Tending a family's shared dream
Alan and Stephen Cohn are continuing the legacy of their late father and partner, David Cohn, at Sage Financial Group.
Not every family names their company after their dog. But the Cohn family, founders of Sage Financial Group, are closer than most families. The golden retriever they dearly loved became their firm’s namesake. Established in 1989 by David Cohn and his sons Alan and Stephen, Sage has gone through several stages, each one a building block for the next.
One of those stages brought Sage considerable national attention.
Alan and Stephen Cohn admit that in the early days of the Internet, they were practically computer illiterate. But they began to perceive that the information superhighway might help their business. In 1995, they established Sage Online, a website devoted to investment research.
Soon, the site became the most popular online forum on mutual funds in the country. Sage Online featured message boards, chat rooms, market commentaries, portfolio tips and live guests such as John C. Bogle, founder of Vanguard Group, and Louis Rukeyser of Wall Street Week.
National media took notice, and so did the industry. In 1999, Smart Money ranked Alan and Stephen Cohn as No. 7 on its list of the country’s 30 most influential people in mutual funds. In 1999, the brothers coauthored The Sage Guide to Mutual Funds, published by HarperCollins.
By the end of the 1990s, Sage Online was attracting 10 million hits a month. In March 2000, the site was acquired by Multex.com, a provider of investment information for the financial services industry.
Today Sage provides wealth management services to 500 high-net-worth clients, primarily in the Delaware Valley region. Sage Financial now has 24 employees and manages more than $1.2 billion in assets.
Patriarch David Cohn passed away at age 77 in 2012. The loss was profound for his sons, who committed to observing the Jewish ritual of reciting the memorial prayer for 11 months after their father’s passing.
Alan, now 48, and Stephen, 45, have an extremely close relationship. They sat side by side when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, and Alan was waiting at the finish line when Stephen completed a Philadelphia marathon. They are not only siblings but also truly best friends.
Both brothers are early risers. Alan is up and at ’em by 5 a.m.; Stephen, the “slacker,” sleeps in until 5:30. Both are committed to fitness. Stephen works out at the end of the day, Alan at the beginning.
Vacations to nearby Ocean City, N.J., and destinations abroad have routinely been shared not only by the brothers and their wives and children, but also their parents and in-laws.
“Even though we had the usual brother arguments, we found out that we really do like each other,” says -Stephen.
Sage began with three equal partners—David, Alan and Stephen as co-founders and co-presidents. David Cohn was small in stature, but his impact on the family and the company was huge, according to his sons.
“Our father planted many gardens, including the one we tilled and sowed together,” Alan Cohn said at a recent ceremony to dedicate a portrait of the patriarch at the firm’s headquarters. “Anyone who knew him knew that David believed in relationships. That’s how he lived his life.”
David never saw himself as mentor or leader, his sons insist. If asked, he gave advice, they say. “But he never, ever jumped in and told us what to do,” Stephen recalls.
“He gave us lots of space and waited for us to raise our hands and ask our questions,” Alan says.
When his sons didn’t agree with him, he never took it personally. “When we asked for his advice and counsel,” says Alan, “he’d come in smiling and walk out smiling, whatever the final outcome.”
David Cohn was a native Philadelphian who earned his undergraduate degree in business from Drexel University and his MBA from the University of Maryland. He worked for Decision Sciences Corp., a management consulting firm, before entering the financial services business as a solo practitioner from 1980 to 1989, the year David and his sons began working together.
“I remember how our dad he would be working on Sunday nights, calling clients and prospective clients while we kicked back and watched TV,” Stephen says. “It did leave a lasting impression on how hard he worked for us—his family.
“He’d talk a lot about the benefit of being an entrepreneur, and what it took to be successful,” Stephen says. “What he always came back to was basic: hard work and setting goals.”
Alan majored in finance at the University of Delaware and then earned the Certified Financial Planner designation. He also attended law school at Temple University for a year. “I thought a law degree might help me in my business career,” Alan says, “but I then realized that I would be better off simply focusing on business itself.”
Stephen attended Ithaca College, where he, too, majored in finance. After Stephen graduated, the three Cohns merged their professional lives.
Both brothers emphasize that they were always encouraged to choose their own destinies, and never was there a mandate, direct or otherwise, to do it as a family.
So what happened?
The Cohns’ strongest core belief was the concept of family loyalty. And it seemed to follow, as the brothers matured, that they could take loyalty to a new dimension. In their business partnership with their father their shared family values, including what has now become known as “work-life balance,” became a priority.
“When you grow up in the same household and work with a parent who gave you those values,” says Alan, “you absorb certain messages. The one we got from our father was always to care about one another.”
David knew each son’s strengths, and his awareness of their differences, they agree, accounted for how the firm set up its structure: one that remains essentially, if not totally, the same today. Alan, who manages internal affairs and company finances, is gifted as an analyst and detail-oriented thinker. Stephen, who is more instinctive, has the most client contact.
The brothers have agreed to meet formally at least once a week, but in reality, they usually convene three times or more.
Their offices are at opposite ends of a long hallway. Their dad’s office was in between. That arrangement seemed a perfect metaphor for their father’s place in their lives —equidistant, but close by.
The Sage headquarters features modern décor, a wall of windows, beige carpeting and handsome paintings. Also adorning the office are several inspirational sayings, such as “The future depends on what we can do in the present” and “Some succeed because they are destined to. But most because they are determined to.” One of the most prominent slogans is displayed with David Cohn’s portrait: “Of all the properties which belong to honorable people, not one is so highly prized as character.”
David’s preparation for succession was carefully, painstakingly planned, his sons say.
“Our dad started cutting back on all areas of his involvement several years ago,” Stephen notes. “He paved the way with his clients, who have told us that while they miss him greatly—he was often an adviser to them in areas other than financial—they are comfortable because of how he prepared them.”
A great deal is based on trust. The brothers have not established a formal way to break a tie. “If Alan and I don’t agree on something, we each have the right or power to stop it from moving forward,” Stephen explains. “However, most of the time, we defer to the brother who has more significant responsibility in the area being discussed.”
Both brothers regard family as primary and prioritize it, just as their parents did.
Stephen and his wife, Ivy, have two sons, ages 16 and eight, and a daughter, 13. Ivy is a sidelined healthcare executive who is now a fulfilled full-time mother.
Alan and his wife, Darlene, remarkably have two sets of twins: identical sons, 19, and boy-girl twins, 11. After several maternity “sabbaticals,” Darlene Cohn now works part-time with the company in the area of compliance.
David Cohn always referred to his wife, Harriet, as “the real chairman of the board.” Like David, Harriet felt that while work was important, family still trumped it, her sons say. “My mother really taught to value time with our own children, and to make that time happen no matter what,” says Stephen. “It’s absolutely a value that we never forget, no matter how busy we are.”
Plans are in place to honor David’s memory. The Sage Financial Group Education Fund will enable 30 to 40 students at Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia to take advanced courses for college credit at Community College of Philadelphia while they are still in high school. The fund will help cover their tuition, books and transportation.
In addition, the Sage Financial Group POST Award grant will help graduate students and medical students to participate directly in pediatric oncology research.
Another memorial commitment is a bit more abstract, but just as important to David’s sons. The company has launched an operational motto called “SageSense,” a nod to their father’s good sense, strong integrity and simple but powerful personal ethic. The motto is being used internally as a reminder of the firm’s culture.
And there is one more legacy, David Cohn’s sons say: their sense of brotherhood.
“Anything we do at Sage, we do together,” says Stephen. “Every success and every failure, we experience together. That’s a lesson from our father that we’ll always live by to honor and remember him.”
Sally Friedman is a writer based in the Philadelphia area.
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