Partner, Isaacson & Company
A Financial Planning Pioneer
Joel Isaacson didn’t really like accounting. Of course, he didn’t fully realize that until after he had earned an accounting degree at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University and after he’d been working as a CPA for Touche Ross & Co. He didn’t want to be “stuck in the tax pool.”
Enter financial planning. He’d transferred with Touche Ross from his native New York to San Francisco. A one-day self-study course in financial planning showed him the potential, but it was the early 1980s, and financial planning was a new field. Lucky for Isaacson, he happened to be living in the only city that had the only university offering what was probably the only MBA in the country in financial planning.
Dr. Robert Bohn from Brigham Young University is known as the father of the financial-planning industry, and he set up the financial-planning program at Golden Gate University. Isaacson quit his job, dipped into his savings, took out student loans and jumped into being a full-time student at Golden Gate University. His course work included financial planners, lawyers, actuaries, business people, and bankers. These professional practitioners taught about what they were doing in their day jobs. That was the thing he appreciated most about GGU: “Getting the worldly, real-life experiences from the professors.” He had a lawyer for estate planning with whom he later did business; the same was true of a pension-plan teacher. His capstone course taught him how to run a practice—something that was to come in handy later.
In less than a year, Isaacson earned his MBA in financial planning. During the course of his education at Golden Gate, financial planning became his passion. He had a vision of where he wanted to go and knew he wanted to be doing planning as opposed to sales. “I got that instilled in me at Golden Gate,” he says. “It didn’t feel like a job, it felt like a career.” Armed with his Golden Gate University MBA in financial planning, Isaacson set out to blaze the path of his new career.
Heading back to his home town of New York, he interviewed with members of the Financial Planning Association in New York, as well as accounting firms. He received offers from several firms, but realized he would basically be doing tax work—not what he wanted. So he took a position with a financial planner at 50 percent of his previous pay. No one was doing fee-only financial planning (where planners are paid a set fee by clients instead of earning commissions based on what they sell) back then. The fee-only model was important to Isaacson, because “clients feel we’re on their side. Clients are overwhelmed, and they feel like a lot of the advisers and wealth managers out there aren’t necessarily on their side. With us, they feel like they’ve got someone fighting for them.” With no incentive to sell something from one company vs. another, fee-only planners can be objective and concentrate first and foremost on client needs.
He had taught financial planning for a number of years at schools such as New York University and the New School in New York City after graduating from GGU. His students became a valuable part of his network, eventually becoming his best referral source. He also joined the New York chapter of the International Association of Financial Planning, where he served on the board for five years and became its president. “That was probably the most significant thing I did in the field,” he says. It allowed him to delve deeply into his new field and network with 10 other board members with whom he developed both personal and business relationships.
Joel Isaacson & Co. Inc. was founded with three people in 1993. It offers investment management, cash-flow management, estate planning, tax planning, employee-benefit coordination, insurance planning and retirement planning. He essentially built his business on word-of-mouth referrals, greatly aided by his supporters in related industries. Isaacson & Co. Inc. serves many high-worth professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and celebritiesm, including some San Francisco Giants. The firm is hired and paid by companies to provide financial-planning services for their executives.
“I found a field I love,” Isaacson says. “I love working with clients and helping them.” And, apparently, he’s darn good at it. Frequently named one of America’s Top 100 financial advisers by Worth magazine and listed among the best financial advisers for doctors, Isaacson is often quoted in financial publications such as Business Week and The Wall Street Journal, and on radio and television. He has appeared on ABC’s World News This Morning. Still a teacher, he conducts financial-planning seminars for managers of leading Fortune 500 firms and speaks regularly before professional and trade organizations.
He readily admits Golden Gate University gave him a helping hand. “Even though it was early in the field, GGU was such a great catalyst and such a good learning experience, with such good people,” he says. “It gave me the tools to go out and go down a path not previously taken.”