John Hill always had a knack for business. By the time he graduated from high school in Wyckoff, New Jersey, he’d started a lawn cutting service, then a painting company, and then became one of the youngest World Book Encyclopedia salesmen in the country. Business was in his DNA.
After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Business Administration, he ended up in the management fast-lane at a major manufacturing company. But when one of his friends began to work in financial planning, John found himself drawn to the profession. “My wife and I were investing in real estate at the time. I became fascinated with taxes and all the planning aspects of investing in property, so when my friend told me about financial planning, I was hooked. It involved both analytical thinking and working with people — that was exactly what I was looking for.” After some soul-searching — and to the surprise of his co-workers — John left his management position behind to pursue work in financial planning.
It didn’t take him long to find it. He was hired at a large insurance company, where he met both Ken Solow and Dwight Mikulis — his future partners at Pinnacle. “Ken and Dwight both interviewed me for the job. Once we began to work with each other, we hit it off. Ken was high energy — he and I shared that — and we had instant chemistry. Dwight was very cerebral and intense, but I came to know the ‘regular’ Dwight, as well,” he laughs. “I have really fond memories of that time.”
Not all was well, though, and the three grew dissatisfied with the company that employed them. “The big issue was an uncomfortable conflict of interest. We were serving the corporation first rather than the client. We wanted independence — we wanted to partner with clients to give them what they needed, and not just what a big company wanted us to sell them. We needed to have our own place where we set the rules, served our clients, and made a future for ourselves not dependent on the corporate bureaucracy.”
In 1992, John and Ken resigned their positions so they could start a firm in line with that vision. The next year, Dwight joined them, and Pinnacle Advisory Group was born. “It was a big decision,” John remembers. “The leap was scary. We had nice incomes at the time, and were doing quite well. All of a sudden, you’re on your own and have to start from scratch. But we could see that we were doing the right thing, and we knew if we continued in that direction, we would succeed.”
Slowly but surely, Pinnacle grew, and by 2011, had 27 employees and $1 billion in assets under management. When asked what separates Pinnacle from other wealth management firms, John answers quickly. “Our people and our philosophy. We’re unique in both the way we work with clients, and in the people who serve our clients. We’ve found a way to deliver on the idea that the client gets served first. Everyone is out there claiming they care about clients first — it’s in every advertisement — but we really deliver on that promise. That’s why we have such a high client retention rate — over 98% in 2012.”
Pinnacle’s client-first philosophy is evident in the way the firm’s wealth managers work with clients. While many advisory companies simply tell customers what to do, Pinnacle’s planners ensure that their clients have their wants and needs addressed as well. “It’s a matter of respect,” John says. “I believe that part of what we do is educational. We have bright clients and given the right information, they will make sensible decisions. But to get them that information, we have to take the complexity of the planning process and make it accessible. That’s a big part of our success.”
Over the past few years, John has shifted much of his focus to building Pinnacle’s future. “We want to create a legacy for this company. We want to make sure that what we’ve worked so hard to build continues to grow and serve clients, even after the founders have gone. With our staff, I’m confident we’ve done that. While Ken, Dwight, and I don’t intend to leave anytime soon, it’s nice to know Pinnacle can continue to grow and thrive, even without us.”