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Serving Clients and Community

For Lee Baker, part of the job of being a financial planner is getting involved in the world around him.

Kate Stalter, 12/10/2012

This article originally appeared in the December/January 2013 issue of MorningstarAdvisor magazine.  To subscribe, please call 1-800-384-4000. 

Growing up as a minister’s son in Jacksonville, Fla., Lee Baker developed a sense of service to his community.

“My father’s philosophy was: You don’t just come to church and sit in pews. You get involved, whether that’s singing in the choir or being an usher or something else,” he says.

Baker, who runs Tucker, Ga.-based Apex Financial Services, got involved in industry associations soon after launching his practice in the late 1990s. He is active in the Financial Planning Association on the state and national levels. He served as president of the group’s Georgia chapter and was a member of the national board.

Finding a Path
Althought he’s well established in the financial planning community today, Baker did not take the typical wirehouse path. He left Jacksonville at age 17 to study industrial engineering at Georgia Tech. His freshman year, he took an off-campus job with insurance agent Jeff Lindaman in Atlanta. Three years later, when Baker’s classmates were interviewing for jobs in the automotive and high-tech industries, he signed on full time with Lindaman.

Baker says that the decision to join the agency full time was a slam dunk. “I never really had any desire to be an engineer. My thought process going into college was, ‘If I get an engineering degree, I’ll always be able to get a job.’ I knew I didn’t want to be a minister or a lawyer, but other than that, it was wide open.”

Lindaman specialized in group health insurance. Baker says that Lindaman had a strong work ethic and emphasized customer service. But over time, Baker grew frustrated with aspects of the health-insurance business. He repeatedly found himself doing research to find the best group plan for a small business, only to get a letter from the carrier a few months later informing him that rates were going up. As a result, through no fault of his own or Lindaman’s, he would bring bad news to his clients year after year, something neither he nor his clients relished.

Meanwhile, insurance clients were calling the office, asking for advice on other financial matters. Baker took it upon himself to look into questions regarding 401(k) or deferred compensation plans, and he enjoyed the extra level of service he was able to provide. “This was the early ’90s,” he says. “I was oblivious to the concept of a Certified Financial Planner, but I thought there ought to be somebody out there who does this kind of thing.”

True to his nature, Baker decided to do some research. He knew of professional designations such as Chartered Life Underwriter and Chartered Financial Consultant. He contacted The American College to learn more about the ChFC program and realized that its CFP program would be a better fit for him.

Baker took courses and passed the CFP exam in 1996. He continued working with Lindaman for a couple more years, dividing his time between insurance clients and his own planning clients. In 1998, Baker struck out on his own. His insurance clients came with him, and they referred friends and relatives.

Outreach Through the FPA
Around that time, he joined two planning groups that later merged to form the FPA. He began attending local meetings and eventually did a stint as Georgia chapter president. A few years later, he was recruited to join the national board.

Baker is proud of initiatives the national group sponsored during his tenure. One area he is passionate about is consumer outreach. “The vast majority of America thinks financial advisors only work with rich folks,” he says. “So we are doing something wrong if you have people who make $120,000 a year and they think they can’t afford financial planning. In my mind, that’s a big problem for the profession.”

To help spread the word that financial planning is for a wide spectrum of clients, the FPA launched blogs where readers could submit questions for planners, including Baker.

Baker is also proud of the diversity initiative that he helped launch at the FPA. He approaches this topic from different angles, beginning with the small numbers of female planners. “When you look at the demographics in the country, the majority of the inhabitants are female. But maybe a fourth of the planners are,” he says.

He also wants to bring more non-white planners into the industry. The FPA offers a Diversity Summit, as well as a Diversity Scholarship, which covers attendance at an FPA conference and other opportunities to collaborate with the organization.

“We’ve had some success there,” Baker says. “We’ve seen more women, African- Americans, Latinos, and Asians who have become members of the FPA, been active, gotten engaged at the chapter level, and are doing good work in their community to reach different segments of society that historically have largely been ignored.”

Because he has been in the financial-services industry for more than 25 years, young African-Americans seek Baker’s advice about entering the business. “There’s not a ton of old black CFPs around for younger folks to talk to—or even middle-aged black CFPs,” says Baker, who’s 45.

One tip that Baker offers to aspiring planners: Build your business through referrals. He credits a doctor who became a client years ago with sending a number of friends and family members over the years. “The good news is, if you’re a financial planner and you’re good at it, you will get referrals,” he says.

Focus on Planning
Baker emphasizes planning in his practice, rather than growing assets under management. He manages about $10 million for clients. Funds from the Vanguard family are among those he turns to frequently. He also uses some exchange-traded funds in client portfolios. “I’m agnostic when it comes to passive verus active, but I’ve got to feel confident enough that an active fund is going to deliver enough individual value above the index,” he says.

Though Baker got his start in the insurance business, he no longer promotes that service. He expects it will become an even smaller art of his practice in the coming years, as he focuses on planning.

In October, he chaired the FPA’s national conference, held in San Antonio. After that event wrapped up, he was ready to get back to work in his business and to spend more time with his wife and children. He’s also turning his attention to alma mater Georgia Tech, helping to establish an endowment for engineering scholarships.

“I’m always trying to find something to do, but also finding that balance between working on the business and tithing an appropriate amount of time, giving back to the community,” he says.

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