Written by Marie Bartlett | Photos by Bugs Utsey
A man was told by his doctor that the end was near so he rushes to his estate attorney to finalize a will. A short time later, he leaves in a huff.
“What’s wrong?” the secretary asks as he hurries past.
“That lawyer in there,” he says. “He told me he had a few questions and then he had the nerve to say, ‘Don’t worry. Just leave it all to me.’”
Living wills, estate planning, and asset management are not joking matters, but there is something to be said for laughing at your own profession, and yourself. At least that’s what Andrew Alexander Strauss, better known as “Andy,” projects once you get to know him. Though highly touted within his profession, this award-winning, five-times “Super Lawyer” and member of Who’s Who in American Law, is down-to-earth and, according to Holly, his wife of nearly twenty years, “one of the most humble people you will ever meet.”
Even his office, at 77 Central Avenue in downtown Asheville, has a casual elegance about it; comfortable sofas and chairs throughout; soft pastel paintings created by a talented artist who happens to be his mother-in-law; and a simple black and white photo of Holly in her wedding dress front and center on his desk.
But it’s pretty clear after a short time in his presence that Andy is not your typical, hard-charging attorney. For one thing, he smiles a lot, and when he leans forward to ask a question, he is totally engaged. The man loves people; loves their stories; their range of life experience; what it is that makes up “the fabric of their lives,” as he says. His clients are real people to him, and his interest in their welfare is genuine.
Yet he can be focused, determined, and competitive too. It annoys him when mistakes are made on the job. He’s an attorney in high demand, say his employees, and there’s a reason his firm is so successful. He likes things done well and done right.
Bonnie Archer, Andy’s administrative assistant, has worked with him for fifteen years and probably knows him better than anyone in the office. “He’s a generous man and a joy to work with,” she says. “He’s also an excellent teacher to his clients and support staff.”
Strauss & Associates, P.A. with an Asheville and a Hendersonville office, opened for business in 1994. With a total of six attorneys in the Asheville and Hendersonville-based practice, the Strauss firm offers a menu of services, including estate planning, tax planning, asset protection, wills and trusts, business succession planning, and related litigation.
Andy calls it a “boutique planning firm,” covering everything from prenuptials to Medicaid and Elder Law. The company’s tag line on its website is that it takes a “team-oriented, holistic approach to creation of an effective estate and business succession plan.” Fancy words, says Andy, that simply mean he and his associates do their utmost to ensure that anyone, not just the well-off, have their goals and needs understood and met when they walk out of his office.
“While the major misconception is that estate planning and asset protection are only for wealthy clients,” says Andy, “everyone, despite their income level, has assets and needs that are constantly changing.”
Andy’s path to estate planning began traditionally enough: attending law school, working for a federal judge in Washington, D.C. and then transitioning to a large law firm in Jacksonville, Florida. The early years, however, weren’t quite so smooth.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an only child, Andy says his parents divorced when he was six. His mom, a single mother, worked in a ski resort, where she was eventually promoted to buyer. Still, there was little money and the lifestyle was relatively simple—a working mom and a kid who had to figure out how to help make ends meet.
“I had to be independent and self-motivated and always had confidence in myself,” he says. Delivering newspapers on his bike as a youngster, he was soon showing signs of becoming an entrepreneur.
“By the time I was eight or nine, I had started my own local newspaper, running off copies on an old mimeograph machine so I could sell editions. It was hard to find stories, so I lifted news from the daily papers. But for some reason, no one was buying it.” Following a short, unsuccessful run, the venture died a merciful death.
He also purchased stocks with whatever money he earned and learned to follow the Wall Street Journal by the age of twelve. (His uncle was a stockbroker). He credits his mother and his stepfather with his drive and ambition to succeed.
Competitive swimming in high school came to an end when he developed a hernia. He turned to academics. “I had always liked business and wanted to go to Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, so I did well in school, joining a fraternity and becoming pledge chairman.” At Wharton, he earned both a bachelors and masters degree in economics before heading to Georgetown for his law degree.
“But I was about to get married to my first wife, and my stepfather, John McKean, who was old school, told me that once you’re married, you should earn as much as you can to support your family. He said, ‘why don’t you come to Pittsburgh and let me train you in my business?’ The business, LMV Leasing, was corporate fleets, leasing vehicles to corporations.
“So,” Andy recalls, “I take my new bride to Pittsburgh from Jacksonville, and she hates it. She’s a Southerner through and through. About six months in, several suitors wanted to buy the company, primarily corporations looking to expand into financial services. That was the “wave” in the late 1980s—big manufacturing companies with strong balance sheets wanting to borrow money cheap and then get into financial services.”
His stepfather held back, saying if he ever sold, it should be a strategic move, preferably to someone not already in the business, which could increase the selling price. Eventually, the company sold to Xerox. Andy had now been in Pittsburgh for eight months, and he was still itching to leave, to pack his bags and return to the law practice in Jacksonville.
“Then Bill Montgomery, the guy that ran the Xerox leasing operation, approached me with a deal. He said I could return to practicing law, but if I stayed only six more months, he’d sweeten the deal. I’d also have time to see if I liked them and they liked me.”
Unable to refuse, Andy agreed to stay for six months, which eventually turned into ten years. Though a far cry from his background in corporate securities law, it was prime training ground for Andy that would enable him to step outside his comfort zone again in the future. He ended up running the company as senior corporate officer once his stepfather retired, managing the nationwide sales team, handling the finances for an entire Xerox fleet, and presiding over board presentations.
He would have stayed longer, he says, had Xerox not sold to GE, a major player then in the corporate fleet business. GE had bought a company based in Minneapolis, and Andy says his new wife, Meri Gaye, or M.G., “was not about to move there after Pittsburgh.”
Yet, as Alexander Graham Bell once said, when one door closes another one opens. “A friend from college contacted me and said there’s this company down in Asheville, North Carolina, that produces sterilization products. The parent company, textile producer Work Wear, is in bankruptcy and the subsidiary is for sale. It’s a gem in the making, and we should put a group together and see if we can buy it.”
The company, with its customer service arm located in West Asheville, was White Knight. It took over a year to get the deal together, agree on a price, and arrange the financing. Andy had to slap on his business hat for his introduction to venture capitalism.
It was also his introduction to Asheville. “I had never heard of Asheville,” he says. “I didn’t even know where it was. In fact, when I got on the plane in Pittsburgh, we landed in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’m like ‘did I get on the wrong plane?’ I thought I was supposed to be in a place called Asheville.” Assured the next leg of the journey would get him to the Blue Ridge Mountains, he relaxed.
Andy describes White Knight as a far cry from any business he had ever tackled. “In financial services, we ‘manufactured’ money that was produced by the government. White Knight required a different set of skills. It produced a potpourri of products, from disposable hospital surgical gowns to airline head covers made in New Jersey. It was about a $55 million revenue company with more than five hundred employees at its different manufacturing plants.
“This was during the AIDS awareness era, so I thought the company had a good story as well. You want a good story when you are buying a company and need to pitch to a bank for a loan.”
The story, however, wasn’t quite convincing enough for the local banks in Asheville. They all turned him down. A large bank, First Chicago in Illinois, ended up loaning them the funds, a total of $16 million. But the drama wasn’t over.
“When we bought White Knight, we were bidding against a company that was already in the business of making sterile products and the owner of that company thought he had the inside track. By contrast, we were just young guys who likely couldn’t raise the funds. We suspected—and learned later it was true—that an inside deal was struck with White Knight’s interim president. The other bidder had said to him, ‘Keep the business going. Then when we know these other guys can’t buy it, we’ll steal the company and you can come and work for me.’”
[quote float=”right”] “We had labor unions, international sales, domestic sales, manufacturing issues. In one of our plants we had production problems and the FDA came to examine our sterilization process. We couldn’t ship products until it was cleared up.”[/quote]Convinced until the last minute that Andy and his partner would fold, it was sheer delight, says Andy, to see the expression on their faces when the wire funds came through. “The money was put into an account; the interim president resigned on the spot and walked out the door when he realized his sweet deal was gone. That was good because we thought we were going to have to pay him a severance. Then we went out for a celebratory dinner.”
In the meantime, Andy’s personal life had taken a tragic turn. His wife, Meri Gaye, was involved in a fatal car accident. The couple had a four-year-old daughter, Courtney.
“Neither Courtney nor I were with her at the time,” Andy says. “She had taken a course in precision or fast driving, and I think she decided to put it to the test. She was the type of person who had a taste for that kind of thing.”
Suddenly a single parent, Andy recalls he wouldn’t wish those next few months on anyone. “It was tough raising a child alone. But you have to rally to the occasion.”
Settled in Asheville by 1991, Andy spent the next two years rebooting White Knight with its tight office spaces located in a less than ideal part of town. The goal was to design and produce their own disposable masks, but they were up against major competitors like Kimberly Clark. Day-to-day, he says, he was “drinking from a fire hose.”
“We had labor unions, international sales, domestic sales, manufacturing issues. In one of our plants we had production problems and the FDA came to examine our sterilization process. We couldn’t ship products until it was cleared up. I was dealing with personnel issues, sales, finances, purchasing, logistics, deliveries, and customer service. It was not an easy task.”
On the flip side, the AIDS scare had changed the dynamics of the business and everyone was guarding up and getting into products that looked like you were going into space. The company, which eventually grossed more than $50 million, had a good sales rep in Italy for drapes and gowns.
But Andy was ready for a new challenge. In 1993 he sold his business share to his partners. His next venture was a long-term care insurance agency, a concept that was becoming popular by the mid-1990s. His partner told him he could attract more people to buy long-term care insurance if he would give talks on estate planning.
“I told him I didn’t know anything about estate planning,” he says. “I’m a venture capitalist, and I do corporate securities work.” He agreed, however, to give a talk on the new paradigm in estate planning, which was setting up trusts as opposed to simply writing a will. The subject fascinated him, and he was soon giving talks, one at the Opportunity House in Hendersonville, that drew more than a hundred people. Many came to him afterwards and asked if he would help them with estate planning. Another door had just opened.
But both his professional and personal life was still in flux. He was teaching business law part-time at UNC Asheville and taking on estate planning clients from an office in his home, a house in Biltmore Forest that he gutted and renovated, moving in with his four-year-old daughter to be near her school.
Across the street lived a family with a grown daughter who was working at Emory University in Atlanta. The father was a doctor, William B. Fowler, the mother, Jane Fowler, a talented painter. Jane, who had taken a shine to little Courtney, often invited her over to bake cookies. Along with Andy’s mother, the two older women played matchmakers.
Holly, never married, thought he was attractive. “But I was twenty-nine years old. There was a decade age difference between us (he was older) and he had a child. So it was pretty daunting at first. Was I too young for him? Was he too old? I had to really think about it.”
“Holly and I courted on the golf course,” Andy recalls. “You can learn a lot about a person by playing golf with them. I found out that she was tolerant and fair, and she didn’t cheat.” They married in June, 1996, have another daughter, Spencer, and live in the same house renovated by Andy. Away from the job, among the things he enjoys most is relaxing with Milly, the family’s golden retriever.
It was Holly who prevailed upon Andy to begin building his estate planning business by establishing Strauss & Associates, P.A.—his first solo business venture. It was a measured risk that allowed Andy to hone his long list of skills and bring them all full circle.
[quote float=”right”]Investors use their own money for payouts, but Andy says Cornerstone has seen regular growth with the fund group now at $400-$600 million in value. [/quote]“I guess I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I set out to establish my own firm, but I’ve always surrounded myself with good people, some of whom are smarter than me. Yes, there were moments of doubt—would the lights stay on? Could I handle people when I was more comfortable handling paper? It took me about five years to become at ease with personnel and other issues I found challenging. In addition, I can look back and see opportunities I might have missed, but I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to live and work here, and do what I’ve done.”
Today, he is a board-certified specialist in estate planning and probate law and managing shareholder of the firm and a member of three state bars: North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania. He also serves on the board of several New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) mutual funds, including the publicly traded closed end funds from Cornerstone Advisors, which have been called “fountains of yield,” for payouts that are among the highest in the nation (22 percent of net asset value). Investors use their own money for payouts, but Andy says Cornerstone has seen regular growth with the fund group now at $400-$600 million in value. Clients like the nontraditional approach, he adds, especially retirees, since transactions don’t involve selling shares and paying fees.
Now in his early sixties, Andy has grown fond of following the road less traveled because, as he explains, “there are fewer surprises as you get older, but I have a better understanding of the challenges many people face. With business owners, I talk the same language. I understand their objectives and the importance of setting up a business succession. I think I have something unique to bring to all of my estate planning clients.”
He’s at a stage in his life when giving back is just as important as moving forward. Besides donating to different charities, he has served on several boards, including the Mission Foundation, the Council on Aging, and the Asheville Symphony. He spent fifteen years on the Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Board, receiving an award for board leadership. His firm also does pro bono work for Pisgah Legal Services.
With a daughter nearing college, retirement is not yet in the works, but he is looking ahead to how and when to pass the baton. “Though I haven’t yet polished up and put a nice ribbon around my secession plan for the law firm, I tell my clients all the time that they can build and build, but there comes a time when they have to start planning their exit. I need to follow my own advice. Exiting in style is my ultimate goal.”
“But like most lawyers,” he says, laughing, “I’ll probably just fade away.”
So change is once again afoot. But for Andy, some things will always remain the same. Like corny lawyer jokes. Ask his favorite, and you’ll get this one: A rabbi, a doctor, and a lawyer are on a liferaft in shark-infested waters. As they near the shore, the rabbi offers to dive in, but is then eaten by the shark. The doctor agrees to follow the Hippocratic Oath and dives in behind him. He, too, is eaten by the shark. But the lawyer swims safely to shore. When asked why he didn’t eat the attorney, the shark has only two words: “professional courtesy.”
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