Stephan Cassaday of Cassaday & Company presents his investment and retirement-planning seminar at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Va. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Sometime between la salade maison and le sauté gourmandise, Stephan Cassaday steps to the front of the dining room and begins to speak.

The founder and president of Cassaday and Co., a Virginia investment management firm, begins a 90-minute presentation about retirement, the stock market and why good people make bad choices. He quotes Seneca, his wife and his mother. He is by turns funny, authoritative, down to earth and cautionary. When it comes to investing, he warns, there are no guarantees.

“A pretty good return most of the time is the best you can hope for,” he says.

The 40 people at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Va., have braved this freezing winter night for a free gourmet dinner at one of the Washington area’s classic French restaurants — and a chat about their financial future. They’re a mix of middle-aged men and women (carefully selected by age, Zip code and other metrics) who received a nontransferable invitation — in sophisticated silver-on-black script, printed on heavy stock — mailed to their homes.

Now they’re digging into a decadent tarte au chocolat and listening to Cassaday, whom Barron’s has named one of the top independent investment advisers in the country, make the case for why they should consider his firm for all their wealth-management planning. Assuming, of course, that they meet the $500,000 account minimum.

Cassaday chats with Dawn Fraioli, 47, of Fairfax. The Virginia financial adviser says he gets 40 percent of new business by hosting 50-60 dinner seminars per year. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

There are slides with clever quotes, an explanation of asset classes and a look at hypothetical portfolios. There’s a packet with frequently asked questions, including the one most people are afraid to utter: “How do I know you won’t run off with my money?” It’s not a hard sell, but a pitch for why these aging boomers might want a free second opinion about their retirement and estate planning.

Cassaday is very, very good at this. He does one of these seminars at high-end restaurants just about every week, costing him more than $400,000 a year. About half the people who attend will come to his McLean office for a follow-up consultation, and many will become clients. The firm, which manages $1.6 billion in assets, generates about 40 percent of its new business from these dinners.

Which is why, when you reach a certain age and income, glossy invitations to dinners with Cassaday or another expert start showing up in your mailbox. The Washington region is fertile territory: Six of the 10 richest counties in the United States are in Virginia and Maryland, and there are a lot of nervous soon-to-be retirees sitting on 401(k)s and other investment accounts — and most of them have no clue what to do with their money.

Financial advisers know this. They know that the average person will, at some point, seek out a professional. Some people ask a friend for a referral, some call a big-name financial company — and some RSVP to a dinner seminar.

The question — especially in this post-recession, Bernie Madoff world — comes down to this: Whom should you trust with your money? Is going to a dinner a smart way to find a financial planner? And is there really ever a free lunch?

[Related: What it costs to live comfortably in Washington, D.C. — more than $100,00 a year.]

Reagan George, 67, left, and his wife, Suzy, 64, listen to Cassaday at the dinner. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

In 2010, an 84-year-old retired business executive named Earl Bronsteen went to 50 lunch seminars near his home in Boca Raton, Fla., and turned the experience into a self-published book, “The Adventures of a Free Lunch Junkie.” Citing an AARP and North American Securities Administration Association investigation into these investment seminars, he wrote: “What strikes me as particularly distressing about this extensive report is that there isn’t one word about either the poor quality of the food or the undersized portions that some of these sponsors try to pass off as lunch or dinner.” Ba-da-boom!

Bronsteen, who died last year, resisted most of the financial pitches but finally caved and signed up for a long-term health-care policy for his wife. “With health care being so expensive, this one just made sense,” he wrote. The question, of course, is whether he did any research about long-term policies in advance of the lunch or got the best price or product.

Just thinking about retirement can be overwhelming. There are thousands of experts, all with different opinions about what to do with your money. The problem, says Cassaday, is that most people don’t do any homework, whether they select an adviser based on a referral or on a fancy restaurant.

“At the end of the day, people want to trust their adviser and they want to get to trust as soon as possible,” he says later, sitting in his Tysons Corner office, with its sweeping views. “I would say most people wing it. After you’re entertained and charmed by the person at the dinner, you then need to get down and do your due diligence.”

Cassaday, 59, grew up in Alexandria and graduated from Radford University at age 20 with a psychology major and a business minor. He landed his first job as a stockbroker a year later and worked for Wall Street firms until opening his fee-based advisory business in 1993. He made a fortune and now spends his time handling top clients and giving 50 to 60 seminars a year.

All financial advisers have to market themselves to survive: Many count on referrals, some network, others appear on radio and TV. Cassaday does all that, but the Irishman really loves an audience.

“I am nuts about getting in front of as many people as I can,” he says. “I don’t really have to work anymore. I do this because I want to spread this gospel. I literally feel like it’s almost an evangelical thing.”

A smart investor, he cautions, should always ask how the firm makes money, what the company’s returns are, exactly what the client pays for, the firm’s fiduciary responsibility to clients and what happens if their adviser gets hit by a bus. The firm should be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and no checks should ever be written to the advisers themselves or to the business. Taking these steps “doesn’t guarantee a good outcome,” he says, “but I think it cuts through a lot of the scary stuff.”

All this and more is included in Cassaday’s dinner seminars, which he started hosting about 15 years ago. The Chez Francois meal includes an amuse-bouche, salad, a choice of five entrees, dessert and coffee or tea. It’s expensive — about $100 per guest — but he discovered that if he has a carefully curated mailing list, “it’s worth it for us to spend money on dinner at a nice restaurant, because the quality of people coming is higher.” High-quality prospects are the right age (his average client is 62), live in affluent Zip codes and have some other, surprising indicators that Cassaday won’t share. “It’s like secret sauce,” he says.

After closing questions, attendees are invited to fill out a comment sheet. They can rate the seminar, sign up for a free follow-up or check the “not interested” box.

Or they can just slink out. There are, of course, the people who only come for the food — some more than once. Industry insiders call them “plate-lickers”; Cassaday is more polite. “Oh, yeah, it’s just part of the deal,” he says. “We see the same faces from time to time, but we take them off the list.”

A2007 SEC study found that 100 percent of these seminars were some form of sales presentations, 23 percent were offering investments that were unsuitable for the investors’ needs or age and 13 percent appeared to be fraudulent. People who go “just for the food” can be pressured into purchasing high-risk investments or products: high-commission variable annuities, insurance policies with high penalties for early withdrawal or investments too volatile for seniors on a fixed income.

That’s not to say that all seminars are risky — some can be educational and helpful. You just need to go in with your eyes wide open, says Owen Donley, chief counsel for the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy.

“The first thing I tell them is to make sure the person pitching is properly licensed or registered,” he says. (Finra’s BrokerCheck or the SEC’s are good places to start.) Red flags include anyone who promises guaranteed rates of return with no risk or the same high rate every year with no fluctuations. Another danger sign: advisers who pressure guests for follow-up meetings at home. It’s called the “reciprocity effect,” and seniors are especially vulnerable because many tell themselves that they owe something to the adviser who gave them dinner.

But most important, Donley says: “Never make an investment decision at the event.”

Sally Hurme, an elder law attorney at AARP, gets a dozen or more invitations to dinner seminars every year. “I get one a month, at least,” she says. “It’s a marketing technique that obviously works” — especially in tax season and when the stock market starts jumping up and down.

AARP has been monitoring investment seminars for the past decade as part of its larger Fraud Watch Network, and it has a checklist for members. Its research indicates that victims of investment fraud are more likely to be male, richer, better educated and, says Hurme, “more certain of their own ability to detect a scam.”

As part of her research, she attended a dinner in Old Town Alexandria that she gives a thumbs-up: “It was pretty tame. The guy was good — not bombastic or threatening.”

She also signed up for another investment “opportunity”: a timeshare in Hawaii. She had to pay airfare but got a week’s stay at a luxury resort with a vastly reduced rate by sitting through a three-hour sales pitch and a one-on-one hard sell. “But I knew exactly what I was doing,” she says. That is, not getting pressured into buying something she didn’t want or need.

As the presentation ends, many of the attendees hunch over the blue comment sheet, rating Cassaday’s talk and deciding whether they want to take the next step — the free consultation at his firm.

One couple drove from Clifton, Va. — he’s a program manager, she’s an interior designer, both in their early 50s, who handle their own investments. They’ve received a few invitations to dinners like this, but this is the first they’ve attended. “The quality of this restaurant made a difference, so it was a night out,” he says. “And it’s also a subject we’re starting to think more about at this stage in our life.”

Their reaction? Mixed. They like some of what they heard, disagree with other parts of the presentation. “Financially, I’m cautious,” he says. “I’m suspicious of anyone getting between me and my money.”

So they are torn about a follow-up; they’re willing to listen to another opinion, but not sure if they’re ready to turn over their investments to someone else.

An attorney from Bethesda had the opposite reason for attending.

“My biggest motivation is that I work all day, sometimes 12 to 13 hours a day,” he says. “I don’t have time, unfortunately, to figure out for myself my own investments. Just like if I had an illness I’d go to an excellent doctor, or if I had legal problems I’d go to an excellent attorney, if I need financial advice I’d go to an excellent financial adviser.”

The trick is finding one. He’s been to a couple of these dinner seminars, but none impressed him enough to follow up, so he has been handling his own investments. Now in his mid-60s, he’s ready to turn to an expert.

So he signed up when the fancy invitation arrived in the mail — he noted that the event was at a nice restaurant, and he Googled Cassaday’s company before RSVP-ing yes. His wife ended up staying home with a nasty cold, but he says he learned something and is seriously thinking of following up. “I think we very well may go in and talk to them,” he says.

Another successful dinner for Cassaday — and company.

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