From the October 2006 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

October 1, 2006

Advisor Advocate

A colleague once told Keith Gregg: "You're a business acceleration specialist. You know how to grow the hell out of things."

And it's true. He's taken several businesses from zero to sixty. Now, as chairman of the newly formed Wealth Advisor Institute, Gregg is at it again.

"We think there's a real need for a multi-discipline organization that brings wealth advisors together," says Gregg, 43. "Far too often, when a client gets multiple advisors together, they have preconceived notions about one another. The CPA looks at the financial advisor and says 'sales guy.' The financial advisor looks at the attorney and says 'deal killer.' This is a group that will allow these folks to learn from each other. We're trying to break down the silos."

The institute, launched in June, is targeting advisors whose clients have at least $250,000 in investable assets. Among the advisors the organization is courting: financial advisors, CPAs, tax and estate attorneys, trust officers and insurance agents. The group, based in Washington, D.C., will focus on education, training and advocacy. As Gregg notes, "Advisors need help with the wealth management side of the house right now. There are a lot of people who want to serve this market. They don't know how." Membership, $300 a year, will be contingent on the advisor's enrollment in an annual business ethics program.

Wealth Advisor Institute has a lofty goal: 60,000 members and a reputation equivalent to that of the American Medical Association.

"What we aim to be is the AMA of the financial services business," says Gregg, whose career in the industry spans 20 years. "With the AMA, you have the cardiologist, the radiologist, the medical supplies salesperson. The AMA is out to protect the interest of all those in the medical profession. Wealth Advisor Institute is out to protect the interest of the wealth advisor -- not the firm, not the client, but the advisor."

Christopher L. Davis, president of The Money Management Institute and an institute board member, says Gregg's passion for the financial consulting relationship and his "belief in the enterprise" will position the new organization as an industry force.

"Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics," says Davis, whose own group represents separate-account managers. "He knows how to put things in place faster and better than most. The strong jump out of the gate Wealth Advisor Institute has shown is testimony to how hard and fast Keith can move. It's gone from an idea and a dream late last spring to roll-out and signing up members in the summer. Most organizations take at least a year to get that far."

Gregg's career arc, interestingly enough, began with the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served from 1981 to 1985 as presidential crew chief on Marine One, President Ronald Reagan's helicopter. In 1986, he joined A.G. Edwards as a broker, quickly developing a niche for charitable giving and planning.

He took a break for a few years to work on the wholesale side of the business, then hung his shingle up in 1996 in Rockville, Md., as an independent advisory firm, Gregg Charitable Planning Services. One of the few advisors in that space at the time, he served as the charitable giving specialist for 14 national and global non-profit clients, including American Kidney Fund, the Childhood Leukemia Foundation and Children's Wish Foundation.

Gregg, author of Do Well By Doing Good: The Complete Guide to Charitable Remainder Trusts, merged his firm with Pace Financial Network in 1998. A string of senior sales and executive positions followed -- with Prudential, First Montauk, GE Capital and Wachovia, where he built out Wachovia Securities Financial Network.

Since last October, he has served as executive vice president and chief sales officer for Dunham & Associates Investment Counsel, a San Diego-based firm with $900 million in assets under management. Dunham & Associates and Business Transitions, the Portland, Ore.-based financial advisory business broker, provided the seed money for the institute.

"I know my resume looks like Swiss cheese. But I've gotten life experiences from all that which are invaluable. You learn different things from different organizations," Gregg says. "Now, I'm taking those different experiences and disciplines and applying them to new challenges."

According to Gregg, one of the biggest things financial advisors today need to beat is a reputation for "salesiness."

"When you ask a financial advisor how many referrals come from CPAs or attorneys, the answer is 'none' or 'not enough.' Basically, they don't trust you. They think you're a salesperson," he adds. "They need to be around you. We'll help make that happen. It's one thing to change the title on your business card to say wealth manager or wealth advisor. It's another thing to deliver and do it."

Perhaps the most piercing question that's being posed to Gregg is this one: Does the financial services industry really need another advocacy organization?

"We believe there's a huge barbell approach to our industry," he says. At one end, he notes, there is the Financial Planning Association, with roughly 35,000 members, primarily generalists. At the other end is the Investment Management Consultants Association, "stuck" as Gregg puts it, at 5,000 members.

"There is a huge marketplace here that is not being served. The advisors I've talked to are hungry for this. This is a very dynamic group. Most organizations are built with like-minded people from the same discipline. This is a group of multiple disciplines and backgrounds," Gregg says. "Clearly, there is a need. Our solution: Go build it."

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Keith Gregg, Chairman Wealth Advisor Institute

Headquarters: Washington, D.C.

Sound Bite: "If there are 600,000-plus registered reps in our business, and the two most dominant organizations only represent 40,000, where are the rest of them?"

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