Jon Sundvold brings a special perspective to retirement planning. As a professional athlete looking at a career that would likely end before he was 35, Sundvold began planning for retirement in his twenties. A six-foot, two-inch shooting guard, he wound up playing nine seasons in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics, San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat.

In 1992 at the age of 32, although he had set the single-season record for three-point field-goal percentage in 1989, it was over. A neck injury ended his basketball-playing days. “As a short white guy, you don't know when the next career is going to happen,” Sundvold says.

Sundvold laid the groundwork for his post-hoops career by earning a finance degree at the University of Missouri, where he was named an All-American basketball player in his senior year. He credits his dad, Robert, a homebuilder, for instilling the attitude that the sporting life can end at any time. So, in the off-season that meant not only adhering to a demanding NBA training regimen, but also studying finance and the brokerage business while handling his own personal accounts. He discovered that he loved financial research and even found time to do technical stock analysis on his laptop.

“It was obvious to me that he would be successful at whatever he set out to do. He had a strong work ethic,” says Brad Miller, Sunvold's first post-NBA employer — at BC Christopher — and now first vice president of investment in the Columbia, Mo., office of Stifel Nicolaus & Co. “You don't get to be a pro athlete without great drive and dedication. Jon was not the fastest or the tallest player on the court, but he worked very hard and learned to be the best at his position.”

During the basketball season, he spent his free time studying finance instead of hanging out in his hotel. He'd call money managers he saw on TV, or read about, and ask for a meeting when his team came to their town. These managers provided insight on running pension funds and even recommended seminars that could provide valuable training. He eventually did business with some of those managers — and he still does.

Courting Success

Such rigorous preparation paid off. Miller hired Sundvold at BC Christopher, which was acquired by Fahnestock. “Jon had already earned his Series 7 license and worked in the office in the summer months and played pro basketball in the fall,” says Miller. After he retired, he came on full time.

Today, Sundvold is president of Columbia-based Sundvold Capital Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm that specializes in — that's right — retirement planning. Sundvold hires independent money managers for pension plans, endowments and foundations. The firm has slightly more than $100 million in assets under management and handles retirement plans for 7,000 employees at several companies, ranging in size from 13 employees to 1,500. He also advises a select group of individuals.

Sundvold hasn't given up basketball entirely. On weekends, he drives around the Midwest to report on Big 12 college basketball as an on-air commentator for ESPN. And during the NCAA Championships, he's an analyst for CBS.

After retiring, Sundvold continued to work at Fahnestock, but was more interested in the pension business than being a transaction-oriented broker. “Jon saw where the business was headed and could see fee-based management was the future,” says Miller. While he enjoyed great name recognition in Columbia, where he was a college basketball star, Sundvold realized that obtaining clients meant becoming an expert in his chosen niche; after all, he'd be competing with larger asset-management firms. “Telling [prospects] who I am was not going to help me if I didn't know more about pensions than other people,” Sundvold says.

Lessons learned

To learn about pension plans, Sundvold interviewed veteran financial advisors, pension attorneys and consultants — professionals who were concentrating on larger accounts. “I then applied these areas of knowledge to smaller and mid-sized plans that were being neglected by the best consultants,” Sundvold says.

In 1993, he landed his first corporate client, Toastmaster Inc., the home-appliance maker. After establishing a few more pension clients, Sundvold began his own firm in 1997.

He continues to apply the lessons he learned when sinking crucial three-pointers at the buzzer. “To be successful in business, you have to develop annual goals and more long-term goals,” he says. “An excellent junior high school player may dream of getting to the NBA, but the key is figuring out how to get there, goal by goal.”

Sundvold has gradually built up his business and has added three other advisors to share the work. While all of his employees do everything from researching managers to marketing, he has them concentrate on various aspects of the business. One monitors the money managers to ensure their results are up to snuff, while another researches new manager candidates. In the four years since he began the firm, he has increased assets under management five-fold and tripled the number of clients. Right now, his main goal is building his business. “That's my passion — making it work.”

A key to his success has been staying in close contact with the employees at his client companies, as well as holding regular briefings to tell companies how the money managers are performing. During the market slump of the past year and a half, Sundvold has fielded many questions from workers of all ages seeking guidance on retirement plans. His firm also sends out e-mail alerts whenever one of the money managers appears on television. “We want the employees and management and all our clients to know as much about the managers that we have chosen as we do,” he says.