Imagine several dozen of the nation’s top financial advisors dressed in Under Armour, getting their blood drawn by technicians in white lab coats. Throw in a make-your-own-trail-mix and fruit kebob bar and a marketing director who bursts into her favorite camp song and you know this is not going to be your typical industry conference.
In January, 80 of Citi Smith Barney’s elite corner-office advisors — folks who rank in the top 1 percent — gathered at a resort in Orlando as part of an extraordinary pilot project to make their wealth-management practices bigger, better, faster.
The premise: Get advisors to attain physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and they will put more energy and enthusiasm into their work and personal lives. Whoa, what?
“We’re asking them to think differently about what success is — making sure that as you grow your practice you are growing and building your life,” notes James J. Tracy, the firm’s director of Global Wealth Management Business Development. “By increasing your energy and being more fully engaged, you have the capacity to take on more challenges.”
The program, called Vista, has more than produced the desired outcome.
Six months into the year-long pilot, early results show Vista advisors outperformed a peer group that did not participate in all the categories that count: assets under management, revenue growth and client acquisition and retention. Also to the good, the attrition rate was lower.
In fact, Citi Smith Barney executives are so pleased with the curriculum – designed by the financial services consulting and coaching firm CEG Worldwide and Human Performance Institute, an energy management consultant — the company plans to introduce components of it firm-wide.
The Global Wealth Management Institute, as it’s being called, launches this month. Producing a series of 25 programs a year, the institute will incorporate the core concepts of Vista — such as peer-to-peer counseling, enhanced client discovery and personal development — along with other training initiatives on topics such as investment management and best practices. [Editor's note: At press time, Citi Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley were expected to formalize a joint venture toward the end of the year. In the meantime, Tracy said the firm's global wealth initiatives were continuing to operate on a "business as usual" basis.]
In a dark market environment like this one, the Vista program provides some light. Stories from the advisors are compelling. One advisor, Grant Lee, lost 35 pounds — his San Francisco-based team a total of 100. “Life-changing,” he calls it. “I scoffed at it at first. I was in complete denial,” says Lee, whose team manages $4 billion. “I was in a box. I feel like I’ve had my coming out party.”
Larry Palmer, who manages a little over $1 billion from offices in Los Angeles, has brought in key new assets since using Vista’s client discovery questionnaire. “We’ve all read sales and motivation books,” he says. “The difference is this stuff is actionable.”
And Mary Deatherage, a Little Falls, N.J., advisor who manages $1 billion in assets, says Vista has caused her to listen to her clients more intently. “I think of it as a new world and a new relationship — and that’s what I’m telling clients,” she says.
How does Vista work? It starts with the physical. Over the past nine months, at two different conferences, advisors have been tested for cardiovascular fitness, body composition, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. The results: “very alarming,” according to Human Performance Institute founder Jim Loehr, a performance psychologist who counsels high-stress workers such as nuclear plant operators, air traffic controllers and anti-terrorist squads.
“These advisors understand the risk of the market, but they don’t consider their own risks when it comes to taking the necessary steps to ensure their health,” said Loehr. “High stress, a sedentary lifestyle, very poor diet, little exercise — it’s a lethal combination. Once they get it, and they’re smart people, they realize what the risks are. They need to face the truth and find practical ways to correct it before there’s a train wreck.” Advisors will be re-tested at another conference in Dallas in March.
Over the past months, the physical component of the program has forced many Vista advisors to confront unhealthy habits. In fact, when the group’s bloodwork results were first announced to the group, Paul Blease, director of Citi Smith Barney’s team initiatives, called it “one of the most profound moments I’ve ever witnessed. It was an epiphany.”
As he frames it: “How do you create a life to give you energy, drive and purpose to actually execute? It’s what’s historically been missing in corporate America, and in our industry more than most. It’s the energy of these guys that creates this industry. I’ve always told them: If we can fix you, your business thrives.”
Vista advisors say they’ve benefited in three ways from the wealth management curriculum developed by CEG: its content, the ongoing coaching program and peer counseling. At the two-day conference in Orlando, CEG founder John Bowen walked advisors through a number of key subject areas: identifying an expert team; unlocking your niche’s potential; developing a 12-month marketing action plan; positioning yourself as an expert in your clients’ eyes; building alliances with attorneys and accountants; and establishing an asset capture plan.
But what seemed to resonate most with advisors was CEG’s exhaustive 61-question client profile interview guide, which many have already incorporated into their practices. Among the questions: What’s important to you about money? If you didn’t have to work anymore, what would you do? What are your personal goals? What is your opinion of taxes? What were your best and worst experiences with a professional advisor? Do you have health concerns or interests? How involved do you like to be in managing your finances?
The questionnaire gets to the crux of Vista, which is centered around the process of discovery with deeper knowledge and, subsequently, deeper relationships. As Marc Fischer, a Rochester, N.Y., advisor who manages $2 billion, notes: “We thought we asked really good questions. They introduced us to more insightful questions. It gets people really talking.”
And, of course, it’s not lost on anyone that advisors today are facing challenges unlike no other — challenges that require new solutions.
“The world has changed. We’re seeing history being made. What’s made us successful in the past won’t in the future. Not only are clients losing confidence but, if advisors are honest, advisors are losing confidence,” Bowen told the group. “Companies are going to have to change the way they’re doing business and how they provide leadership to the client.”
With client loyalty shattered, Bowen foresees a huge transfer of accounts — perhaps the largest ever.
“Commit to change. The affluent want a different experience; they want an advisor who gets them. The No. 1 driver of success in this market is your quiet confidence,” he added. “This will be the best growth year for everyone in this room who wants it.”
Marc R. Fischer, Rochester, N.Y.
One upside of the current market climate is that it has stress-tested Marc Fischer’s practice and process — and reinforced the strength of all the moving parts.
“I didn’t think we were behind the curve. In fact, I felt we were in a position to survive and thrive. This has actually been an incredibly opportunistic time for us,” says Fischer, 43, who — with over $2 billion in assets — does a large institutional business with endowments, foundations, unions and pensions. With a team of nine, he also serves as a senior advisor to high-net-worth families.
“We try to think a little bit outside the box — it’s what got us there,” adds Fischer, an advisor for 20 years. Citi Smith Barney’s Vista program hasn’t caused Fischer to change his thinking, but to refine it.
Fischer says it’s helped him manage the business better by communicating more openly. It’s also made him pay attention to his energy level. He’s added a recumbent bike to his exercise regimen, and the office, he jokes, is now a repository of power bars, yogurt and cheese sticks. “You need to have energy in order to have engagement. I couldn’t have gotten through this way without the energy component,” he says. “For me personally, it’s materially improved my health.”