“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.”