Brokerage firms are ever encouraging their advisors to find a niche market, and advisors duly report they work in a niche — such as clients who are at or near retirement — that are not so niche.
Far more rare is an advisor like Domitilia dos Santos, in Morgan Stanley’s Park Avenue office in New York, whose language and culture-based niche makes her a unique community resource.
In other words, prospects are highly motivated to find her and clients highly reluctant to leave her because they feel the Portuguese-speaking advisor, and no one else, can provide access to all that Wall Street has to offer them.
Twenty-nine years ago today, Dos Santos picked up the phone the day after Labor Day to start cold calling and began building what is today a substantial clientele, a majority of whom (more than 60%, she estimates) stem from the broader population in New York City.
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But, also from the beginning, she found that prospects of Portuguese extraction just found their way to her. In 1984, a Portuguese consular official in Liberia who wanted an account cold-called her; he referred dos Santos to someone in New York, who in turn referred her to someone else, who remains a client to this day.
In 1985, dos Santos inherited a Portuguese client from a departing broker. “I didn’t know anything about this guy,” she told ThinkAdvisor in an interview. “He’s still a client, and a very good one.”
These days, however, dos Santos actively cultivates the niche, such that nearly 40% of her practice are Portuguese speakers, mainly Portuguese nationals working in Brazil.
Dos Santos’ family emmigrated to the U.S. from Portugal when she was 13 years old. And Portuguese continue to emigrate — a pattern that has only intensified with the financial crisis plaguing Europe’s Mediterranean periphery — often bringing their PhDs with them to work for companies such as Alcoa or General Electric in Brazil’s commercial capital of São Paulo.
(Many Portuguese also seek opportunity in former African colonies of Angola and Mozambique, but Patriot Act rules and economic sanctions prohibit dos Santos from opening accounts for nationals of those countries, the Morgan Stanley advisor says.)
The road this New Yorker takes to this affluent professional class of Brazilians runs through Lisbon’s Catholic University, of all places. Dos Santos goes to Portugal every year, and while there spends two of her days (totaling nine hours) teaching a class pro bono for the college’s master’s in finance program.
The course covers the basics of investing and wealth management. That teaching effort, together with U.S.-based financial literacy education and more recently LinkedIn events in the broader Luso-American community, sparks a significant “word of mouth” factor.
“I hear from people overseas who would like me to do their financial plan,” she says, describing the concept of planning as a complete novelty to foreigners.
“Nobody thinks there is such a thing as a financial plan: ‘What you mean you plan for your kids’ education? What do you mean you plan for retirement?’ They’ve never heard of it,” she says.
“It’s all word of mouth. With anything having to do with finance, Portuguese look at me as a bridge between Wall Street and Brazil,” she says.