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Key Referral Network Controversy Compounded by Misunderstanding

By Thomas Coyle April 9, 2018

Some financial advisors say the CPA Plus Network – an organization that describes itself as a referral service linking FAs to accountants – doesn’t live up to its promises.

But the controversy may arise from aggrieved-feeling FAs’ failure to understand that CPA Plus isn’t a referral service for them so much as it’s a practice-management resource for CPAs.

“We’re a peer network linking CPA firms with the aim of encouraging them to help each other,” says Grant Cook, head of member resources at Wexford, Pa.-based CPA Plus. “We foster collaboration, the pooling of experiences and resources — so if one member needs a specialty tax service, for example, another might be able to provide that or make a recommendation.”

So where do financial advisors come into play for CPA Plus? Strictly “as a resource” for CPAs in the network; definitely not as co-equals with them, according to Cook. And that’s immediately made clear to FAs who come in the network’s orbit, he adds. “We tell everyone everything up front.”

For advisors, there’s no making sense of CPA Plus unless they know it puts CPAs at the center of all client relationships and FAs in a junior role, says Matthew Tuttle, who runs Tuttle Tactical Management in Riverside, Conn.

Tuttle has been working with CPA Plus for about a decade, initially as a financial advisor, now as a pure-play asset manager who functions as a kind of preferred provider to members of CPA Plus. He tells FA-IQ the network was founded to help small CPAs — seen by the network’s founders as the only really trusted entities out there when it comes to handling people’s money — reach more clients and do more for them by putting a wider array of tools, including financial advice and money management, at their disposal.

“CPAs are vital players. My thought when they first talked to me was, ‘I’d love to partner with CPAs.’”
Daryl Arnett
Dynasty Financial Group

Some advisors seem to get that.

Lora Hoff, an advisor in Dallas with IPI Wealth Management, thinks the deal with CPA Plus is perfectly straightforward. CPAs are protective of their clients and wary of FAs — either because they fear encroachment or don’t know who to trust, she tells FA-IQ. That CPA Plus can help make inroads with this potentially abundant but hard-to-tap font of referrals is enough for her.

So the fact Hoff has been taking CPA Plus coaching seminars for nine months and has made contact with only hree accounting firms as a result of her involvement doesn’t bother her at all. “It takes a long time” to build a trusted rapport with another professional, she says. “You have to put in the time.”

Hoff has been to Lake Tahoe, and considers it an important process for getting FAs on the same page with CPA Plus, but advisor Daryl Arnett of Dynasty Financial Group in Fishers, Ind., disagrees, saying it's in Lake Tahoe where the hard sell starts.

Having been reached by CPA Plus and told he might qualify to participate, Arnett was intrigued. “CPAs are vital players,” he tells FA-IQ. “My thought when they first talked to me was, ‘I’d love to partner with CPAs’” — a group that’s both notoriously stingy with referrals and viewed by FAs as a sort Holy Grail for business development based on leveraging so-called centers of influence.

So Arnett did some of the coursework and dialed into some conference calls, and then he got invited to Lake Tahoe.

There Arnett says he and about 15 other FAs were treated to the “psychotic” coaching of CPA Plus co-founder Ron Stiller.

Lake Tahoe-based Stiller tells FA-IQ doesn’t mind being called psychotic, but Hoff says he comes off more like hard-charging “football coach type” than someone who’s genuinely imbalanced.

In addition to Stiller’s theatrics, Arnett says a big part of the Lake Tahoe seminar was a pushy presentation by Tuttle, via remote hook-up, on CPAs’ insistence on tactical investing for their clients.

Tuttle, who manages about $150 million, says his tactical approach to investing indeed appeals to CPAs. And while he’s happy to tout that, he says his firm doesn’t figure as a preferred provider to CPA Plus. Cook, speaking directly for the network, affirms that claim — adding that CPA Plus prescribes no particular type of asset management. “It’s up to the CPA,” he says.

Stiller goes further. He says Tuttle’s presentations are about broad investing concepts and that talk of specific products or platforms at Lake Tahoe seminars is forbidden.

But CPA Plus still rubs some FAs the wrong way.

Tamra Gann Curry, an LPL Financial-affiliated advisor in Houston, thinks the network’s “practices are unethical.”

After attending a four-day, no-expenses-paid seminar in Lake Tahoe, Gann Curry parted with over $600 to continue with more dial-in coaching and remote coursework — until it became clear, she says, that there was no end in sight.

“I got no referrals, nothing,” Gann Curry tells FA-IQ. But she did get the sense she might have to join another broker-dealer to work with CPA Plus — though again, Cook says the network has no such policy.

Gann Curry says she has tried, so far in vain, to receive a promised refund on the fees she paid CPA Plus.

Madison, Wisc.-based Philip Petrowski of Blackthorn Partners, an affiliate of Cambridge Investment Research, says his brokerage’s peer-to-peer message board is sprinkled with warnings about CPA Plus.

Still, he says he “kind of wanted to see what it was about,” so he signed on — “and lasted about six classes,” which was ‘a lot further’ than any other advisor he knows of.

“On the first call there were 18 of us — and 13 of us, who all knew each other, were on a Facebook chat the whole time,” says Petrowski. The chat’s tone, he adds, was largely skeptical, evidenced by the fact that only he continued with the program.

“They never say where it’s all going,” says Petroski, explaining why he eventually ditched out. “They never get to the nuts and bolts.”

Petroski says he was also irked by what he saw as a “misalignment of human capital” by CPA Plus in putting accountants “in the driver’s seat” and relegating advisors to a subordinate role in managing client relationships. “I saw a lack of respect in a professional sense.”

Gary Brand co-runs an accounting firm in Savannah, Ga. As a former member of CPA Plus — and no longer one only because he took on “added leadership activities” in his community about four years ago — he says there’s no disrespect intended to FAs, though there may be a wide gap in priorities.

Lora Hoff

“The premise of CPA Plus is the CPA is an endangered species,” says Brand. “The idea is we’ve got to change the way we approach clients, so that we’re offering more service — you know, it’s classic business advice, bundling services.”

To the extent FAs come into the equation, it’s as providers of one or two of these ancillary services, not as equal partners, says Brand, certainly not as the members of CPA Plus saw it when he was active with the group.

In any case, Brand says he never did business with an advisor through CPA Plus. “For me it was the coaching and the materials, and what I got in those terms, for like 300 bucks a year, was good value to my way of thinking.”

As for the FAs who come away with a bad impression of CPA Plus, Stiller thinks they’re simply not grasping its core message.

“This is a paradigm shift, not a lead source,” he says. “If as a financial advisor you come in looking to get at their clients, it’s ain’t going to work. But if you say, ‘Let me help you with your life and your practice, it’s a lot more palatable, and ironically, it will work for you better than if you’re just chasing down leads.”

In sum, says Stiller, FAs who get mad at CPA Plus are “good people, but they’ve got blinders on.”