Nicholas Childers' secret recipe for prospecting female clients: Eat lunch at ritzy department stores, where high-net-worth ladies are cosseted, corseted and open to friendly conversation.
"They're shopping. They're eating. They're in a good mood. They see me in a suit and want to talk," says financial advisor Childers, who likes upscale Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue for lunch-time shoulder-rubbing. At first, most prospects think he's a store employee.
Every week Childers, 23 years with Merrill Lynch, can be seen dining at these fashionable retailers, just a hop from his Wilshire Blvd.-at-Rodeo-Drive office in Beverly Hills. He says the emporiums are "ideal" places to meet good potential clients. Still, he always lets prospects approach him first. "I say, 'No, I don't work for the store -- I work for Merrill Lynch.' Then they tell me their investment stories. I give them my card. About once every four months something may work out."
A President's Club member for the last 10 consecutive years, the vice president-senior FA manages 80 percent of the $205 million in assets he and his partner oversee. Childers is a Merrill "Mortgage Champion," having managed loans totaling more than $5 million, and ranks No. 2 in monies placed with the firm's bank CD program.
His personal magnetism and sharp sense of humor help him attract small business and celebrity clients. "If you want to see movie stars," he jokes, "don't go to Hollywood and Vine - go to Bedford Drive [in Beverly Hills]. That's where all the plastic surgeons and psychiatrists are. Collagen is being injected. Botox is there. Get in an elevator and ride up and down. Eventually, Cher will walk in!"
Actors Buddy Ebsen and Ann Sothern, director Spike Jonze, and writers Joan Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne are or have been in the advisor's book of business. Childers, 49, usually doesn't aim for young celebs. "The under-50 crowd will stay for only a year or two...Once they start to get big, you have to deal with their business managers."
Childers has been actress-producer Jessica Rains' advisor for nine years now. "First Nick became my stockbroker. Then he became my friend. Then he made me a lot of money. Then I sent everyone I know to him. The smart ones went. This man is honest and amazing," says Rains. Her dad was the multi-Oscar-nominated actor Claude Rains.
Relationship-building is Childers' strength, particularly with Beverly Hills matrons and actresses of a certain age. He escorts them to dinners, sometimes even accompanies them on holiday. "I listen to their stories," he says. "If you listen, [clients] will tell you what you're supposed to do. [Later] you might suggest, 'I know you're concerned that your daughter may be a spendthrift. Maybe you could get a fund set up for her portion of the money.'"
Most of Childers' clients are between 70 and 95 years of age. "I have an old soul. I'm really comfortable with them," says the FA, who makes house calls to show folks how to view their accounts online.
Childers also gets to know clients' children because, he says, "My biggest fear is that if I don't have a relationship with them and something happens to the client, BAM! -- the account just leaves."
His typical investment philosophy is to build a bond ladder, with managed money or mutual funds as the portfolio's equity portion. "For the older person, the most important thing is safety," says Childers.
When Rains hired him, she owned "blue chips that were making [only] a half [a percent] or one-and-a-half percent," she says. "So very slowly and carefully we sold a lot of things and reinvested. Now I can't sell anything because I'm not losing money on anything!"
Born in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Childers was reared in Cleveland. His dad held a variety of jobs from filling-station attendant to newspaper obit writer. The enterprising Nick worked from ages 11 through 18 caddying at a local golf club. The gig not only generated a drive to succeed like the rich doctors and dentists for whom he shlepped clubs, it won him a Hall-of-Famer Chick Evans Caddy Scholarship at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Graduating with a degree in business, Childers took a job at Burdines in Miami, Fla., buying baby furnishings: potties, nipples for bottles and such. Next he moved on to Los Angeles, repping Determined Productions' line of Snoopy-the-dog mugs and calendars.
Laid off in the 1983 recession after three years with Determined, Childers spied a Merrill Lynch ad. He figured his qualifications ("a little seasoned, a little hungry") were a "perfect fit."
One of the FA's first actor clients was the late Ann Sothern (TV's "Private Secretary"). Childers spotted her name in a book of inactive accounts and phoned, saying, "I don't think you're being serviced properly,'" he recalls. "She wasn't a wealthy woman; but we bonded, and she eventually brought in more and more money."
Childers says it takes just three or four questions to create rapport with prospects. "I can talk to somebody for a minute and do a quick review: 'Is your account in a trust? Are you making contributions to your IRA? Are you aware of the catch-up provision?' I give them a brief overview of trusts, tell them if they're eligible for IRA contributions or that they should be putting more in their 40l(k)s or IRAs.
"They go: 'Wow, I didn't know all this stuff!'"
Vice President-Senior Financial Advisor,
Global Private Client Group, Merrill Lynch; Beverly Hills, Calif.
AUM: $205 million (Childers manages 80
percent of this within a partnership)
What's his ideal client? "The Millionaire Next Door. I really enjoy business owners -- [companies] like Andy Gump, who rents toilets to
carnivals, or a guy that makes sunglasses."