A COVID-19 Roundtable Discussion: CPAs & Financial Advisors Working Together to Address Client Concerns Matthew Costigan / Jeremy Hartzell, JD

04/03/2020

An interview with HBKS Advisor Matthew Costigan, CFP, CPA/PFS, Principal and Senior Financial Advisor, Pittsburgh; and HBK CPAs & Consultant’s Jeremy Hartzell, JD, MBA, Principal-in-Charge, Pittsburgh.

What are the added values of having a financial advisor and CPA working together in the same firm?

Matt: It doesn’t take clients who haven’t had that luxury before long to realize that it is a tremendous advantage, that we can solve a lot of problems collaborating behind the scenes and come back to them with big-picture solutions.

Jeremy: There hasn’t been a single day during this crisis when Matt and I haven’t talked about how to help a client. They have deep concerns: Should I still fund my retirement plan? Should I pull money out of 401k and if I do what are the tax implications? Being able to bring both financial and tax expertise to questions like those is a great value. A client the other day talking with his accounts payable person was asking what bills they should pay, and she told him to pay us because, “They’re the ones who are keeping us out of bankruptcy.” They know that we know how to find the most appropriate ways to use their assets to stay in business, things like helping them hedge their cash flow, and balancing their portfolio gains and losses with the tax consequences in mind.

Matt: For all of us now it’s about consulting. How can we help them immediately with their concerns now that business has pretty much come to a halt for a lot of them. For me, the best sign that clients appreciate the value of working with a team is that our services become indistinguishable. They’ll email me a tax question or Jeremy an investment question. It doesn’t matter who they ask, they know we’ll get back to them with an answer.

Jeremy: I love it when they talk to one of us about something that is the other guy’s expertise. They know we’ll get it done. They can talk to either one of us and a whole team will come together to help. We are their one-stop advisor because of the breadth of services. And they know we’ll point them to others they need like employment attorneys and labor attorneys, which has been happening quite a bit the past few weeks. We have the team to know how to do that, and can do it efficiently, quickly and even remotely because we have access to all their data.

Matt: Clients have told me that they think it’s amazing that we can do all this remotely. But truth is, we’re a collection of self-managed offices, so we’ve been operating remotely in a way all along. One of my clients put it interestingly in our call the other day, when a tax issue came up, saying, “Let’s just HBK it.”

It’s not uncommon for people I have a meeting with to hand over their tax information to me to pass it along. Point is we’re not a tax firm or an investment firm, we’re in the relationship business. I think our clients sense that we generally care about them and that it is more than just a business for us.

One example is a new client who moved their business to us in January, including their 401k plans. The game plan in transitioning the portfolio involved taking some gains in 2020 and holding onto others to take them in 2021. Those gains for 2021 evaporated in the market downturn, so now we’re speeding up the transition of the entire portfolio to see what losses we can take to offset the gains we took earlier. It comes back to understanding the client and the appropriate tax strategy. We look at the whole story and how to improve the bottom line results.

Jeremy: We’ve been able to save clients substantial money by collaborating. Recently we generated a net million-dollar savings on a $4 million dollar investment by working together. That was planning, bringing the right expertise to bear to do the right thing for the client, understanding their needs and objectives.

We know their whole picture. They’re calling about personal and business financial planning items that they need to understand, and with our team we can address each issue holistically and come up with appropriate solutions.

Are your business clients questioning you about how the stimulus package applies to them?

Jeremy: For the last 24 hours, it’s all I’ve been dealing with. They are most interested in keeping their employees employed and asking about the loans employers can get of up to $10 million to cover payroll, rent, mortgage and utility cost. We think it will be first-come first-served, so we’ve been on the phone telling clients to get their documents ready, to talk to their bankers so they’re in the queue and can be at the front of the line.

A laid-off employee can now actually make more money than they made working. Low income workers getting half their salary in unemployment plus the $600 additional weekly could wind up with a higher income. So unless there are benefits concerns, like healthcare coverage, there are financial reasons to have that conversation with those employees. It could be a win-win to lay them off now so you can make it through the crisis and be able to bring them back when this is over. We serve as CFOs to many of our clients, so we have the insight and understanding of their finances to provide that level of advice. Our clients understand the value of having a whole team of professionals in that role as opposed to one person.

Matt: It has been important for us to deliver that advice without involving the politics, just the factual information about the stimulus: how it’s evolving, who’s getting the money. They might be getting a clouded view and so we have to provide some clarity without making it more political than it is.

Jeremy: Yes, we have to keep our conversations apolitical. I had one client who wanted to talk about how he favored the stimulus package and another appalled at it. You just have to empathize with their position and keep your own political views aside.

What have been your greatest challenges to working together in this crisis environment?

Jeremy: Staying in touch day-to-day because we’re not in the office. But there’s nothing we’ve been unable to get done. The tax extension is a double-edged sword. On one hand we now have to July 15 to complete returns. But if we get through this crisis by sometime in April or early May, we’re going to have to work 60-hour weeks to make the deadline. So we’re continuing to work on returns so we don’t get into that position. As well, some of our clients have refunds coming and they need that money, so we are prioritizing to take care of the people with the greatest need.

Jeremy: We have to communicate more by phone or email with our own people as well as our clients. What we love most about our jobs is being with our clients and team members. All of us miss the person-to-person interaction. I had a client offer to come to my house and sit six feet apart and have a beer. Our clients are concerned about us and ask us if there’s anything we need, that if I need something, it’ll show up at my door.

Matt: That’s the silver lining of this cloud, we and our clients genuinely caring about how each other is doing. My clients know that I have kids and they are concerned about us. That’s even an escape of sorts from the isolation, that conversation, that positive vibe between us.

Jeremy: I hope that when this is all done, people would have spent time with their families and sort of retooled. We’ll have learned more about working remotely, that we can work successfully and still have time with our families.

What has been most rewarding about working with your team in this way?

Matt: Just seeing what people are willing to do to get things done, like working with clients on Roth conversions, how to accomplish the paperwork aspect efficiently. Everyone here is ready to pitch in and help. I think people are grateful to have a job like this, one where we can get things done working remotely.

Jeremy: Last week might have been the hardest week of my career. I had to suspend employment for seven interns here in my office. They couldn’t do what they do remotely, so one by one I had to bring them in and explain it to them. I spent a lot of other time responding to all the federal, state and county orders, realizing that in addition to my clients I had to figure out what to do for the fifty-plus people in my office who depend on me to keep the doors open. Most rewarding are the thanks I’ve gotten from my team members, that they appreciate the way we’re working through this to keep them employed. It’s a challenge for leadership but we have a great team around the firm who are communicating with each other, sharing best practices so we can continue operating with all the resources we need to serve our clients.

 

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hands in - all together