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Fighting for His Clients

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Christopher L. Walker started out 19 years ago as a transactional wirehouse broker making a whopping 400 daily dials nationwide. Yet inside this conscientious cold-caller was a consultative, relationship-oriented financial advisor yearning to break free. Plenty successful as a broker, Walker was, however, equally unhappy being a broker.

That’s why a year later he jumped off the transactional treadmill to become a relationship-based, fee-based advisor. His transition from broker to advisor is illustrative of the challenges that many FAs face—his story perhaps helpful to others who are contemplating such a move.

Specializing in retirement planning and retirement income re-creation, today Walker is a first vice president-investments at Wells Fargo Advisors in Kansas City, Mo., managing client assets of nearly $50 million. Last year he led the 25-advisor branch in bringing in new IRA assets. The bulk of his clientele are engineers and computer folks either preparing for retirement or who are newly retired.

“The old rules of retirement no longer apply, but there’s still a tendency for individuals to think of retirement as a fixed-income retirement. Now, though, there’s a need to continue to grow that nest egg through retirement to address life expectancy and the rising cost of living,” says Walker, 47, an energetic Los Angeles native with a highly engaging, often humorous, style.

“Chris has an amazing personality that resonates with clients and prospects,” notes his branch manager, Erik Gaucher, senior vice president. “He takes a deep, personal interest in clients, getting to know them and helping them with their financial hopes, dreams and goals to get them where they’re trying to go.”

Then there’s Walker’s exceptional work ethic. The advisor, who maintains daily and weekly productivity goals, is probably one of the most self-disciplined people you’re likely to meet. He tracks every minute of his work-day, dividing it into time blocks: prospecting, marketing, service, administrative.

For example, not only does he record each prospecting, marketing and service call that he makes, he compares planned versus actual time spent on them. Further, he allocates time to evaluating just how well the strategies he’s using in his practice are working.

“I tend to be kind of obsessive,” he says, candidly. “But in the chaos of things we can’t control, I like to focus on the things I can. It gives me the ability to manage anxiety and allows me to be productive.”

As a UCLA undergrad, Walker was unclear about his path. After studying languages and philosophy for a while, he worked two summer internships in Germany: at a Berlin bakery-cafe chain and a large department store chain in Duisburg.

Following those fulfilling experiences, he decided to aim for a career in international business. Back in California, he began his first real job: coordinating the course program for personal financial planning at UCLA’s Extension Department of Business and Management. That was when, becoming friends with the head investment instructor, he radically changed his intention and opted to become an FA.

But once in production at Shearson Lehman Brothers’ aggressive Downtown L.A. office in 1994, he found dialing for dollars—those of affluent investors wanting to buy IPOs—short on personal gratification. Albeit, “people sent me hundreds of thousands of dollars without even meeting me face to face,” says Walker, who, by the end of that first year, scored in the top quintile of his training class.

Apart from instilling a laudable work ethic, “that whole [Shearson] model was kind of nutty. The target market was quasi-institutional. It was a very intense environment and quite a stark introduction to the business,” he remarks.

After a year, he transferred, for family reasons, to the firm’s Kansas City office. (He and his former wife are parents of three children, ages 17, 13 and 11.) Now, in Missouri, Walker zeroed in on transforming himself into a comprehensive planning-based, fee-based advisor.

“I wanted to focus on relationships and people versus transactions and markets,” he says.

But together with functioning as an advisor, he was also his clients’ money manager. That combo proved problematic.

“I was trying to be both an excellent financial advisor and an excellent portfolio manager. But I’ve come to believe,” he says, “that those are two different skill sets and that there is at least a potential conflict of interest in trying to do both.”

In 1996, Walker graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in Germanic languages, after completing night classes in L.A. and finalizing administrative details in Kansas City.

Two years later, he left the former Shearson Lehman, which, via mergers, had become Smith Barney, to join PaineWebber in Kansas City.

For four years, Walker incorporated PW’s proprietary model portfolio into his practice. But that approach performed “poorly,” he says; and an ill-fated partnership with another FA turned out to be a bad mismatch.

At that point, he became convinced that he needed to shift to third-party money managers. “I believe there’s [good reason] for placing money with a firm that employs 50 guys from Wharton and Harvard to evaluate the tactical picture rather than my trying to do it alone looking at my terminal here in Kansas City,” he says.

In 2002, he made a pivotal move to Prudential Securities (predecessor to Wachovia Securities and Wells Fargo Advisors), where he was delighted to have available “the tools and resources for a comprehensive planning focus,” he says. With, for instance, WF’s Envision process, which uses a simulation model, he can “dovetail clients’ goals and planning issues into a portfolio on a real-time basis to move [retirees] toward their destination. This has made me a very happy camper!”

Off-hours, Walker trains in the Israeli fight system of Krav Maga and competes in amateur boxing bouts as well. His companion, Kati Toivanen, is an artist and associate dean of the University of Missouri.

As for achieving a professional identity as a relationship-based FA, Walker has learned: “The success of a client’s long-term investment plan depends on a partnership with a financial advisor that is based on shared responsibilities. Some of the biggest challenges to my personal serenity,” he says, “had been accepting clients that weren’t willing to shoulder their share of responsibility, my owning their bad choices and then my trying to fix them.”

He adds: “Today if I get any sense of that from a client, I politely suggest that they work with someone else. I’ll be someone’s partner, but I won’t be someone’s parent.”