CEO Walt Bettinger of Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger of Schwab.

Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab, told a story: Back in 2004, when Schwab stock was languishing at around $6, he and Charles Schwab decided to survey customers who left the firm and find out why. One of the customers who had a million-dollar account said something that stuck with Bettinger: He was tired of all the nuisance fees. When Bettinger pointed out to the former customer that with his size account he wasn’t subjected to them, the man said he didn’t care: He just wouldn’t do business with anyone who did that to their customers.

“So we went back to the drawing board and got rid of nuisance fees and cut commissions to $8.95,” Bettinger told an audience of RIAs attending the Morningstar annual conference in Chicago. “Our board pointed out that we had just lost 40% of our revenue due to the internet bubble burst, and now we were recommending cutting out another 30% — how were we going to make that up? And we said, by the goodness of human nature. That if we do the right thing by our clients, they will simply choose to do more business with us.”

And they were right; business did take off, at least until the financial crisis hit in 2008, which because the firm was largely invested in U.S. Treasuries, didn’t impact them as harshly. In fact, they grew market share. The stock now trades at nearly $60.

Bettinger emphasized that customer theme throughout his interview with Tricia Rothschild, Morningstar’s chief product officer. He noted that investors “were no different than any other type of consumer. There is an expectation on the part of investors that they aren’t used to making trade-offs: in experience, quality of service, timeliness and cost. Any client’s last great experience is their minimum expectation of every experience going forward.”

That means customers are going to expect digital quality of service and an immediate real-time response. “We need to leverage technology to deliver better value to our clients,” he said.

He added that for Schwab, regardless of the state of conflict-of-interest regulation, “our approach has been if someone is compensating us to provide advice to them, their interest should come first and we should be a fiduciary.”

When asked about what type of fee model should be used, Bettinger said that “clients should have a choice. I’m not an advocate to say one model is better than another, but clients deserve transparency and should be able to make up their own mind [to the kind of fee] whether it’s hourly, flat, AUM or AUM with cap; consumers have to be given a choice.”

He added that he hasn’t seen a “meaningful downside pressure on advisor fees, but am seeing a meaningful upward pressure on the depth and breadth of services provided.”

Regarding the rise of ETFs, Schwab found in its research that 90% of millennials view ETFs as the primary manner they will invest to meet their goals, Bettinger said. Schwab also is strict about charging everyone the same fee, no matter their account size. The firm also has been successful with its robo technology, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, which have roughly $30 billion invested to date by largely self-directed clients.

“What the robo does is leverage technology while subverting the human element so advice is at a lower fee,” he said. “I don’t see that as a long-term winning growth strategy. Subtracting something and adding something to charge less doesn’t really work.”

When asked about lessons for our times, Bettinger said Schwab’s guiding principle was “trust is earned over time, and lost in an instant. No matter what environment we’re in, a bull or bear market, we always have to challenge ourselves to make sure we use our professional knowledge to better serve clients…. Trust is the currency we operate in.”

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