Game Plan

Don Kinneston has created investment-planning software that works like a game

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

kinnestonDonald F. Kinneston is the owner and registered representative of Kinneston & Associates in Burlington. In 2008, after years of commuting across the lake, he moved the company’s home office from Plattsburgh, N.Y., to bright, attractive quarters at 176 Battery St. in Burlington. Margaret E. Donegan, a registered sales assistant and Don Kinneston’s wife and business partner, runs the office and makes sure nothing falls through the cracks.

Don Kinneston once put a herd of cows into a charitable trust. “That was one of my brainstorms,” he says, “and it worked beautifully, because it just avoided a lot of taxes.”

Kinneston is the owner and registered representative of Kinneston & Associates on Battery Street in Burlington, where he and his wife, Margaret (Peg) Donegan, have nurtured clients for the last four years. But the company, and the couple’s history, go way back, and an interesting journey it is.

Kinneston & Associates does comprehensive financial and estate planning and analysis, “and essentially helps people — our clients — achieve their financial goals,” says Kinneston, who has worked in the business since the 1970s. He was first invited to the Million Dollar Roundtable in 1974 and is now a life member.

Kinneston is licensed in “probably 10 to 15 states,” he says, and proceeds with a litany of them — “California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, North Carolina, and Vermont.

“It’s an interesting thing. When a client moves, if you’re going to work with that client, you have to be licensed where that person moves to. You have to at least be licensed in the state of their primary residence. I have clients in Canada — that’s really complex.”

Kinneston is not tied to any one company or its products, which gives him great flexibility in creating a customized plan for each client. “We handle hundreds of mutual funds,” he says. “We can sell any company at all.”

What he is tied to — and happily — is a tool he created back in the mid 1970s and continues to refine to this day: a trademarked software that lets him model, analyze, test, and compare any financial scenario he has ever encountered. “And that’s what I do with every client,” he says. “We can project up to 40 years and can test 50 different scenarios in an hour.”

He laughs as he confesses that he has four screens on his desk: two for his program and two for following the numbers. There’s also a very large monitor on the wall, where clients can see their projections. “My typical day is comparing strategies and scenarios, and then studying where people are at certain points and how different strategies and scenarios play.”

He can do this because Donegan has his back, making sure everything that needs to get done is done.

“I call myself a bottom feeder,” she says with a grin. “I watch out for what could fall between the cracks. I go through the clients’ folders When they have a birthday, I review everything in their file, update it, send them reports, and follow up. If Don is working on a case, I plug the holes: What should be done next? What are we waiting for? How do we finish this or get to where we want to go? You could say I’m the main person in the office. And they know that I won’t drop the ball.”

Their son-in-law Bill Deemer also works for the business. “You could call him the administrative assistant,” says Kinneston, “but he’s licensed in the financial vehicles. He’s going to carry the torch.”

Kinneston calls himself someone with “a counseling background but a math orientation.” A native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., he entered St. Michael’s College to study pre-med. After two years, he transferred to St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., where he majored in philosophy for three years before entering Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y., to study for the Catholic priesthood.

By 1970, having decided “to work outside the organized structure,” Kinneston left the priesthood and headed to New York City, where he did social work for a couple of years. On a visit to Burlington, where his brother lived and worked for Penn Mutual, a new path was presented when his brother suggested he might want to get into life insurance.

He took the plunge and joined Penn Mutual. “My first case was in 1973,” he says. In ’75, the same time he began work on his software, he left Penn Mutual and, affiliated with an Albany firm, became an independent agent in the Plattsburgh area. It wasn’t long before he incorporated Kinneston Associates in New York and opened an office in Plattsburgh.

It was a good move for him. “I had agents and people from different areas in New York state — I was a general agent for a number of companies.”

In 1986, when Kinneston was in Hawaii visiting a former classmate — a Jesuit who was the director of the Newman Center at the University — he met Donegan. “Peg was his secretary,” he says. “Her husband had died a couple of years before I met her.”

Donegan had grown up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., married at age 22, and headed to Hawaii with her husband, a lawyer, where they raised their five children. As she does these days for Kinneston, Donegan managed the law office for her husband. “When my husband turned 52, he died,” she says. “He was an attorney, and we had a law practice together. He said, before he died, ‘Peg, you can’t practice law anymore.’”

For two years, she and Kinneston saw each other whenever they could. “I’d go to a Million Dollar Roundtable conference in Chicago and say, ‘I’ll meet you halfway,’ which usually was San Francisco,” he says.

Meanwhile, Donegan decided she no longer wanted to live in Hawaii. “I knew it was time to move back east,” she says. “My father was still alive, I had a brother and sister, and I missed them terribly. I told Don I was ready to move back east, and Don said, ‘How about Plattsburgh?’

“I had to get a map to find it,” she says with a laugh. “I was ready for a change of seasons. I settled into the North Country, and I don’t think there’s a nicer place to live.” They married in 1990.

When Donegan moved to Plattsburgh in ’88, Kathy, her youngest, had just graduated from high school. In 1995, having become a single parent through divorce and facing the high tuitions required for education in Hawaii, Kathy decided to move to Vermont. “That’s when we decided we should be in Burlington,” says Donegan. They bought a condo at College and Battery, but continued to commute to Plattsburgh.

Kathy entered Trinity College and graduated in 2000, in the last class to do so. She and Deemer married in 2008 and live in South Burlington.

“We had known each other a long, long time,” says Deemer, a native of Westchester County, N.Y., whose aunt and uncle knew Kinneston and Donegan. “We got together in about 1995, when I was invited up to Vermont for Thanksgiving. Kathy had a free-range turkey, and I swear she put something in it.”

Kinneston and Donegan ran the Plattsburgh office and built the business, even after they moved their residence to Vermont about 15 years ago. “Peg and I would drive two cars to Plattsburgh, buying round-trip tickets on the ferry,” says Kinneston. “We owned the office condo there in West Bay Plaza, and it was convenient for clients.” He also had employees there he didn’t want to abandon.

Kinneston was also building business in Vermont. “Over here, I had an office in our home condo. Penn Mutual, one of the companies I worked extensively with, had an office here, and I could use their conference room,” he says. He was soon spending only two days a week in Plattsburgh.

Four years ago, they decided to stop dividing their time and energies, says Kinneston. “We woke up one day and Peg said, ‘Don, I think we’re on the wrong side of the lake.’”

He helped his assistant in Plattsburgh find other work, and he and Donegan sold the Plattsburgh office condo. He closed Kinneston Associates and — “it was very creative,” he quips — incorporated Kinneston & Associates in Vermont. He retained his Plattsburgh phone number, which rings in the Burlington office.

In addition to being a sales associate with his own clients, Deegan takes care of the back-office functions. “I take care of paperwork, do the things he doesn’t need to do,” says Deegan. “Then he can concentrate on relationships with clients.”

When they leave the work behind, Kinneston and Donegan are world travelers. “One of Peg’s children is still in Hawaii, on the big island; one is in Minneapolis; one in Sweden; one in Florida; and Kathy is here,” says Kinneston. “We will be in Hawaii in February for the better part of a month, and usually plan so we can take the children and grandchildren to places like Grand Cayman and St. Thomas.” Rome, London, Paris — the list of countries they have visited is long.

Their days of commuting by car are over — Kinneston walks to work now, from their condo.

“We’re now on our second generation of clients,” says Donegan, who keeps the office humming while Kinneston counsels clients to help find the best vehicles for planning their futures and their legacies. “We were working with parents, and now working with their children. In the long run, saving for college, retirement, for your estate to pass on to your children — that’s the whole process. Don has done several charitable trusts, and that is wonderful work.”

“It’s like a game,” Kinneston says, as always returning to the subject of his software. “You find the right mix of assets, cash strategies, etc. It’s so much easier than selling widgets.” •