The plan was to transition, but what happened was an avalanche.
A senior advisor where Yuka Nakahara-Goven, MBA, CLU, works had discussed making the 24-year MDRT member from Dallas, Texas, USA, her successor — especially because of Nakahara-Goven’s fluency in English, Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese. (The clients in question were 90% Chinese-American.) But the senior advisor, with whom Nakahara-Goven had never worked, had no plans to retire, meaning the business transition would only occur when she died.
Then, in November 2018, Nakahara-Goven received notice that the advisor was retiring the next day for personal reasons. If she didn’t claim the 650 pending clients in the system immediately — by securing proper licenses and regulatory requirements within 70 calendar days, even without knowing exactly who and what she was inheriting — they would be dispersed to other advisors. The obstacles were as swift as the retirement news: No one was around to help with the transition because it was during a holiday. And Nakahara-Goven would need to get licensed in 23 new states to even review the clients and their policies.
“It was beyond imagination,” Nakahara-Goven said. “I kept thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”
This situation would be enormously stressful for any advisor. At the time, Nakahara-Goven only had one staff member to help in her practice, which focused on insurance and retirement planning for the children and grandchildren of retired small-business owners and professionals.
“Nothing is smooth,” Nakahara-Goven said — especially not when you are unprepared for a project of this magnitude. The transition was more of a disaster plan than a prepared acquisition.
But how she handled this challenge is a case study in tackling large projects one step at a time — and a lesson on the importance of preparing succession plans.
Accessing client information
To even access the information about the clients located in 23 states where she wasn’t licensed, Nakahara-Goven spent $5,000 on online applications and waited three weeks for the licenses to be issued. Different products required her to supply different information; for clients with long-term care products, it took 10 months or more for Nakahara-Goven to gather everything necessary to even learn who the clients were.
“Even just yesterday, we uncovered new clients who weren’t in our system previously,” she said. “We still get upset clients calling more than two years later. The whole thing is nightmarish.”
Reaching out and assuring
Most of the 650 clients Nakahara-Goven inherited — a huge increase from a client list that had been pared down to just 350 — were in their 70s and 80s. Calling by phone was the primary mode of contacting them, but, again, Nakahara-Goven couldn’t do so until she had access to the clients’ full information. Plus, because of a breakdown in the written communication the clients received (or sometimes didn’t receive) when their previous advisor retired, they often wound up calling a generic customer relations phone number and feeling abandoned.
“The system is not perfect, as you and I know,” Nakahara-Goven tells them by phone, taking accountability for service delays and accepting the clients’ frustrations. “We are working to make it better. Whatever service you need, I will make a priority, and from here on, there’s no need for you to worry. We’ll take care of you.”
Nakahara-Goven estimates that to date she has made at least 100 calls, often leaving messages and hoping that she called the correct number. The inability to have in-person meetings made communication particularly challenging with some older clients who are hearing-impaired. Overall, the calls — which are very much still in progress — have led to active conversations with 50 clients and continuous planning for about a dozen.
Fortunately, most of the 650 remain clients, and Nakahara-Goven preaches the power of positivity in these stressful situations.
Expanding staff and office space
In February 2020, Nakahara-Goven hired a staff member to prepare summaries for each new client. Although the pandemic made for a slow start for the new hire, they now have a system of compiling client information so Nakahara-Goven can have each household’s information readily accessible.
And speaking of the pandemic, Nakahara-Goven was fortunate to have a fully functional virtual home office for the last eight years (in addition to a physical office to see clients). But that home office was unprepared for the 45 boxes of files she received about the new clients.
As a result, she and her husband spent the summer of 2020 converting their garage into an additional office space, equipped with a scanner, wall-to-wall, lockable cabinets, alarm system and HVAC system. It was the only way to organize tens of thousands of documents that took three months to convert to digital files, plus give Nakahara-Goven the time and attention necessary to read and process.
Although the process has been time-consuming — and often headache-inducing — Nakahara-Goven’s careful adjustments have given her the (literal) space to enjoy some of her favorite parts of the advising process.
“I treasure the stories behind each client, and this new space provides me with the ability to review each one,” Nakahara-Goven said. “My husband has to park outside in the driveway now.”