For someone trying to understand the business of providing investment advice to individuals, data that paints a broad, accurate picture of the overall business is highly valuable, but in such an individualistic profession, the experiences of individual advisors are priceless. That’s why I was grateful on September 29 to spend an entire morning in discussions with five advisors, thoughtfully brought together for the purpose by TD Ameritrade (though TD had no control over the questions or the writing of this article), to see how they and their clients had weathered the storms, what they had learned from the crisis, and how they were positioning their firms for the future.
What Do They Provide Clients?
For Bob Len of RDL Financial, it’s all about giving clients control. “People feel out of control–whether it’s finances or personal life–the clients I meet,” says Len, “tend to feel that they’re more out of control, especially this past year. We as advisors have an opportunity to talk to them about control, about what’s going on in their lives, and how they can reach outcomes that they seek. All of us here have seen clients who didn’t think they could accomplish certain things, but we look at the situation and say, ‘Yes, we think you can.’” RDL grew out of The Wolf Group, a CPA firm based in Washington that specializes in international clients. Len says that as CPAs, “When we started the asset management side of the business one of our concerns was that we would be telling people all the time what they couldn’t do, but what we found was that more often or not, they’re much more pessimistic than we are, because we have the knowledge and are able to analyze and provide them with a plan. And that plan gives them control. Our goal overall is quality of life, not numbers on a paper.”
Gordon Bernhardt of Bernhardt Wealth Management in McLean, Virginia, says his firm first addresses the portfolio needs of clients, using a passive investment approach, giving clients greater diversification, lowering their costs, creating a proper asset allocation based on their goals and risk tolerance, “then we’ll address their advanced planning needs–wealth transfer, wealth protection, and charitable planning.”
David Frisch started his advisory career in the financial planning practice at Arthur Andersen (where one of his clients was a certain heavyweight boxer with an affinity for ear lobes), and launched his eponymous firm based in Melville, New York, in 1999. A central part of what he offers clients is not just investment management and, “eventually, we get into when I should I retire, should I exercise my stock options, should I buy or lease a car,” but getting a buy-in from the client. “What differentiates us is that we deal with co-management–clients are required to be involved in the management of their money, and in their financial plan. Along with co-management comes education.”
Greg Finke has worked for Stewardship Capital of Independence, Missouri–the firm his father, Ron, founded–for six years, working mostly in the back office. His praise for TD Ameritrade’s Roadmap program comes from realizing that “we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel on everything.” He recalls a breakfast last year with some financial advisors from various companies, with one Wachovia advisor coming in and explaining he just found out he was employed by another firm. “It’s good to be independent, to know that’s not going to happen with us, but also to see the financial stability of TD Ameritrade.”
The Roadmap program has been particularly helpful in the hiring process at Stewardship, “which had not gone well before.” Finke says the firm started in July to replace an employee who was going to retire, and “we said we wanted to have a person in place the day they retired, and it worked. I tried to do something that went against what TD and its consultant suggested, and it turned out my way was wrong, so I’m now a true believer.”
RIA Jonathan Krasney of Krasney Financial in Mendham, New Jersey, says he provides “integrity-driven knowledge based on what the right thing is for the client, without having the conflict of commission compensation clouding my judgment.”
As an advisor who “grew up in the bond business,” Krasney praises TD Ameritrade for giving him access to bonds, in addition to other services such as the Roadmap, an online business planning tool, but for his overall value to clients, he says he provides the “comfort” for clients to “turn over your pot of assets to a guy like me, and to be reasonably comfortable taking an income stream of X, and leaving a legacy value of some kind down the road for your family, and not having to second guess why I’m doing what I’m doing. We’re in sync, on the same side of the table, that’s what gets me up in the morning.” But he admits “we’re going through some changes.”
How Have Things Changed?
Krasney says that to explain how the world has changed, “the word that comes to mind is dichotomy: nothing has changed, and everything has changed. I am incredulous that I’ve been in the business 40 years, and found myself sitting in the middle of 200 families while the financial world was coming apart. That was something I never expected, to be in that position. Unnerving doesn’t begin to describe it. What was comforting to me was that I had clients asking me how I was doing!”