Client Relationship & Service
Adding family-office services and software, with Renee Wolgin


For Renee Wolgin, making the leap from certified public accountant to director of the family office at Telemus — a registered investment advisor firm with offices in Detroit and Chicago, managing more than $3 billion — was all about adding value to clients and being more integrated with their finances. “The goal is to promote full financial-life management,” she says.

In this episode, Renee talks with Wealth Strategist Leslie Geller about what it means to be a virtual family CFO, the customized services she can offer and the “one-stop shop” value that she brings to clients. Renee also explains how her team uses software that serves as a “digital vault” for client information — and why it becomes a kind of heirloom for clients.

Family office as a piece of the puzzle

Wolgin worked with high net worth clients as an accountant before joining Telemus in January 2020. She says the firm was early on the trend of adding experienced professionals to their in-house teams. “Since almost since inception, they have had a wealth advisor, who is a former Arthur Andersen tax partner. His role really is to talk to clients about strategic estate planning and wealth transfer, and really coordinate also with CPAs and attorneys.” A few years ago, the firm added an insurance specialist to review clients’ personal and business coverage and coordinate with agents to make sure policies are up to date. Then Wolgin was brought on as a virtual family certified financial officer (CFO).

“When I came in, that was kind of bringing in the last piece of the puzzle,” she says. “We really want to be a one-stop shop, to kind of centralize their financial universe under one roof, and then build those relationships with their outside professionals to promote a real collaborative effort.” 

Doing what clients are missing

Wolgin admits that client services vary from client to client. “The great part about a multifamily-office solution is we can customize our services to meet their needs,” she says. “No two families are the same.” Services can include anything from oversight of household accounts and bill paying, to getting ahead of tax events before they happen, to managing privately held investments like real estate and art. 

These services are not offered by all firms. “We're doing a lot of what a lot of people are missing,” Wolgin says. The private investment tracking is a good example of what intrigues high net worth clients. “Everyone has investment advisors that are tracking…publicly held securities and alternative investments that are held within the brokerage accounts. But who's really looking at the hundred real estate LLCs that they might have an investment in, and really figuring out how those assets are deployed and diversified?” 

Perhaps the most valuable part of the work, however, is building collaborative relationships with outside advisors. “I think all of our experience kind of leads us to know: When do we need to ask questions, when do we need to consult with attorneys or CPAs, and really promote that collaborative effort?“ she says. 

From a tax management perspective, Wolgin can coordinate with client contacts for private investments to be sure that she is being cc’d on all correspondence that might come out the door, such as copies of all K-1s. She is then able to ensure that the K-1 is accurate, verify that the distributions that they're getting are what was promised to them in the operating agreements or the private placement memorandums, and funnel all that information to the certified public accountant (CPA). “So we're not looking at it after. We're looking at it before, and then we're able to know what's missing. So for clients, that makes their life a whole lot easier, because we're really streamlining that communication process for them, and also providing the CPAs with a nice clean package for preparation of their tax return,” she says. 

When clients see the coordination of efforts amongst their attorneys and CPAs, the emails going back and forth, and the conversations that Wolgin opens, they appreciate the initiative the team takes to get involved and ensure that things are titled the way they're supposed to be, and that wires are being initiated as they're intended. Overall, the coordinated system makes their lives easier and provides peace of mind, knowing that somebody really understands their picture and has that full financial life oversight.

Finding a software solution

Wolgin prides herself on providing a clearer picture of clients’ wealth overall. Early on, she did extensive research to find out what other family offices were offering in terms of software, in hopes of finding a simple solution from a process and practice management perspective. She was looking for something that could be compatible with the firm’s investment advisory software, and offer sophisticated financial tracking outside of investments or basic business accounting. 

As she details in the episode, she found a software developer with a similar background: an attorney by trade working in a single-family office, who had built the software based on the needs of her clients. “When I came across the software, it was so eye-opening,” Wolgin says. “It's totally geared towards family office. But it organizes a family's wealth by ownership. So you can see, with the click of a button, all of the hierarchies of ownership of the assets.” It can be tailored to add users at different levels of access, which makes it ideal as a client tool and a practice management solution. 

Wolgin was able to work with the developer on her own adjustments to cater to a multifamily office. It can be used to store and organize client information, including identification, tax returns, account logins and subscriptions. And it allows multiple users to access it, so clients can share it with other financial professionals, and everyone can be looking at the same information. “We can restrict their access in a very specific manner, so that they can only see what the client wants them to see.” 

It can also function as a to-do list that serves as a living document, providing task reminders on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis, along with notes that track everything being done for the client. “It allows you to view everything by ownership, it's searchable, and has a messaging feature and a calendar.” Clients can view their brokerage account values as well as private investment holdings, and they can run monthly income and expense statements. “We're also doing feeds, if they want, from their actual bank account, so they can see what their personal spending really is, and their cash needs are, on a monthly basis,” she says. It organizes everything in a way that’s easy to find, and clients have a clear picture of the work being done on their behalf.  

“We're giving them the tools to view their wealth kind of in a way that they've never been able to look at it before,” she says. 

Digital vault or priceless heirloom

Wolgin calls the software a digital vault, and it has become a real differentiator for her firm. “Most of our clients are bogged down by this administrative burden of handling their personal finances, as well as their businesses, or either philanthropy or their travel. We want them to really be able to pursue what they're passionate about and relieve them of that burden,” she says. “So for us to have everything in this spot that they can access at any time really gives them peace of mind and helps them sleep at night.” 

By adding clarity, she’s also helping family members and future generations understand how their wealth is structured. “What we are doing in my mind is creating an asset for these families, to grow with them,” she says. By documenting the history of when and why decisions are made, they can create “somewhat of an heirloom,” she says. 

Centers of influence, such as estate planning attorneys, CPAs, and any other types of attorneys working with the client, also love the software. “I think it makes them feel better that they can call me to dig up some document, and they don't have to call the client. And they feel comfortable knowing that someone else is taking care of things for them. So it's been very well received,” she says. Her firm has even gotten referrals because of the vault. 

“We have gotten a few different clients that come in because they're intrigued by the digital vault or the ancillary services that we're providing. And then, slowly but surely, as they grow more confident with us, they're more inclined to move their assets over,” she says. 

On making the leap from accounting

Between changes in tax law and guidance gray areas, Wolgin decided a few years ago that being a CPA was not for her. “I knew that there was something different out there for me, where I could really add more value to my clients and be more … integrated with them, as opposed to just pushing out a tax return.” While she felt she had options, she didn’t make a move until Telemus reached out to her. She had known members of the firm throughout her career and shared mutual clients. It felt like the right move. “And it was scary, and it was hard, but I did it. And it's been so much fun. And I've never looked back.” 

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