When Kathy Stepp started her fee-only practice in 1992, the certified financial planner and certified public accountant saw her Overland Park, Kan., practice growing into something bigger than a one-woman shop. Exactly how, she wasn't sure.

"Initially I was very much focused on just building a client base," she said.

So it was serendipitous when, a few years later, Stepp met her future husband, Howard Rothwell, a fee-only planner based in Philadelphia, at an industry conference. "At the time, we were the 'young ones,' " she recalled.

The couple married in 1997 and merged their practices in 1998. Stepp & Rothwell now manages $428 million in assets for high-net-worth clients in 25 states.

Although they each brought their own clients, they agreed to manage all clients jointly, with Rothwell taking the lead on investments and Stepp overseeing taxes and other general financial planning issues. When the duo promoted one of their financial planners to principal in 2002, that team approach was carried over. Clients quickly grew accustomed to working with all three.

As the practice grew, however, the three partners were stretched, even as they added financial planners and analysts behind the scenes. That two were married made it harder in some ways. "Scheduling a vacation together was next to impossible," Stepp said.

A few years ago, the firm decided to move the planners and analysts out of the back room and put them in front of clients.

While the three principals still oversee the decisions affecting each of the firm's 170 clients, each client works with a dedicated team, which could include any combination of the firm's six financial planners and three analysts. The financial planners serve as the point people, getting to know clients' cases inside and out. Analysts assist with the legwork while also serving as understudies ready to step in when needed.

"The principals typically still meet with our clients, but we've begun bringing planners along with us," Stepp said. She and her colleagues emphasized that clients now have the benefit of even more personalized service.

Under the new structure, in fact, each planner works with fewer than 30 clients, a ratio that is practically "unheard of in this industry," Stepp said.

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