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How One RIA Is Breaking the Mold

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At first glance, James “JB” Brewer might seem like your typical advisor, but Brewer really doesn’t fit the typical advisor mold.

For one thing, the Chicagoan proudly calls himself a financial planner and he is a CFP, but he holds other designations as well, which he actually uses in serving his clients rather than just filling up space on his “About Us” page. Here’s another difference: Brewer started his planning career as a registered rep, but he had a prior career as a marketing exec.

Then there’s how he gets paid. Brewer launched his RIA — Envision Wealth Planning — just last year, but unlike most RIAs, he doesn’t charge a fee for managing his clients’ assets. Instead, he charges clients a monthly subscription fee based on their income, not assets, made easier by his embrace of AdvicePay, the app co-founded by advisors Michael Kitces and Alan Moore.

Brewer is a member of the Financial Planning Association and was scheduled to speak at the FPA’s national conference in October with fellow Envision team member Nandita Das. He also is a past president of the Association of African American Financial Advisors (he currently serves on the AAAFA’s advisory council).

Here’s another difference. Brewer happily counts some high-net-worth clients in his practice, but his real sweet spot is among clients of more moderate means.

Another way Brewer doesn’t fit the mold is in how he communicates with clients. While he uses the videoconferencing app Zoom to chat with his clients across the nation, he also likes to make “house calls,” because as a planner focused on cash flow, he gains insight into his clients by literally seeing how they spend their money in their homes.

That’s important, to return to where we started, because Brewer is first and foremost a financial planner. The services he provides to individual clients through Envision Wealth and to retirement plan participants through Envision 401k Advisors don’t cover just the assets side of a client’s financial ledger, but the liabilities as well.

But like many advisors, Brewer’s business model wasn’t apparent from the beginning. His journey to financial planning began when, after losing his position as VP of sales and marketing at a tech firm, he and his wife sought the help of several advisors.

“One just didn’t listen to what we said we wanted,” he recalls, but the second one not only listened, but told Brewer he had never had a client who “took to” the process as much as he did. He then suggested that Brewer might want to get into the business himself.

So he joined Ameriprise, but as a “mid-career changer” who happened to have an MBA from the Sloan School at MIT. While he was attracted to the financial planning side of the business, he also realized that the actual work he was performing wasn’t real financial planning. So he switched to a smaller broker-dealer, but learned that he didn’t fit into that culture, either, partly because he was “the only one committed to financial planning.”

While not yet a CFP, Brewer recalls being frustrated then that people with a CFP weren’t performing true financial planning, but rather “something like ‘investment-focused solutions’.”

The next step on his journey was at LPL, where he explored how to accomplish his goal of helping people while making money through serving retirement plan participants.

He became a chartered retirement planning counselor, but was frustrated by many plan sponsors’ lack of interest in building plans that would primarily benefit participants.

There was another issue keeping many plan participants from successfully planning for their retirement, Brewer realized: too many of them held significant student loan debt, or were struggling with their finances after a divorce.

But dealing with these “non-asset” financial issues didn’t fit well into LPL’s business model for reps, Brewer says, while becoming a pure RIA, with the help of new tech tools and the right partners (see sidebar), would allow him to accomplish his goal of helping people while making money.

So how does charging clients based on their income (Envision’s fees are clearly spelled out on its website) allow the RIA firm to make money? Brewer says it allows him to help more people at various stages in their life, not just when they’ve accumulated enough assets to meet many other advisors’ minimums. He calls his model a subscription-based life planning firm.

“My ADV says I charge people up to 2% of their income for financial planning” on a sliding scale, he says, while if they come for a specific issue, such as divorces, he charges by the hour.

“When will a woman with $150,000 in income but with $250,000 in student debt ever accumulate enough assets” to make her a typical AUM client, he asks. What she can do is pay him a relatively small monthly amount to help her retire that debt and save for retirement through good financial planning practices, with Brewer as her accountability partner.

Getting a handle on that debt also can provide clients with the sense that they’re gaining control of their financial lives, which Brewer says can move them past their “regret timeline” of not saving enough for retirement.

Not a bad way to help people while making money.

About the Advisor

Advisor: James “JB” Brewer

Title: Founder and CEO

Firm: Envision Wealth Planning, Chicago

Designations: CFP, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA), AIF, College Funding and Student Loan Advisor (CFSLA), Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor (CRPC)

Technology: Precise FP, which Brewer calls the “ultimate data repository” to securely house client data; MoneyGuide Pro for CRM purposes, but also for its Discovery Lab for clients, “who’ve told me they learned so much about themselves” from using it; and Retire Ready, for helping financial planning clients and retirement plan participants better save for retirement by using its “model pay check” feature.

Partners: Loring Ward; iSectors for investment management.

Experts called upon for help as needed: Karen Sparks for divorce financial analysis; Fred Amrein, founder of Amrein Financial and College Affordability LLC, “the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met” on student loan debt and “prevention;” Collegiate Funding Solutions; and Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics, Boston University.

James J. Green, a former editor of this magazine, is editor of Jamie Green Reports, an advisor-focused writing, editing and shepherding service. He can be reached at [email protected].


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