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Profiles in Business Putting the Spotlight on Retirement Savings

Profiles in Business Putting the Spotlight on Retirement Savings

Charles Epstein, president, Epstein Financial Services

Charlie Epstein clearly remembers his first on-stage performance.

“Glenbrook Middle School in Longmeadow,” he said. “I did a Bill Cosby routine, the ‘Noah’ skit, at the annual talent show. I had yellow bellbottoms; that’s what I remember most.”

Epstein, or Charles Burtaine (that’s the name on his actor’s union card; he took his mother’s maiden name) has gone on to deliver many different kinds of performances since that spring night in 1969. In his freshman year at Longmeadow High, he played “Gangster #1,” as it said in the playbill, for the spring production of Kiss Me Kate, produced by his brother, Paul. He’s done Shakespeare — he’s quite proud of his portrayal of Richard III — and had the lead in a production of Crossing Delancy. He’s been in several television commercials, had a tiny part in an episode of the soap opera The Guiding Light, and in 1991, he did stand-up comedy in New York with Jon Stewart, among other people.

His “tour de force,” as he called it, was a one-man show called Solitary Confinement at what was then known as StageWest (now CityStage) in Springfield, in which he played seven different characters.

“That was my ode to Mrs. Doubtfire,” he joked. “I did 64 performances, eight shows a week for eight weeks; I never worked so hard in my life.”

But Epstein hasn’t been on stage in nearly a decade. He quit a Broadway show on the morning of 9/11 after deciding it wasn’t worth his time and energy, and hasn’t been seriously tempted to do any acting since. He’s confident he’ll return to performing someday, but for now, he’s content to spend the time he’s not working with his family, and especially his two adopted children, Hannah, 14, and Noah, 8.

And Epstein spends considerable time not working, maybe the equivalent of three to five months each year, by his estimate. That’s a pattern he’s continued from his acting days, when he would often spend four days of each week during the summer performing. He says he can do that — and others can as well — by focusing on making the very most of each hour in the day.

“People waste a lot of time in business,” he explained, adding quickly that he doesn’t. “When you only work nine months out of the year, you get really, really clear on what’s important and what’s not, what to put your attention toward, and what to delegate, which is what most people in my industry can’t do; most people do what they think is important — they need to do just what’s essential.”

By practicing what he preaches, Epstein has been able to steadily grow and diversify the company, Epstein Financial Services, which he started in 1983. The Holyoke-based venture now has many moving parts, or components, including the Benefits Consulting Group, a partnership with Meyers Brothers Kalicka, as well as a division called 401(k) Coach, which, as the name suggests, provides coaching to individuals on the minutae of the 401(k) and how to sell that product.

Summing it all up neatly and succinctly, Epstein said his job, which takes him from his office in Holyoke to speaking engagements across the country, boils down to convincing people to save for retirement.

“I help individuals create successful retirement outcomes, or ‘paychecks for life,’” he said, adding that this phrase has become the title of a book he’s working on, with the first draft completed.

As for his own story, when asked about the combination of forces that have shaped his life, Epstein started by pointing to a picture of his mother, Margaret, on the credenza in his office. A budding opera talent, her career was sidetracked, and eventually scuttled, when she married Robert Epstein, a prominent accountant who later went on start a women’s clothing store, Deb’s, in downtown Springfield. Eventually, he would join two brothers in another retail venture called Casual Corner and take it national.

“That’s where I get my dual personality from,” Epstein explained. “My mother was an artist, and my father was a smart businessman.”

Even with that background, though, it didn’t appear that Epstein was ticketed for great things in either realm. He recalls struggling to get even minor roles early in his acting career, and believes he recorded the lowest score (2) ever posted on an aptitude test in the 150-year history of MassMutual, which he took while working in insurance soon after graduating from Colgate University with a degree in Economics.

“It’s designed to tell if you’ll make it in the insurance business,” he explained. “I was right out of college, single, no family; who the heck is going to listen to me talk about life insurance?

“But I was fortunate; I had a mentor in the industry who took me under his wing,” he continued. “That year, I was the number-one new agent at MassMutual and made the $1 million round table.”

He wasn’t doing as well with his acting, though.

“I knew I wanted to go back to acting,” said Epstein, who noted that he lived in the theater at Colgate. “In 1987, I went to Boston for an open call for all the summer stocks in New England. I was so bad, I couldn’t even pay anybody to be an intern. Now, that’s bad. As an intern, you pay them to set up sets.”

Eventually, though, Epstein’s stock rose in both business and the arts. In 1988, he went back to Boston and actually got a paid internship ($50 a week) at a Shakespeare theater in Maine. He put up sets, got a few small acting parts, and learned a lot about the business.

By year’s end, he learned something else — that he made $50,000 more that year, working just nine months, than he did working 12 the year before. “I thought, ‘that’s really interesting.’”

Such performance, he concluded, stemmed from that aforementioned focus on what’s essential, which basically comes from necessity.

“If I were to tell anyone that I was going to take three months of work from them — that they’d have to get a year’s worth of work done in nine months — they would become so focused, and so effective, and so much more turned on,” he said.

Epstein has become so proficient in time management over the years, that he’s not only managed to get all his work done in nine months, but he’s been able to donate time and energy to nonprofits, such as Square One, and also start ventures such as the UMass Amherst Family Business Center, which is now entering its 18th year. When he and his second wife, Lorie married last year, instead of accepting presents, they asked guests to donate to charities they chose. Epstein chose Square One, and Lorie chose the Susan G. Komen Foundation which raises money to fight breast cancer.

Meanwhile, he spends considerable amounts of time on the road, speaking before a wide range of audiences. His message?

“Americans need to save, otherwise we’re going to have a huge financial crisis,” he said, putting heavy emphasis on that word ‘huge.’ “I’m a huge proselytizer of our retirement system. We have the best system in the world; all people have to do is save — it’s really not that complicated — and take half as much risk as they do now.”

When asked about whether he’ll return to the stage, Epstein it’s more a matter of when, not if, he’ll entertain again, and he speculates that the day will likely come when Noah is 18. But he has plenty to keep him busy until them, from watching Hannah’s lacrosse games to vacationing in Europe with Lorie and his children.

And in the meantime, he’ll keep the spotlight on retirement and the need for everyone to simply save.

—George O’Brien

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