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Hitting the BIG TIME: 'Big Joe' Clark building national rep as investment commentator

September 29, 2008

The Anderson money manager known as "Big Joe" got his start as an independent insurance agent in Lafayette. He had been on the job just two weeks before Black Monday struck Wall Street in October 1987. The market shed more than 22 percent of its value, the largest one-day decline in U.S. history.

With no clients and no money, the 20-year-old temporarily left the insurance industry and landed a job at AT&T's old Western Electric division, helping rewire Ball State University's campus in Muncie. One of the few bright spots of those tough days was meeting his wife, Barbara, there.

Clark, 41, weathered the tough start, returned to the financial services industry and since has emerged as one of central Indiana's more formidable independent advisers.

Along the way, he's developed a growing reputation for providing insight on investment issues to local and national media outlets.

More important, he has built Financial Enhancement Group LLC into a firm with multiple locations that manages $200 million in assets.

The amount is a "good size" for an 11-person firm, said Paul Coan, an Indianapolis wealth manager and chairman of the Financial Planning Association of Indiana.

The company he founded in 1997-the same year he received his certified financial planner's license-got a boost in 2001 when the Lafayette accounting firm of Huth Thompson LLP purchased the stake of Financial Enhancement Group partner Donald Hodson who remains with Clark as a tax specialist.

Huth's offices in Lafayette and Rensselaer gave Clark's firm a presence outside of Anderson and Marion. He visits each location outside of Madison County weekly.

It didn't take long for the accounting firm's longtime clients to trust Clark, recalled Debra Hoppes, a partner of the accounting firm. His greatest strength is the ability to absorb an immense amount of information and present it in a way the general public can understand, Hoppes said.

"We have close relationships with our clients, and they very much welcomed Joe," she said. "That says a lot, I think."

To friends and colleagues, he's simply known as "Big Joe," a tribute to his portly girth. It's a name he freely embraces.

"I've had clients introduce me as Big Joe and forget my last name," he said. "When you weigh 12-1/2 pounds at birth, that's just kind of the way it is."

Finding his way

Born in Muncie, Clark moved to rural Benton County northwest of Lafayette at the age of 16. His father got a job as an administrator of a new nursing home in Otterbien. He attended Indiana University for about 18 months but left early to pursue an interest in estate planning.

As a high school student, it quickly became evident to him that the farmers' kids had the most money. But getting their parents to take advice from someone half their age proved difficult.

"They had three checkbooks, but claimed they didn't have any money," he recalled with a chuckle.

In the meantime, about 18 months after the 1987 market crash, he returned to the life insurance industry as an independent agent. He sold policies for Springfield, Ill-based Franklin Life Insurance Co. before its purchase in 1994 by American General in Texas. The acquisition ultimately led him to start his own firm three years later.

Uncooperative lenders led him to leverage credit cards to get the business operating. The wheels really began turning, though, after the Huth merger, and a few other moves he made.

He became a charter member of the H.S. Dent Advisory Network founded by demographic guru Harry S. Dent Jr. His modus operandi is to use predictable consumer spending behaviors as a long-term economic forecasting tool.

Clark also met IRA expert Ed Slott at a meeting in Florida and helped found Ed Slott's IRA Advisor Elite Group, which now comprises about 535 advisers from across the country. Slott hosts the popular "Stay Rich Forever and Ever" television program on the Public Broadcasting Service. Visitors to the group's Web site are met by a video of Clark and Slott praising the financial prowess of its membership.

One of the clients he attracted within the last five years is Dr. Gary Brazel, chief medical officer of Saint John's Hospital in Anderson.

"No matter how personable he was," Brazel said, "without his knowledge, I certainly wasn't going to trust him with my financial situation."

Media darling

Brazel met Clark at the Anderson Country Club and became better acquainted with him through various community activities.

But others might know him from "The Big Joe Money Show" he hosted for 10 years on local radio station WHBUAM 1240.

He quit in 2006 because he figured it made little sense to do the show and write a weekly financial column that appears in the Sunday edition of the Herald-Bulletin newspaper. Moreover, the radio station was sold so many times during his run that he jokingly referred to himself as the longest-standing employee there.

Clark also hosted a show on a local access channel in which he mixed food with financials, doling out advice while cooking up a recipe.

With the help of a national public relations firm, he has appeared on Fox Business News and CNBC, and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and even Newsweek.

Clark has been a guest several times on CNBC, whose producers must "like the way I talk," Clark surmised.

To be sure, his communication skills and affinity for the camera, or microphone, have made him an affable figure for local and national media outlets searching for a reliable financial source.

On one recent evening, he traveled to the Indianapolis NBC affiliate, WTHRTV Channel 13, to film a segment for the business news channel. Clark ended up appearing on WTHR news as well, to provide commentary on the recent troubles pestering Wall Street.

On top of all that, he began teaching a financial planning course twice a week this semester at Purdue University.

The university approached Clark after a professor saw him speak at a lecture and recommended the department head contact him. Clark's initial reluctance submitted to his confidence that, indeed, he could lecture students. His brother Jonathan joined FEG as a financial planner four years ago after spending 13 years as a teacher.

Yet, despite his hectic schedule, Clark never loses sight of his main mission-managing the money of mainstream America.

"Most places, that's not going to happen," he said. "They want the affluent or they will manage it through a mutual fund or something else. People have to know who you are."
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