Diane Mastrull: Covered bridges illustrate adviser's philosophy

For financial adviser Pete K. Hoover, Aug. 9 was supposed to be a day off. He planned to spend it on the golf course with son Chris, who was turning 21.

Those plans changed Aug. 8, when the Dow Jones industrial average closed down 634.76 points.

Surely the day after such a sickening plummet would be dominated by phones ringing "off the hook" at Hoover Financial Advisors, the Malvern firm's sole owner figured.

So instead of heading to a tee time, Hoover went to the office - where he "didn't have one phone call . . . not one" from a panicked client.

Hoover joked that was a sign his clients had become "numb" to or "just sick and tired of" the steady stream of gut checks delivered by the economy since it tanked three years ago.

His real hope is that the quiet phones were further evidence that his "think-long-term" advice is gaining traction. It is not a unique financial-planning strategy by any stretch. What is unusual - and a thrill to local historians - is Hoover's employ of regional icons to help convey the essence of his work to potential clients: covered bridges.

One playing a particularly prominent role in Hoover's marketing effort is a 78-foot-long, white wooden expanse over the Brandywine Creek near Downingtown. Built in 1872, Gibson's Covered Bridge, also known as Harmony Hill, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is believed to be the last of nearly a dozen covered crossings over the 20-mile waterway.

The original watercolor of the bridge, by Delaware County artist Richard Bollinger, has been reproduced for the cover of a Hoover Financial brochure. A framed copy of the painting hangs in the company's office just off Route 202 on Moores Road. Other covered bridges appear on a variety of company handouts, including discussions about the history and significance of bridges in everyday life. Hoover Financial business cards carry the tag line: Your bridge to the future.

The symbolic importance of covered bridges to Hoover's work became apparent to the lifelong Chester County resident as he was forming his own company in 2005 after 24 years in practice.

"A bridge is designed to get you safely across a dangerous area without any harm - just like our financial-planning services," Hoover said last week. "A covered bridge is especially appropriate for our business in that it is stronger, better fortified, built to last a longer time, and designed to protect its travelers from all of the elements."

Not to suggest that Hoover's bridge theme jinxed the economy, but consider the list of elements his industry of more than 63,500 certified financial planners has been steering clients through in recent years: a sluggish U.S. economy, European banking problems, high unemployment, declining housing market, a volatile stock market, and record-low interest rates.

It is a drastically different environment from the one Hoover graduated into as a finance major from Shippensburg University in 1981. Financial planning was "an evolving industry" and inflation was "skyrocketing," he said. Interest rates on certificates of deposit were 10 percent and higher.

What Hoover honed over the years, he said, was managing expectations and cash flow of clients - generally corporate executives, retirees, and widows - without being dictatorial.

"I don't ever take the stance of they shouldn't go out to dinner, take a vacation, or buy a new car," he said. "I tell them the ramifications if they do. I think that's more powerful."

He would not discuss his company's annual revenue, which are predominantly fee-based, but said Hoover Financial has been profitable each year. Not without some pain. The hours of two of Hoover Financial's seven employees were reduced as much as 25 percent in 2008 and Hoover cut his own salary 10 percent to 20 percent, he said. All has since been restored, and, with the recent addition of some sizable assets, Hoover expects 2011 will turn out to be "a great year for us." The company has about $250 million in assets under management.

If through its work Hoover Financial also builds appreciation for covered bridges, that's good, too, said Pam Powell, a photo archivist at the Chester County Historical Society.

"They're beautiful features on our landscape and part of the architecture of our county," Powell said.

Recently, they also became a significant part of Hoover's personal life.

Hoover's daughter Katie got engaged at a Chester County covered bridge - Larkin's, just outside Marsh Creek State Park in Upper Uwchlan. She and husband Matt Koons had their wedding pictures taken there in August.

They now live in Greensboro, N.C., she as a teacher and he as an area administrator for an oil-services firm.

Hoover's advice to the newlyweds:

"Start planning your financial future today."


Diane Mastrull:

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Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.