Compliance curmudgeon Tom Giachetti doesn’t think much of study groups.
“Study groups are a bunch of people sitting around convincing each other they’re right,” the chairman of the securities practice group at Stark & Stark (and Investment Advisor columnist) said recently.
Mike Anderson is having none of that. The advisor and de facto head of one of the more engaging study groups to come out of the FPA’s NexGen community pointed to concrete success directly related to time spent with the group.
“Let me be general and specific,” Anderson, vice president of financial planning at Dallas-based True North Advisors and famed advisory firm Evensky & Katz alum, began. “Seven of our 10 members have experienced major personal and professional transitions during the time frame of the group’s existence. Imagine our meeting after 2008; tears were definitely shed. But the body of knowledge this group possesses is immeasurable.”
As for the specific, he described a member who laid out goals for a coming five-year period and took them to the group.
“I was able to watch as this person ticked them off as each goal was reached,” he said. “I watched them start deep in the red and finish in the black.”
Far from the study groups we all were thrown into in college, where productivity was hampered by the fact that we often didn’t know or didn’t like certain participants, once members join this study group, they don’t quit. Each member immediately points to Anderson as the group’s leader, even though no formal hierarchy exists, but they figure it has something to do with his time spent serving under Gen. David Petraeus in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Whatever the reason, it works.
Initially, the group sought members from different geographical locations around the country, but “for some reason a lot of us ended up in Texas.” Yet if geographical diversity has been tough to maintain, diversity of business model has not.
“We have employees of firms, partners of firms, sole practitioners—really all types of models,” Anderson said, adding that it’s one of many reasons Giachetti is wrong. “We’re not in some sort of echo chamber with the same issues and challenges. Because we’re so diverse, we can look at a problem from a number of different angles.”
The group meets in person once a year in a different part of the country to which a particular member is attached. Despite the military efficiency ingrained in Anderson, the meetings are surprisingly relaxed and unstructured. At the same time, they’re not there to mess around, and make good use of their time and peers. When not at the in-person meeting, they’re at their computers, and the discussion threads fly.
“Members will bring different planning issues that they’ve experienced or are experiencing, and they present them to the group for discussion,” Anderson explained. “Some members are more open than others in the information they want to reveal, but the privacy of the clients is always protected.”
The group is proudly geek-heavy. Member Michael Kitces, director of research with Maryland-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, titled his high-profile blog “Nerd’s Eye View.” Advisor Bill Winterberg delights in showing off his summer blockbuster trailer which, instead of a movie, features the group at a recent retreat. That geekiness is something that translates to the study group name itself—Xcelsior.
“Some of us are kind of geeky,” Anderson understatedly admitted. “The coolest ship in the old Star Trek movies was the Excelsior. We also all—to our comical and cynical pleasure—have similar horror stories when using Microsoft Excel.”
Although the group evolved from the FPA’s NexGen community, membership in that organization wasn’t a requirement. For instance, member Dan Moisand is slightly older than the others, and will be “thrilled to be part of a profile of young up-and-comers,” Anderson quipped.
“When we all ‘aged out’ of the NexGen community, we wanted to continue the discussions because of the quality of the membership and what we were all getting out of it,” he added.