“You never know where your next client is going to come from,” says Joseph Ventura, manager of William Tell Financial Services in Latham, N.Y. While Ventura is a financial services industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience with “the gray hair to prove it,” even he is in awe of what’s proven to be a surprise revenue source for his independent office.
“The ethnic communities in nearby Albany and Schenectady are booming,” Ventura says, adding, “Immigrants are generally very hardworking, entrepreneurial and in need of a guide.”
The guide, however, does not need to be of the same group as the immigrants, as the William Tell staff discovered. Located near the state capital, the area’s traditional population is mainly employed in government-related jobs or university work, as the region is home to 10 colleges.
“It’s not a very entrepreneurial-minded population,” says Ventura, who grew up nearby and classifies many of his neighbors as “highly risk averse.” But as he recalls, “things changed.”
Most cities and large towns now have distinct and recognizable ethnic populations. While there frequently are language and cultural barriers, the perception of these obstacles is often worse than their reality and, unfortunately, may prevent advisors from tapping into a potentially rich new market. Consider the case of William Tell Financial Services where about 35 percent of its new business can be traced to ethnic communities.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, some 500 Guyanese and Russian families were living in the nearby city of Schenectady. Many were relatively new arrivals – providing a largely untapped prospect base. Business activity for many of the immigrant families was predominantly buying and refurbishing real estate and starting small businesses, mainly retail stores, mostly in the city’s less desirable areas. Many were also in the car service business. While most foreigners have at least a “working knowledge” of English, Ventura says, there’s usually a family member or friend who can explain the nuances when a language barrier may prevent a client from fully understanding a product’s many features.
“People buying and selling real estate and launching small businesses also usually need financial services,” Ventura says. “Their behavior indicates they’re willing to take risks.”
What services do immigrants need? “Basically the same as everyone else,” Ventura says. “Life insurance, retirement planning, mortgages.”
How do you treat them? “The same as everyone else,” he repeats. “Give them good service. Explain things thoroughly. Be there for them.” A representative is on hand at the William Tell office week nights until 9 p.m. and a half-day on Saturday. “People who work long hours need someone to be available when they are. You can’t just walk out the door at 5 p.m. and succeed in this business.”
How do you reach them? That’s where things started to get interesting.
Ventura’s associate, Dave Mannato was working at the paint desk at a local Home Depot when he began noticing the growing number of Guyanese and Russian customers. Mannato was working part time at William Tell’s subsidiary office, Matador Insurance Agency, which was launched in 2003. “These people were buying rundown property and renovating it either for a rental or resale. I would talk up insurance with them.”
Over time Mannato became known as the “insurance guy” at Home Depot. “Customers would walk in, policy in hand, and ask, ‘Where’s the insurance man?’ I’d write policies on the spot.”
“We were looking for a way to get a smoother revenue stream,” recalls Richard Pombo, a partner at William Tell, who grew up in the insurance business before moving to the financial planning side. “We didn’t see the ethnic landslide coming. The financial services and insurance work hand-in-hand in this scenario,” notes Pombo, who is fluent in Spanish and already had a large number of Spanish-speaking clients on the books.
“People from a different culture are not necessarily looking for someone from the same group as they are to be their financial advisor,” he continues. “Like everyone else, they want someone who gives them a good deal, who shows them the ropes in the new country. They want an advisor with expertise and who they can trust. You build trust by doing what you say you’re going to do.”
Pombo’s recipe is bearing fruit. Former trainee and now full-time representative Scott Veronese began prospecting the Guyanese community by attending ethnic functions. He once traveled to Shea Stadium in New York, about a four-hour, one-way car ride from his office, to meet a client.
“We signed the deal in the parking lot over the hood of my car,” Veronese says. “He was moved by me taking the time to meet him and as a result became a great referral source. Like other immigrants, these are hardworking people but there’s a lot to understand when you’re in a new country. They appreciate someone who can help them save money and get good coverage. Not being a part of their ethnic group makes little difference.”
Referrals can be key to tapping the ethnic market, and for obvious reasons. “Referrals play a large role,” Veronese adds. “If one community member is happy, he may talk about you favorably to a friend or relative. That’s a strong endorsement, because people new to a country are naturally somewhat apprehensive. I remember hearing stories of what life was like when my grandparents migrated here. I can relate to their hopes and dreams as well as their fears and concerns.”
Ethnic Americans (Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans) account for 30 percent of the U.S. population and 20 percent of spending power, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In the past, appealing to minorities was not a major concern to marketers in most industries.
Ethnic groups in America were expected to assimilate into the mainstream over time, according to the Small Business Association in Washington. William Tell Financial is getting to them before they enter the mainstream.
“The most recent census made it clear that the United States is fast becoming more ethnically diverse,” says Wendy Liebmann, principal of WSL Marketing, a New York-based consultancy. “The melting pot concept that has typified American society for the last century is rapidly being displaced by a multi-ethnic mosaic.”
According to government estimates, people of African, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian descent now make up one-fourth of the U.S. population. And in California and Texas, it is projected that whites will be in the minority by 2010. The U.S. Hispanic population is already equal to all of Canada at 25 million. And it’s projected to surge well into the 21st century, surpassing American blacks by the year 2010, with 40.5 million people.
African-Americans, now numbering 32 million, are expected to reach 40.2 million by 2010, while the Asian-American population (the nation’s fastest-growing minority group, roughly doubling in size every 10 years) is projected to increase from 8.8 million to 12 million.
“As the majority population declines and the ethnic population increases, there will be more opportunities for targeted messages to reach [ethnic] households,” notes Gail Baker Woods, author of Advertising and Marketing to the New Majority. “Cultural homogeneity does not exist, nor has it ever existed in the United States. For the most part, subcultures have lived in harmony with the mainstream.”
A good job sells
While numerous research firms and advertising agencies can provide reams of data as to the buying power of ethnic groups and why and how you should target them, the William Tell group keeps it simple.
“We did not use any special marketing plan or even a cold call campaign,” Ventura says. “We really added no special resources to this or even classified it as a special initiative. Once we did a good job for the local people, the phone started ringing with referrals from clients’ relatives from all over the state.”
The main forms of promotion for William Tell remain word-of-mouth referrals and a custom quarterly newsletter, The Towne Crier. It’s mailed free to clients and usually features ways to save money, introduces new services and highlights office personnel. Myrna Marofsky, president of ProGroup, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm specializing in diversity training, counsels that when negotiating with a new group the best course is often to treat them as individuals. “Get to know people as people,” Marofsky says. “Don’t make assumptions based on stereotypes. Get to know and appreciate them.”
There are certain traits that translate positively into all cultures, such as making eye contact when addressing a prospect or client. Be a good listener. Keep your appointments. Practice basic etiquette. Make a professional appearance.
“When dealing with many of our ethnic clients,” Pombo says, “the women frequently make the actual decisions on personal finance and insurance. It’s got nothing to do with any preconceived stereotypes. It’s usually because the men are involved with the day-to-day responsibilities of running the business. We accept this and treat them professionally.”
To expand the trend William Tell recently trained and helped license Athens-born Petros Papanicolaou. Fluent in Greek and with a master’s degree in business administration, he is targeting the large community of small-business owners of Greek descent. While there’s no language or cultural barrier in this case, Papanicolaou says sometimes explaining the concept of risk can get difficult.
“Being in business, they’re faced with risk every day,” Papanicolaou says. “Sometimes they want a relief from that.” As a result, he is finding success with annuities among this audience. “Life insurance is sold all over the world. They like the guarantees and the tax advantages. These are easily understood, but a lot of advisors don’t take the time to explain all the features.”
It may be a good thing that William Tell has no formal marketing strategy for its ethnic clients and plans to continue doing things the way it always has.
“The clients may be different but that’s only superficial. They have the same needs which is why the Golden Rule for agents will always be to take care of your clients” Ventura says. Another good rule is to be patient. “You’ve got to be there when the client needs you. It doesn’t really matter where the client is from because, in the end, this business is all about service.”