boutique approach to planning for high-net-worth clients have impacted my approach to planning. Rob Hoxton partnered with the national wealth management firm United Capital to expand his services, and his thinking before and after that transition has helped me focus on how I want to continue to expand our services at TandemGrowth. Kevin Korhorn has grown his practice through acquisition and leadership, and his example has helped me be a better leader for our own team. I hope that my own insights into behavioral science and client coaching have helped each of them better their own practices as well.

Last month there was a fantastic culmination of this decades-long collaboration. Eight years ago, Kevin asked me to come talk to his team about my approach to the nuts and bolts of running my practice, including how we construct our client experience at TandemGrowth. A few weeks ago, a planned trip to South Bend, Indiana—just miles away from Kevin’s office—was a great excuse to visit again. This time, however, Kevin invited me to come on as a guest on The Wise Money Radio Show, his firm’s popular radio program. What an experience! Not only have Kevin and his team built a beautifully equipped studio where they record a new show every week, but financial planner Mike Bernard is an excellent host. Our on-air conversation was just one more example of collaboration in action. The theme for the episode was evidence-based investment planning (listen to the entire show we recorded here), and we covered that and more. I enjoyed what we did together so much that I’m putting the wheels in motion to come back again as a guest, and perhaps even produce a podcast of my own at some point down the road.

I learned long ago to “seek wise counsel.” Almost 20 years to the day since our group met for the first time, I continue to be grateful for Kevin, Larry, and Rob. Together, they have proven to me how powerful wise counsel and true collaboration can be. Our work together has helped me improve my approach to nearly every aspect of my business, including strengthening my relationships with my clients (from whom I learn things every day!), improving collaboration among our own team, and protecting and nurturing the work/life balance that’s so important to living a “life well lived.”

Looking back at our first meeting, I remember that date in 1997 so clearly because the very next morning after I flew home from Chicago, Ashley and I drove to Birmingham to finalize our son Nick’s adoption—clearly one of the greatest “collaborations” of my life. I’ll never stop learning, but what is so clear to me today is that collaboration will always be the key to a life well lived.

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