Stan Kaplan answers his own phone. He also opens his own mail, pays his own bills, fiddles with his computer when it crashes, changes an occasional light bulb and files his own paperwork.

Inside his sparsely decorated office in East Hampton, N.Y., Kaplan is like a doctor who traded the din of a hospital emergency room for the tranquility of a private practice.

Kaplan is a sole practitioner, an independent contractor with First Union Securities Financial Network. And he is enjoying a solitude that most dyed-in-the-wool wirehouse brokers would consider utterly disconcerting.

“I am completely a one-man office,” Kaplan says.

Except for the occasional click of a time clock next to the black lacquered table that serves as his desk, Kaplan's office is completely quiet. In fact, during a three-hour span one Wednesday afternoon in February, his phone rang twice. The first call was from a recruiter and the second from a prospective client setting up an appointment.

“Some brokers love that wirehouse buzz, and some clients love that buzz,” Kaplan, 41, says. “Personally, I think better in a quieter environment.”

Kaplan was a broker in PaineWebber's downtown Atlanta branch when he decided to go independent in September 1996. Even at PaineWebber, he says, he noticed that successful brokers liked a tranquil workplace.

“You have lots of different personalities in a 40-person office,” Kaplan remembers. “But generally, the people who were doing well had the doors to their offices closed. They were working or were on the phone.

“The people who were having a hard time generating business liked to draw in others to commiserate with them. It was harder to stay focused. There were too many distractions.”

After four years with PaineWebber, Kaplan broke free and set up his own practice in Manhattan, using Corporate Securities Group (now part of First Union Securities Financial Network) as his broker/dealer. Roughly 100 of his 125 clients made the jump with him, a success rate he attributes to the fact that very few of those clients were inherited, he says. But Kaplan didn't win his independence without some nail biting.

“Any time you leave a firm, you have about a two-week period during which you have no clients and no assets,” Kaplan says, laughing at the memory of that nerve-racking time. “Until your clients have actually filled out their transfer forms and the assets show up on the screen, you don't feel comfortable.”

His production was $280,000 in 1996, the year he went independent, and spiked to $470,000 the following year. Since then, it has gradually fallen: $390,000 in 1998, $350,000 in 1999 and $180,000 in 2000 as he converts to fee business.

In September 1999, Kaplan made another strategic move, relocating his business and family to East Hampton, a trendy vacation spot on the northeastern coast of Long Island.

A Comfortable Routine

Kaplan's daily routine consists of a five-minute drive to the office at about 7:30 a.m. Once in the office, he checks market indicators on his workstation, tunes in to the morning commentary and reviews activity in his client accounts. Then he reads The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

At 9 a.m., he hits the telephone and starts setting up meetings with clients and potential clients, with a goal of two appointments every day. Like many brokers, Kaplan is moving away from commissions and toward fees. So during the meetings, he talks with prospects and clients about their portfolios and digs deeper into their total financial plans.

At the end of the day, around 5 or 5:30 p.m., Kaplan tackles the daily paperwork: filing trade tickets, paying bills, mailing documents he promised to send prospects and sending forms to the compliance department. When he is marketing his business more aggressively, his wife, Guerline, lends a hand. He carries his mobile phone wherever he goes.

“You have to wear a lot of hats when you are a one-man office,” Kaplan says. “You try to delegate and outsource as much as you can, but you often wind up doing a lot of this stuff yourself.”

His $3,000 monthly office expenses break down this way: $1,200 on rent, $500 on phone, $500 on computer, $100 on errors and omissions insurance, and $700 on utilities and miscellaneous expenses.

Kaplan really doesn't mind staying in the office a little late to handle the mundane tasks. He likes his surroundings. On the wall behind him hang three of his favorite paintings by Charles Keeling Lassiter, an artist who was popular in the 1950s. And in front of his desk are two stylish, but well-worn chairs that look from the same mid-century era. The office environment reflects his personality: comfortable, quiet and uncluttered.

Nothing fancy. But Kaplan wants it that way.

“When I was a wirehouse broker, my environment controlled me,” he says. “Today, I control my destiny.”

Business Strategies:

  • Carve out a calm office environment to stay focused on the tasks at hand.

  • Surround yourself with objects you like, such as artwork or furniture, so you don't mind working late if necessary.

  • Establish a daily routine that includes goals, such as two appointments with clients every day.