Award-winning financial planner not ready for retirement: Cooke, sons gain notice for helping well-heeled clients

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As veteran financial planner John Cooke rehashes the highlights of his venerable career, it’s evident that nothing can top the experience of working with his two sons.

Close behind, though, are the accolades he’s picked up along the way, including several mentions in various publications as one of the nation’s top advisers.

The latest recognition comes from Barron’s magazine, in which Cooke is the only money manager in Indianapolis to make its list of the nation’s top 100 brokers. His placement of 53rd marks the fourth consecutive year he’s appeared in the ranking.

Cooke, 66, credits his success to a simple formula of doing what’s right for his clients in an industry where some clients don’t always feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

“You have to give them extremely superb service, but you have to give it at competitive prices,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m Wal-Mart, but I think Sam Walton had it right, in doing the right thing for people.”

Cooke, along with boys Chris, 42, and Brian, 39, doles out financial advice to a wealthy clientele whose typical net worth is roughly $2 million.

Their Cooke Financial Group brokerage at Keystone Crossing is part of Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia Securities and has total assets under management of more than $1 billion.

The elder Cooke broke into the business in 1969 and has no plans to totally pass the baton to his boys anytime soon. Yet they have become vital cogs in the firm’s prosperity. Last year, the trio placed second among Research magazine’s list of Top-Ranked Advisor Teams in America. And Brian garnered 12th last year on the On Wall Street magazine list of Top Advisors Under 40.

Longtime family friend and client David Tittle, a litigator at the local law firm of Bingham McHale LLP, hailed the men as a beacon of success.

“They’re connected to Wall Street, but they’re kind of a bright, shining light out here in the Midwest,” Tittle said. “John takes every one of his clients, as the boys do, very, very seriously.”

Pilot plans take detour

Cooke never pressured his sons to follow in his footsteps, he said, for fear they would enter a profession they might come to despise.

Such sound advice is gleaned from experience. As a young man, Cooke worked in his father’s Ace hardware store while growing up in Peru in north-central Indiana. He described the experience as “tremendous,” despite the occasional bumping of heads. That happens even today with his two sons, but Cooke welcomes the disagreements because they bring all ideas to the table, he said. Still, he jokingly reminds them that veto power rests with him.

Cooke earned a marketing degree from Butler University in 1962 and joined the U.S. Air Force the following year after qualifying for pilot school while a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Even today, Cooke can’t help but chuckle at the thought of his joining the service to see the world, only to be stationed at Grissom Air Force Base, just 10 minutes from Peru.

He did, however, fly a KC-135 Stratotanker on missions to Thailand to refuel fighter jets during the Vietnam War and ultimately aspired to be a commercial pilot after his discharge in 1969. The birth of his two sons, and the extensive amount of time he would spend away from his family, dis- suaded him from a career with the airlines.

Even so, Cooke’s time at Grissom proved fruitful, as he took insurance and financial planning courses when time permitted. The education landed him his first job, at the boutique brokerage of Thomson McKinnon.

Although ownership changed, Cooke never really left Thomson McKinnon Securities. Prudential Securities bought the firm in 1989, which in turn merged with Wachovia in 2002. The Cooke Financial Group and its 16 employees are under the Wachovia umbrella.

Financial planning pioneer

As a young broker, Cooke took a salary instead of a commission to better align himself with his clients’ interests. In the mid-1970s, he pioneered the idea of transforming his book into a managed account business, farming out the actual money management to independent firms. The strategy, he believed, helped him concentrate on his clients’ broader financial outlook and seek new business as well.

He later convinced Prudential to offer mutual funds outside its own portfolio, enabling brokers to mimic independents. The program’s success prompted Prudential to dub it the “John Cooke System.”

Another of his contributions involved slashing the normal account fee of 3 percent in half, to offer the most competitive and fair price he could to his clients. Later, in the 1990s, the maneuver proved particularly critical, as competition stiffened from Internet accounts, day-traders, do-ityourself investors and mutual-fund wrap programs.

Clients such as Tony Watt, chairman of Marian College’s board, appreciate Cooke’s thoughtful approach. Watt, who spent several years with DaimlerChrysler Corp., returned to Indianapolis in the late 1990s to run the Tibbs Avenue foundry that Chrysler shuttered in 2005.

Unsatisfied with his financial planner, Watt came to Cooke through an existing client. For Watt, the acknowledgement Cooke has received as one of the nation’s top brokers is hardly surprising.

“It’s only an affirmation,” he said. “His stature with me was already high.”

‘The greatest experience’

Yet Cooke is quick to share the credit with his staff and two sons, who have been with him since the early 1990s. The tenure is typical of every employee, most of whom have been with the firm at least 15 years. And everyone is familiar with the 1,100 clients, in case backup consultation is necessary.

Chris is a 1987 University of Notre Dame graduate and certified public accountant who spent four years at the local office of New York-based Ernst & Young LLP. While completing his law degree at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, he began working with his father part time and came on board permanently in 1993.

Brian earned a marketing degree from Indiana University and sold for national candy manufacturers Brach’s and M&M/Mars. In 1992, when a promotion meant moving to Detroit, Brian had a “heart-to-heart” talk with his father, who suggested he give the financial business a try.

Both younger Cookes are certified investment management analysts, a designation from the Investment Management Consultants Association that roughly 3,000 advisers in the United States, Canada and Australia have earned. The one-week exam can be taken at either The Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley or the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

These days, the senior Cooke spends much of his time out of state. He and his wife, Judy, returned early this month from their second home, in Bonita Springs, Fla. From there, he conducts business six months a year for about 90 Indianapolis clients who spend the cooler months there as well. His time in Florida also has resulted in business from nearly a dozen permanent residents of the Sunshine State.

Despite the distance, Cooke is in daily contact with the office, and his boys. The enjoyment he gets from that is a feeling no award can measure.

“I get to work with them every day,” he said. “That’s the greatest experience I’ve ever had. That, to me, has made it all worthwhile.”

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