Though Rex C. Whiteside has forsaken a fancy sushi palace for a less pricey Japanese spot when buying his staff lunch, and has cut a few other corners too, this financial advisor is gearing up for growth: He’s hiring FAs and support staff, acquiring new technology, even leasing larger office space.
The worldwide financial crisis has wreaked havoc; but a glint of sunlight shines through:
“This is probably the single greatest growth opportunity [advisors] will have for the next 20 years. We’re not laying off — we’re going in the other direction,” says Whiteside, whose independent Whiteside Investments, in Houston, is affiliated with Raymond James.
At a time when most firms and advisors are making big cutbacks for the expected tough year ahead, some FAs are hiring staff and otherwise investing in their business to handle anticipated growth.
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Plus, a number of advisors who exited wirehouses last fall to go independent have opened their own boutique practices.
“Cutting back is the wrong thing to do now — this is the time to go out there and grow. So many investors are unhappy with their existing advisors. [A study says] 87 percent are looking to change,” says Laila Marshall-Pence of Pence Wealth Management, affiliated with LPL Financial.
Managing assets of about $400 million, Marshall-Pence, in Newport Beach, Calif., wants to bring on a financial advisor and another sales assistant to add to her 14-person team.
Even as such activity continues apace, many firms are laying off employees, scrapping branch managers’ stock-matching programs, suspending 401(k) matching, canceling bonuses — and generally trying to do more with fewer people, many of whom can be paid less because they are less trained.
But even for advisors revving up for growth, the order of the day is mindful spending versus business as usual.
“It’s hard to say there’s anything we’re doing that’s usual anymore because the circumstances are so challenging. We’re trying to look at everything to see if we can do it better, more efficiently or more effectively,” says Adam Carlin, wealth management director of the Bermont/Carlin Group at Smith Barney. The team manages more than $1 billion in assets.
Carlin and his partner Richard Bermont, in Coral Gables, Fla., are taking many initiatives to maintain the growth of their practice, whose 2008 numbers topped those of ’07.
As do most growth-oriented advisors, Carlin is adding staff mostly so that he can focus on larger accounts. He is seeking two FAs, one that specializes in estate planning; the other to concentrate solely on research.
“Gathering the shear volume of information that comes our way these days is a huge task, and determining the integrity is very important: Is it fact or rumor? Going through all this requires a full-time person,” he says.
But finding the right FAs to fill these posts is proving difficult since both demand special skills. “It’s tough to find people that are a good fit,” Carlin says.
That’s no surprise: “There’s a real shortage of good people,” says Mark Elzweig, whose executive search firm, Mark Elzweig Company, is in New York City. “Firms want to hold onto their most productive advisors.”
On the flip side, wirehouse FAs in production five years or more and grossing under $350,000 are “very vulnerable right now because firms want to focus their resources” on bigger producers. “You need to be grossing at least $400,000 to be secure at a major wirehouse,” Elzweig says.
Among such firms, in particular, cost reductions are widespread and deep. Client-entertaining expenses have been mostly eliminated; rather than booking direct flights to visit clients, FAs often are required to take cheaper layover flights; and most firms will reimburse only economy-sized hotel tabs. Anything luxury or discretionary has been cut out or at least cut back.
But then there are practices like Pence Wealth Management. It is pegged to grow around 30 percent in ’09, Marshall-Pence says. That means hiring another financial advisor — to total four — who will take on a portion of Marshall-Pence’s accounts and many expected new ones. With one more FA, she’ll then be able to “move up and work with bigger clients,” the advisor says.
In 2007, in anticipation of increased business, Marshall-Pence doubled her office space. “We’re growing by leaps and bounds,” she says. The last quarter of 2008 — when the financial meltdown became a crisis — were “some of our biggest months.”
That uptick is partly the result of educational seminars, Marshall-Pence notes. “Over the 28 years that I’ve been in this business, I’ve learned that in times of bad markets, you do seminars. People are looking for different ways” of investing. The FA takes a conservative approach that protects about 50 percent of a client’s wealth.
But even advisors gearing up for growth are carefully watching the bucks. “We set out very specific rules in our group to try to cut back where we can,” says Smith Barney’s Carlin.
That means, for internal use, black-and-white copies instead of color and printing on both front and back. Also: no more routinely shipping via FedEx: “Unless it’s a necessity, we don’t do it,” says Carlin.
He notes that these measures are not so much to save his practice money but to try to save someone’s job at the branch: Part of Carlin’s expenses come under the manager’s P&L. “If enough people here [cut back],” the advisor says, “it adds up.”
One aspect of Carlin’s growth strategy is to shift smaller clients and non-managed accounts, often time consuming, to other advisors in the firm. This will give the money manager more opportunity to concentrate on larger clients.
“These days,” he says, “it’s best that some clients not work with us; other advisors might be better able to serve them.”
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