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The Power of Specialization: Ted Sarenski’s Journey to Visible Expert®

At Hinge we have been studying Visible Experts®, people who have attained high visibility and expertise in their industry, creating a personal brand that is recognizable industry-wide. We study them because we want to understand how they attained that status and what we can learn from them. This profile focuses on Ted Sarenski, a Visible Expert for financial planning and wealth management.

In 1980, Ted Sarenski was working in his first job as a licensed CPA when he noticed something interesting. Many of his clients were asking him about finance issues other than the tax and accounting tasks that had brought them in the door. “People began asking me investment and finance questions that were outside of typical tax issues,” Ted says. “‘When should I take social security?’ ‘How can I diversify my portfolio?’” Ted realized that his clients’ questions represented an important business opportunity, and he made a decision to branch out into financial planning—a decision that would ending up being a critical differentiator for him over the long term.

Ted Sarenski

Establishing a Niche

Our research on Visible Experts shows that finding a highly focused niche makes it easier for experts to become recognized, and this was true for Ted. He had already made a name for himself as a financial planning expert when he was hired on as a partner at a Syracuse accounting firm in 1985. And when his firm merged with a larger one in 1997, he took the opportunity to start his own division focused strictly on investment management. The practice became a runaway success—to the surprise of many of the other partners.

“By 2007, 65% of the division’s business was coming internally from my division, and 35% from the other 11 partners,” Ted says. Despite the division’s success, however, the management team was not supportive of growing the investment management practice. “Everyone in the accounting world thinks that CPAs should be in financial planning, but CPAs are naturally very cautious,” Ted notes. “Many of them don’t really understand the finance business, and they’re afraid it could jeopardize the accounting side of their business.”

One of the biggest differences between accounting firms and other finance companies is in compensation. “In the finance world, there’s a totally different payment structure, where people are accustomed to receiving bonuses for doing great work,” Ted says. He realized that he was going to start losing valuable staff members to other finance companies, but his partners were not supportive of changing the compensation structure to match the rest of the finance world. Finally, Ted decided to split.

Ted bought out his partners in the beginning of 2008 and formed Blue Ocean Strategic Capital, taking most of his staff with him. “Looking back, it was the worst time to buy,” he notes wryly. “I purchased at the market peak and later that year the market collapsed. My timing was not good.”

Building Long-Term Relationships

Ted and his new firm survived this tumultuous economic time, partially because of his ability to build strong, trust-based relationships with his clients—another hallmark of Visible Experts. “My motto is always: do the right thing by others,” Ted says. “If we always do that, we will make lots of money, and we know we’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Blue Ocean Strategic Capital Logo

As a testament to both Blue Ocean’s strong client relationships and their investment savvy, Ted and his firm hardly lost any clients after the crash. “In 2008, when the market was falling every day, I made it a point to call every single one of my clients,” Ted says. “I can’t tell you the number of times the client would answer the phone and say, ‘Ohyes, you told us that this [collapse] might happen. We are okay. But how are you doing? You must be very stressed.’” In contrast, the big trading “warehouses” were losing clients daily, and their phones were “ringing off the hook.”

SEE ALSO: Grooming Your Firm’s Future Accounting Partners

Speaking Engagements/Media Appearances

Like other Visible Experts in our study, speaking engagements have also played an important role in helping Ted expand his visibility and build his reputation. Similar to the way he built his practice, Ted made a name for himself in the speaking world by finding a niche that few others had pursued. “In the early 2000s, I was on the executive planning committee for AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants),” Ted explains. “They started a conference on financial planning and they needed someone to speak on social security, and I said I’d do it. I read the social security manual cover to cover and threw myself into doing a great presentation. That first year there were 500 attendees at the whole conference, and I had 250 of them in my workshop.”

The presentation was a big hit, resulting in a flurry of press and speaking requests from other firms and associations. Over the past decade, Ted has made social security one of his specialties, and he continues to learn and add to his presentation. His annual social security presentation at the annual AICPA financial planning conference has continued to be a big draw and is one of the reasons why the conference has gained in popularity—there were more than 1100 attendees at the last conference.

Getting Involved

The AICPA conference started a cascade of publicity that led to a surge of business growth, generating leads and media engagements on radio and television. According to Ted, affiliations with business associations like AICPA and his local chamber of commerce have been invaluable, and his advice to those just starting out is: get involved. “With the younger generations,” he says, “I am not seeing them getting involved with organizations and with the community. They think it’s a waste of time, but it’s a tremendous learning experience—I’ve learned more than I’ve ever given. They don’t realize that joining is a way to grow.”

To learn more about establishing a niche to become a Visible Expert, download our free eBook here.

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Author: Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. Who wears the boots in our office? That would be Lee, our managing partner, who suits up in a pair of cowboy boots every day and drives strategy and research for our clients. With a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, Lee is a former researcher and tenured professor at Virginia Tech, where he became a national authority on organizational behavior management and marketing. He left academia to start up and run three high-growth companies, including an $80 million runaway success story.

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