Technology helps independent financial planner Nancy Nelson lead a simpler life close to nature.

She and her husband, Dan Fender, live 10 miles from the nearest town, Olympia, Wash., in a log cabin they built. And Nelson works 100 feet away in a high-tech cottage. Fender, who does financial research to support her business, Nancy C. Nelson & Associates, also handles all the technology, including customized business software.

Using Schwab as her back office, Nelson designed her fee-only, almost paperless practice for flexibility so she can spend up to four months each year in what she calls a remote office, far from the dark, rainy Northwest.

Two years ago, the couple went to coastal Chile, and last year, Puerto Vallarta. This year, they will head to Costa Rica for two months. Next summer, she plans to celebrate her 50th birthday by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Except the jaunt to Africa, these trips aren't vacations. They're more like retreats during which she reads and develops new business strategies. All year she puts aside books and journals with ideas to explore, and she works four days a week while away.

Nelson stays in touch with clients, too. I start preparing them two years ahead of time. I let them know they can contact me by phone and e-mail, she says. The pair travels with two laptops, a portable scanner and a small printer along with reading material in carry-on duffel bags.

Helping maintain this unique arrangement is a support staff of four part-timers at her base office. The two main assistants are college-educated mothers of young children. In exchange for time off to attend school events or stay home with a sick child, they put in long hours when needed, even working late on a Sunday night. A high school student files on weekends, and another woman makes client follow-up calls at home from notes Nelson faxes to her.

The office has three desktop computers and three Visioneer Strobe Pro sheet-fed scanners, which convert paper documents to computer files. Going paperless with records for 90 clients took about a year. After each client's annual visit, we went through the paper file and found about half the material was already stored electronically, Nelson says.

Using a program called PaperPort (www.scansoft.com), Nelson and her staff set up client files that store relevant records and account statements after scanning. Each client file also has a subfolder for notes from meetings and other information. In addition, they use a database program designed for financial planners called ProTracker (www.protracker.com), which organizes client contact info, priorities and goals. Nelson says, It keeps notes alive and accessible until a given action is complete.

Roots and Wanderlust

The roots of Nelson's lifestyle go way back. I've always traveled, she says. At an early age, she visited her grandmother who was serving with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.

Her first career was as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she was out of sync with the Reagan administration and wanted to make a career change. So she looked to her own parents as role models. Her father was an engineer turned money manager, and her mother, after raising seven children, became a CPA and CFP.

In 1982, Nelson started studying for the CFP exam, serving an apprenticeship with her parents. In 1984, she opened her own office, charging an hourly rate.

Nelson is pleased in her new environment. At the government job, it took years to get things done. Now I sit with one or two people, and they're the decision-makers. I can have an impact on somebody's life in a two-hour meeting, she says.

In 1987, Nelson began managing money for a fee. She has $39 million in assets under management, using a buy-and-hold approach favoring index funds and tax-managed funds.

While her investment strategies remain conservative, Nelson is trying something new in client relations. She's learning a coaching process for financial advisers developed by Agnes Mura, a professional coach (www.agnesmura.com). You ask questions to help the client discover what they want, she says. It's a different conversation.

It's another example of how Nelson stays fresh. It can be boring to do your practice one way, year after year, and to keep having the same conversation with clients you once couldn't wait to have. This is a way for me to stay in this profession and make things stay interesting.

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