Bob Whalen spent the first 16 years of his career in the American Express family, ending up as a group VP at Ameriprise Financial Services with more than 500 reps working under him. It all really happened because his parents became clients of an American Express advisor over 30 years ago. Whelan saw how that had helped his parents plan and save for retirement with modest means and he thought that helping people in that way would make a great career. Although his father is a firefighter and his mom “a domestic engineer,” they’ve been able to buy their dream home on Cape Cod and another in Florida to escape the New England winter.
Whalen attended Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, on the Carl Yastrzemski scholarship. The Red Sox legend endowed a four-year baseball scholarship at his alma mater and Whalen was the recipient of that largesse, but when he graduated he had the option of playing minor league ball or getting a real job. He opted for the latter and joined American Express. Starting as an advisor in Boston, he quickly moved up through the ranks to become a field VP in Michigan and Ohio. He took over the employee advisor channel in Dallas and built it to the largest group in the country. From there he moved to take over the Chicago operation in 2004.
His odyssey ended last year when he left Ameriprise and moved to the independent broker/dealer channel to become president of Brewer Financial Services. The Chicago-based firm is part of the Brewer Investment Group, which Whalen describes as “a conglomerate made up of six different businesses. Brewer Investment Advisors is an RIA and Brewer Financial Services is a broker/dealer,” he says. “Two of those circles are for our advisors, who are dually registered.”
The other circles comprise a futures group, a foreign exchange group, an insurance group, and Advisor Resources, which Whalen says is set up to wholesale financial products that Brewer creates to other entities. “They’re all complementary,” he explains. Clients have access to traditional investments through the B/D and RIA and to a number of alternative investments through the futures and forex groups, Whalen points out.
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“The company started in 2000 as a commodities brokerage house and it needed some forex, and some futures, and, really, more alternative investments,” he says. “What attracted me to this firm is that the company started with more of an institutional, high-net-worth DNA with alternative investments and then it decided to build out a broker/dealer in 2005. Most firms started out as independent broker/dealers and they really can’t get to the depth that we have on the alternative side.”
The depth of product offering and complete open architecture are among the chief reasons why Whalen thinks Brewer’s growth has been so strong. When he joined last April the number of advisors in the firm was about 50, a year later it had grown to 81, with a commensurate growth in assets under management. “The amazing thing is that right now we have about 40 advisors with about $5 billion in assets in our pipeline,” he says. “Our target is between 12 and 15 new advisors per quarter, and I think that’s a reasonable number for growth. We want to be sure that we provide a really good transition for the advisor and that we can deliver on the commitment to service that we have. We want to make sure we have controlled growth.”
Over the next five years, Whalen expects Brewer to max out at between 700 and 1,000 advisors with growth accelerating as the firm is able to take advantage of scale, “but we really have a great ratio of advisor-to-home-office employee and we want to maintain that ratio and a very high level of service for our advisors. So we will be turning it up to a number higher than that, but we feel pretty confident with that number right now.”
Investing However the Markets Go
Being different from other broker/dealers is the primary driver of Brewer’s growth, according to Whalen. He says that the firm’s devotion to directional investing can really help advisors “when the markets are going sideways or have a lot of volatility.”
The second area that Whalen points to is insurance. “I’ve spent a lot of time building out our insurance platform,” he says. In addition to the usual general insurance and annuities products that most broker/dealers make available to their reps, he’s also brought in some “specialized high-end insurance partners” to help with tax and estate-planning strategies for high-net-worth clients using insurance products.
“Think about it as three building blocks,” Whalen explains. “The foundation building block is a true independent broker/dealer. We clear through Fidelity and National Financial and we have some of the best technology out there by leveraging their chassis. What really sets us apart are the other two pieces”–open architecture and depth of selection in alternative investments and the ability to complement the traditional and alternative investments with specialized insurance solutions.
For the ultra-high-net-worth client, access to the best investment opportunities has never really been a problem but for the investor with less than eight digits worth of assets to invest, the options have been more limited.