From the April 2011 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

April 1, 2011

The Making of a Top Advisor

How Ira Walker of UBS reached the industry’s pinnacle.

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Author’s note: Over the last couple of decades, I’ve written several articles about Ira Walker and his remarkable success. He’s No. 4 on the 2010 Barron’s 100 and appears on every other national list of top financial advisors that I’ve seen. I’ve been able to write these articles in a way others cannot because I’ve been Ira’s coach since October 1988.

Anyone seriously interested in taking his or her business to the end of the rainbow should study everything they can get their hands on by and about him. That’s why I have created a web page containing links to his website, articles others have written about him, articles I have written plus interview notes I did not have space to use here. As a bonus, I dug up a recording of a talk Ira attended some 25 years ago to which he attributes some of his success. Please visit www.billgood.com/Ira_Walker.

First let’s settle an issue. Is Ira Walker the top advisor on Wall Street? He ranked No. 4 on Barron’s 2010 top 100 and has been No. 1 two years in a row on Barron’s New Jersey list. But two of those ahead of him in the top 100 are multi-advisor teams. One has 10 advisors — they are an entire office. Another manages 30,000 clients, and hires advisors all over the company — basically, they are a company.

Since Ira is one advisor, not a partnership, branch or company — and since this is my article — if he’s not No. 1, he doesn’t miss by much. So according to me, Ira is the No. 1 advisor. He has the No. 1 team.

The one trick pony that drove Ira’s success does not exist. Success of this magnitude is not an ingredient; it’s a recipe. And while no one can exactly duplicate the success of another, one can and should study people who have achieved great success and do what is possible to emulate it. Success does breed success.

Let’s take a closer look at Ira’s success ingredients. How do you measure up?

Hard work/execution. Hard work alone doesn’t cut it. Hard work that gets things done is the key. This I will tell you about the 29-year-old Ira Walker and the 52-year-old: he works hard effectively. He gets the right things done. He may not keep the hours he did as a rookie, but I assure you: If he’s not with his kids, he’s networking, socializing in high-net-worth circles, playing a lot of golf with clients and prospects and focusing on how to get his business from $9 million a year to $12 million a year (which is his goal for 2011). His “model day” has changed from 1988 until now, but he still uses the model day concept I taught him in 1988 to make maximum use of his time.

Investing skill. Ira is a serious student of investing and investments. Back in the transaction days, it was not enough for him just to be a good salesperson. When he wasn’t prospecting or talking to clients, he spent countless hours talking to hundreds of money managers and hedge funds. Because of his vast knowledge of the industry and his ability to give them assets, he could convince them to spend time with him. His focus was to find out what they were doing that was working. He invested with some of these managers but learned from all, oftentimes about what not to do.

It paid off. As he put it in a telephone interview in preparation for this article, “That’s how I developed the ETF strategy I have today.” Today, Ira manages about a half billion in his ETF discretionary accounts and can proudly point to a nine-year investment track record. As Ira said, “Clients want performance.”

Dynamic Leverage

Leverage is and has been a major focus in my training and coaching sessions for 25 years. Of all the thousands of FAs I have trained or who read my books, Ira got and applied the concept of leverage better than anyone.

I first met him in October 1988. He bought into my marketing system and came to our campus in Utah for a week’s training. There he learned how to structure, train and manage a team. And he wasted no time. By January, he had taken out a $25,000 small business loan. Not only did he hire the 2 ½ person team I recommended, but he went one better and hired an additional four “connectors” whose job was getting decision makers to the phone for four hours a day. I learned very early, Ira does not just talk about things, he executes.

Team building is essential leverage in a financial services practice. Without it, your reach is extremely limited.

But once Ira had the leverage concept, he applied it throughout his business. In his own words, here are some thoughts on how leverage applies to investments, proposals and review:

“With all of the systems we have in place, it took me less than five minutes to customize a proposal for a new client. He immediately transferred in several million dollars.”

“I always start with the basics. Early on, I looked for clients who needed some fixed income and some equities.”

“When ETFs came along, they streamlined both the investment and proposal processes. With an ETF portfolio, people can have full diversification, worldwide, in all the asset classes. On one statement. And that, of course, speeded up the administration and review process.”

“Today people are getting into long-short funds and alternative investments that no one understands. I follow, ‘keep it simple, stupid.’”

“Leverage is all about repeatable, scalable processes to get the right things done.”

Marketing Action Plan

Ira Walker is one of a handful of great marketers of financial products and services that I have known and in many cases coached. But before getting into the breadth and depth of his skill, I want to say a few words about the relationship between marketing and investment skills.

Investment skill and poor marketing skills can create a decent livelihood. The Catch 22 is that in order to grow your business by referrals you first need some clients. Unless you are blessed with many family and friends, you generate those clients with your marketing skill. Then good word-of-mouth based on investment skill can slowly grow a practice. But great marketing skill combined with mediocre investment skill ultimately creates a revolving door. New clients brought in with great marketing ultimately leave because of poor performance. The magic mix is top tier investment skill combined with top tier marketing skill.

In Ira’s dictionary, “marketing” is always an action plan. It’s something you do to bring in new business and keep existing business. Both are essential.
Over the nearly quarter century I’ve known him, Ira’s new business marketing has gone through three phases and is now entering a fourth. What’s important here is not the particular phases. It’s how he moved from one phase to another. At no time did he ever drop a successful marketing campaign until he had another in place. Sometimes, they overlapped for years.

Phase 1: Small Business Pension and Profit Sharing. Remember those four “connectors” Ira hired in 1988? Their job was to call small businesses and medical offices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. When one of them would “connect,” he or she would turn the decision maker over to Ira’s “Qualifier” who would qualify and if qualified, set the appointment. Ira’s model day at the time was:

7-8: Plan the day
8-12: Call clients and make follow-up calls to prospects
8-12: His prospecting team is making 80 contacts per day. His Qualifier is setting two new business appointments, on average, per day. That was the magnitude of effort it took at that time in that market for Ira to hit his goal.
12: Grab a bite on the way to first appointment
1-5: Three new business appointments, two first appointments and one second.

This campaign took Ira’s revenue from $300,000 in 1988 to $830,000 in 1989 to $1.1 million in 1991.

Phase 2: Seminar Marketing. In 1991, Ira bought a seminar package I was then selling. It probably took him about one second to realize that he could have the equivalent of dozens of first appointments during one seminar. (There is that leverage idea again). So with his Small Business Pension/Profit Sharing Marketing Machine still going full blast, Ira fired up seminars, did a few test mailings and then, in typical fashion, started giving the biggest seminars. Once he verified it worked, he becomes the first, as far as I know, to blast out 10,000 piece mailings. (There’s execution plus thinking big.) Typical attendance: 60 buying units. That’s 15 first appointments in one hour. After a while, Ira closed down his telephone marketing machine.
Seminar marketing started scaling down in the mid-1990s as he developed his next marketing phase. To be on the safe side, he continued them into 2000, the year he broke $10 million.

Phase 3: Relationship Marketing. Probably about 1994, with seminars going strong, I pointed out to Ira that his best clients were coming from referrals and connections. In typical fashion, Ira moved into relationship marketing, a combination of event marketing, networking and what I would now call “advanced referral marketing.” All of these worked together.
Consider “event marketing.”

It’s a simple concept. Invite people who like to golf to come to a “spring tune-up” and bring a guest. Invite people who like N.J. Nets basketball to go to a father/son/daughter clinic with two star players, and join Ira for a game. The clients and their guests get a treat and Ira gets introduced to people he would not otherwise meet. After the event, Ira’s sales and marketing manager, Andrea Dagnelli, would call everyone and simply thank them for attending and ask if they would like to meet with Ira. Many did.

Phase 4: Internet Marketing. Ira’s new marketing phase, “Internet marketing,” is just now firing up.
When I spoke to him in mid-February, he said he had opened 12 new client relationships in 2011 from people who had contacted him through his Internet site. I don’t have space in this article to fully explore what Ira is doing with web prospecting. I have put relevant excerpts from my interview with him at www.billgood.com/Ira_Walker.

All Phases: Client Marketing. Running as a golden thread through these last 23 years has been a lot of attention to client marketing.

I originally taught Ira that he had to keep his name in front of his clients. Back in 1988, it was easy: Send every client a letter every month. Ira recently commented: “We don’t know for certain how to reach people today. So we go out on all channels.” My web page includes an excerpt from an e-mail Andrea Dagnelli sent me on Ira’s communication strategy. You’ll see how he mixes mail and e-mail.

Creating an Elite Team

Team building is much more than having a bunch of people running around doing stuff. An “elite team” is a group of people united for a common purpose performing highly complex tasks with many interdependent sub-tasks.

That’s what he has.

If I pushed Ira early to invest in a team, he pushed me to see that the limits I envisioned to the team structure were just flat out wrong.

My team concept spun off the discovery, in 1985 no less, that the average financial advisor was worth $1000 an hour in gross revenue to the firm meeting with and talking to clients and prospects. That figure, then, put a theoretical annual maximum for a financial advisor’s business at $2 million (40 hours a week times $1000/hour times 50 weeks a year.) Ira and I used to argue over how high was up. He said “up” was much higher than I had anticipated. And by about 1994, when he blew past $2 million, he proved me wrong.

The challenge then became to design a scalable team structure. How do you go from the $2 million team I originally conceived to $4 million and beyond?

So sitting in Ira’s office one day, we came up with a scalable structure. With a few modifications, I still use that structure in coaching multi-million-dollar teams. Over the years, Ira has added some insights on the types of people that must fill the different team slots. You’ll find those over on my Ira Walker page.

Other Ingredients

There are of course other ingredients in Ira’s success.

  • A passionate commitment to the financial success of his clients would be one.
  • The skill to hire good people and keep them
  •   Excellent personal communication skills.
  •  Perhaps there is even an X factor.

But let me tell you. By mastering hard work, time management, execution of the right things, investment skills, marketing skills and elite team building, you too can take your business onto, and perhaps to the pinnacle of, Barron’s and other top-advisor lists.

As for the future of the Walker Group: Ira has three kids. They all have their own accounts and manage their own money, under his direction of course. Someday there may well be more than one Walker in the Walker Group.

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