Stretching The Dough

Guiding clients through the pitfalls of finance

by Keith Morrill

scott_hadley_2014Scott Hadley joined New York Life in 1998 as an agent for insurance, investments, and financial advising. In 2001, he launched Hadley Financial Group, which contracts with various companies.

Scott Hadley has made a business of playing it safe, although it would be hard to tell that just by stepping through the front door at his business and glancing at the decor. First there’s the reading material in the waiting room: The most recent issue of Rock and Ice is prominently displayed among a fanning of Vermont periodicals.

Then there’s Hadley’s personal office, where hang framed pictures of snowy crags — a few of them with Hadley himself in the foreground, dressed in ’70s-era climbing gear and wool knickers. He could regale you with stories of climbing in the Canadian Rockies — of risky climbs with thousand-foot spans between clip-ins, and navigating gaping bergschrunds (a type of crevasse).

At 56, he’s now been putting himself in peril longer than he’s been keeping clients out of it. Hadley owns Hadley Financial Group, a wealth-planning and financial service practice in Colchester. With a small team of financial services professionals in its employ, his group has been guiding clients since 2001.

And while clients may not face life-threatening dangers, they are looking to avoid quality-of-life–threatening pitfalls — the sort that can diminish or ruin businesses, estates, or legacies. The services Hadley and his team provide can be as essential as a thick rope and a trusty pair of crampons — or whatever the right tool for the job may be.

“I think there’s a right-shaped peg for every hole,” explains Hadley. “We try to be creative, so what we develop as a strategy for one client — who on the surface might look to be really similar to another client — might actually be very different.”

That diverse clientele could include the owner of an art gallery or an excavating company, retirees, or soon-to-be retirees looking to plan for their financial futures. Overall he says, all clients share a common goal: protection of their assets.

“We help our clients identify and solve problems, There’s an art and a science to it, as there is with most things, I suppose. Our job is to help people discover the issues and then motivate them to take action. And there’s a real art to that.”

Chuck Seleen, a dentist and director at Vermont Dental Care, attests to the artistry. “I decided to actually switch my financial planning from another firm in town to Scott,” says Seleen. “We work on a periodic basis about what my goals are, and we formulate a plan and then stick to it.” Seleen adds that Hadley is trustworthy, “and follows up on everything. If I have some questions or concerns, he or Jim gets back to me, and I feel very confident that they’re keeping an eye on my investment strategy.”

“Jim” is Jim Heldman, Hadley’s right-hand man and one of four registered representatives with Brian Groves, David Huff, and Jim Cohen. Hadley’s wife, Lisa, works on a part-time basis as an assistant to Cohen.

For its team to meet the needs of its clients, the practice maintains contracts with many companies including Eagle Strategies (a subsidiary of New York Life Insurance Co.), Prudential, John Hancock, Mass Mutual, Principal Group, and TransAmerica.

Hadley says his group’s approach has allowed it to carve out a comfortable niche. “I don’t really feel like we have any competition,” he explains. “While it’s very hard to say and prove that you are unique — and I don’t think we’re totally unique — the process that we take our clients through, and the way that we work with our clients, with their issues and the objectives, I just don’t feel like we have any competition. The challenge of going out and working hard, working smart every day, that’s the challenge,” he says. “It’s sort of like we’re just competing with ourselves.”

A resident of Shelburne, Hadley grew up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, part of the Columbus metropolitan area, in a family with its roots deeply embedded in the insurance industry. His family has been in the business of insurance since the late 1800s, starting with his great-grandfather.

The family story goes that after selling his farm, his great-grandfather had a hand in starting a trade journal for the insurance industry called the Eastern Underwriter, which later became part of the National Underwriter. Hadley admits this could be fact or folklore. For him, although insurance represents only a portion of his current practice, he started his professional life in the insurance industry.

Hadley grew up playing “pretty serious national junior tennis,” which generated several college Division 1 scholarship offers. “The tennis circuit is not nearly as glorious as it’s set out to be, and I just decided it was time for me to make a commitment one way or the other.”

He chose Dartmouth, partly because the Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, partly because his best friend and doubles partner was already studying there, and partly because his father and two uncles had gone there. He played tennis there for a year before he was exposed to rock and ice climbing, “and that took over,” he says.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1981 with a bachelor of arts in English and creative writing, he moved to Burlington and took a job as a tennis pro at Lakeside Tennis Club (now the Eastwood location for Sports & Fitness Edge), where he met his future wife, Lisa LeBaron.

In March 1984, he joined Coburn Insurance, a general commercial insurance agency, and pursued his CLU (Chartered Life Underwriter) and ChCF (Chartered Financial Consultant) designations. The company grew from $3 million to around $35 million in premium volume, and Hadley became a partner. Yet in ’96, when the principal, Tom Coburn, decided to sell out, Hadley decided the time was right to sell his own interest in the company.

“We had evolved — or devolved depending on who you asked — into truck insurance,” he says. “Trucking companies have to be very competitively minded about their commercial insurance, so it was a violently price-driven market, which I felt diminished the relationship with clients.” On top of that, his work required him to put nearly 50,000 a miles a year on his car, a number that didn’t set well with him with three children at home.

Lester Ravlin, a former associate at Coburn Insurance and current partner and chief financial officer at Rig Insurance Services, says Hadley’s effectiveness at Coburn Insurance has translated well into his services at Hadley Financial Group. “Both Scott and his company are A-plus because he is very hands-on. Just like when I was his partner, he makes happen what he says will happen.”

From Coburn, Hadley moved to New York Life, and that same year — ’98 — launched his contract as an agent doing work similar to his current role in HFG: insurance, investments, and financial advising.

In 2001, he started his own business, a move he says came from the idea that he could better serve his clients by offering them more options.

Each change and addition has been careful and deliberate, says Hadley. “Having started a second career in early mid-life, I chose to be somewhat cautious in building this business. I don’t want to make any career- or business-threatening mistakes.

“If you’re a little bit more prudent, sometimes it can take a little bit longer to build. That has been the case here, and I’m totally comfortable with that. We have not had our lives threatened, and we have not had to start over. We possibly could be bigger now — whatever that means. We could have more clients, or more revenue, or more this, or more that. But I’m really happy with how it’s developed over the years.”

Reflecting on his choice to be in Vermont, he says, “There were a lot of ways for me to make a lot of money if that was what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to define myself. I probably would not have ended up in Burlington if that were my priority.”

Instead, he has primarily derived his satisfaction from helping his clients, and he talks about it with a trace of emotion in his voice. “What I love about this business is the difference we can make in people’s financial lives, the ability that we have to protect. To look a client in the eye — because I have clients ask me all the time, How are we doing? Are we saving enough? Are we going to be OK?

“And, you know, the world is scary out there, and to look somebody in the eye after working with them for a bunch of years, and to do that work and be able to sit with him and say, ‘You are going to be fine; you’ve met the mark,’ it means a lot to me.”