From the June 2013 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Cup of Joe: Starbucks. Financial Advice. Together at Last

United Capital CEO Joe Duran wants financial advice to be as reliable as Starbucks

Photography by Jonah Light Photography by Jonah Light

When Joe Duran sold his investment management firm to General Electric’s GE Financial for nine figures in 2001, he believed his big payday would signal an end to a perpetual fear of failure.

Instead, he says, “I was more petrified after putting all this money in the bank than before. It wasn’t giving me the comfort or happiness I thought I’d find. I realized I was a slave to my fears. And I thought of the thousands of clients I’d had who, just like me, had sacrificed many aspects of their daily lives in a quest for something that would not give them a richer life. I felt I had to fix that.”

Duran’s solution? United Capital, a wealth consulting firm he founded just over seven years ago to help people live more fulfilling financial lives. With 41 offices and over $15 billion in assets under advisement, United Capital has built what Duran calls “a better mousetrap” with its “Honest Conversations” exercise that helps clients understand their money minds and why they make the decisions they do.

To raise the visibility of the firm and its take on smart financial decision-making, Duran, 45, wrote his third book, The Money Code, a parable that has been wildly popular with women bloggers. Earlier this year, it became almost instantly a New York Times bestseller and Duran—energetic and passionate—became a staple on TV talk shows.

“When you first meet him you think: How much of this is hype and how much of this is real? When I think about Joe there’s one word that sticks out and that is authenticity. He really cares. He is committed to delivering a better quality advisory experience to the end investor,” says Spenser Segal, who heads ActiFi, a strategic partner of United Capital. “He’s one of the leaders in this industry who is really reshaping what that looks like. He’s raising the bar quite vividly.”

While United Capital’s retail push with The Money Code made headlines in the consumer press, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm is shaking things up in the independent sector for an altogether different reason: an innovative business model that aims to do for advisory firms what Starbucks did for coffee.

“We have systematized the client experience by building really unique client experience tools. I compare it to a local coffee shop and a Starbucks. You can go to a local shop and get a good cup of coffee and if the owner is having a good hair day, you can have a great time,” says Duran, who grew up in Zimbabwe. “With Starbucks, you can go anywhere in the world and you know what you are going to get—exactly.”

In his bid to build “the” dominant national wealth counseling firm, Duran has created a brand that even includes a United Capital look. Artwork, furniture, brochures—all offices no matter where they are located will have the same look and feel.

“They will look similar in the way a Four Seasons or Starbucks looks similar. You’re going to see a lot of glass because we are about transparency. It’s not the Chicago library look that most firms have,” he adds. “Our job is to turn all of these independent shops into a Starbucks. Admittedly, we are not a good place for people who want to be in complete control of what they do.”

To that end, much of an advisory firm’s workload—data entry and relationship management, as examples—are outsourced to United Capital’s operations center in Dallas so that advisors can focus on what they do best.

As Duran frames it, “We have a very simple belief that in this competitive environment you must do what you’re really great at. Our advisors do what they are really great at.”

The typical United Capital advisory firm generates between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue with three to eight employees. Duran describes the average client as the millionaire next door with $1 million to $5 million in investable assets.

United Capital, says Duran, leads with a system rather than a product—and in a collaborative fashion helps clients make decisions that expand beyond investments alone.

“We believe the future of the industry is a firm that can help clients to feel good about money. It’s something no one talks about,” says Duran. “You have to have a firm think about people in their entirety rather than as walking wallets. In the future, advisors will be less in the business of telling and more in the business of guiding.”

As he nurtures United Capital, Duran says he’s working smarter than he did with his first start-up.

“It’s important for me to stay in balance, make sure I work out every day, cook dinners for my daughters, speak with my wife every day, make time for my friends. The huge advantage is that I have done this once before,” he says. “Last time, I could have taken a little bit longer and life would not have been noticeably worse in a financial sense but a lot better in a more entire sense. The allocation of my attention is different but all parts of my brain are focused and firing. It keeps the passion alive.”

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