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Solo Practitioner

Working on his own, advisor George Papadopoulos finds success on his terms.

Portrait of George Papadopoulos, certified financial planner

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Q1 2023 issue of Morningstar magazine.

After George Papadopoulos entered financial advising about two decades ago, a colleague gave him advice at an industry conference that he continues to share to this day: Don’t ever let others define what success means to you.

It sounds simple, but it’s not an easy tenet to follow in a society obsessed with work and goals. Yet for Papadopoulos, a Certified Financial Planner based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, defining success his way is second nature. He has chosen his clients carefully over the years, shunning the difficult ones, and has capped his workload. He has a roster of just 23 customers, representing $59 million in assets as of Nov. 30, and he is no longer accepting newcomers.

Working by himself, with no assistant, he handles all the tasks to run his business. He even prepares taxes for his clients. For one person, that can still make for a busy schedule, and that’s about all Papadopoulos wants to handle.

“I have other interests that I want to explore and devote my time to, and I think I am making enough,” he says.

Rather than shooting for alpha and taking more risk, when it comes to investing for his clients, Papadopoulos, 55, uses broad-based passive Vanguard exchange-traded funds for exposure to stocks and bonds. He avoids owning individual equities and has stayed far away from riskier investments like commodities, non-traded REITs, structured notes, and cryptocurrencies.

He likes Vanguard ETFs in part because of their low expense ratios. Portfolios are rebalanced every six months, with Papadopoulos keeping a watchful eye on tax efficiency, harvesting losses and shielding gains.

He counsels his clients not to obsess with the volatility in the markets. “It’s the same mantra with me,” Papadopoulos says. “We are always going to be diversified, keep costs very low, rebalance at set intervals, and make smart tax moves.”

Coming to America

The idea of staying the course was perhaps borne out of his own experience of having come to the United States at the age of 17 from Greece. Papadopoulos enrolled in an exchange program for his senior year in high school that brought him to Michigan. He quickly found himself lost. From Larissa, Greece, a city four hours north of Athens by car, he now lived in rural America. “I realized that my English was not good at all, and I had to go to a brand-new school that was totally strange to me,” Papadopoulos says. “I lived in a farm out in the middle of nowhere, and I was a city boy.”

Yet Papadopoulos persevered, driven by the opportunity before him. His father, who ran a gas station, had taught him at an early age to value white-collar work over blue. At his dad’s suggestion, he once took a job at a Del Monte factory during the peach harvest, working the assembly line, returning home so exhausted he would doze off at the dinner table. “I lasted about a week; it was too tiring,” he says.

The greater lesson was to get a decent education so he wouldn’t have to do hard, manual labor for a career. After graduating high school in Michigan, he went to Eastern Michigan University, majoring in accounting, then getting a master’s degree. Along the way, he met his future wife, cementing his place in the United States.

After school, he worked at a boutique accounting firm near Detroit and passed the Certified Public Accountant exam the first time he tried in 1993. But he found the hours during tax season to be grueling. He knew he would eventually open his own business, in the entrepreneurial spirit of his father.

Planning His Escape

As an accountant, Papadopoulos noticed from the brokerage statements of his clients that their financial advisors often seemed to ignore the tax implications of selling positions. Papadopoulos saw an opportunity. “I thought I could do better with my tax knowledge,” he says. “That’s when I really started plotting my escape from public accounting.”

In 1995, he earned his CFP designation, also on his first try, and a Personal Financial Specialist certificate in 1996. “I had some tax seasons under my belt and knew a career in public accounting was not going to be in the cards,” he says.

Yet he would leave his tax work for a different reason. He left his job in January 1998 at Deloitte to care for his son, who was born with a serious health condition.

By 2002, his son was able to go to daycare, and Papadopoulos went to work as a financial counselor for Ernst & Young, tending to just one client. He struck out on his own for good late in 2004. He slowly added new clients, reaching eight by 2006, then brought on three more in 2007. His new business came only from referrals.

His clients tend to be professionals, such as doctors and information technology executives, or are retired. Papadopoulos chose these clients carefully. Prospects had to truly want to delegate their financial planning.

For the portfolios, allocations vary, but he advocates a minimum allocation of 30% in stocks just to try to keep up with inflation. Younger clients have equity allocations of up to 95%. He uses Vanguard ETFs to provide exposure to U.S. large-, mid-, and small-cap stocks, short-term bonds, and the total bond market. He also has an allocation in international stocks, noting they are overdue for a rise.

He’s a longtime user of Morningstar, going back to the days of Morningstar Principia, which arrived by mail on CD-ROM. Now, he uses Morningstar Advisor Workstation for tasks such as research, investment portfolio reviews, and portfolio adjustments. Every six months, he goes through each client’s portfolio and rebalances.

His small client base allows for that type of individual care and for him to handle each client’s federal and state tax returns. For his services, he charges a minimum fee of $2,500 a quarter for clients with up to $1 million of assets, a level at which the fee amounts to 1%. After that, the percentage drops to 0.8% for accounts up to $2 million, and scales down to 0.4% above $5 million. The model allowed Papadopoulos to stop accepting clients in 2017, with rare exceptions. He estimates he gets approached every other week by someone asking about his services. “I’ve become good at saying no,” he says.

Thus, Papadopoulos can pursue what financial advisors preach: Control one’s finances to create a lifestyle on one’s terms. For him, it means spending time with family, traveling, and writing. He muses on finance, politics, and other newsworthy events on his own blog, TravelBloggerBuzz. That’s also where he gives details on another hobby: travel miles. His balance as of early December was 4.8 million points. He spent 1.1 million in 2022, and Singapore is on the calendar in 2023. Papadopoulos says that it’s important to reach one’s own financial goals, but achievement means much more than that. “Success means a full family life, being healthy, and having clients who you like working with and appreciate what you do,” he says.

Charles Keenan is a freelance financial journalist.

Photography by Sarah Rice.

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The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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