Seeking Real Impact
I really want to change the industry. I’m tired of some advisors saying they have a client’s best interests in mind, then taking action that puts themselves first. I’m looking at you private client groups. John Bogle changed the investing industry when he introduced us to Vanguard. It didn’t happen overnight, nor will my goals. But I want to be a voice in assuring everyone has access to WealthAdviceMadeSimple.
What does it mean to truly differentiate oneself from the pack? Countless resources have been poured into this endeavor, from crafting the perfect elevator speech to some of the greatest ad campaigns of all-time. In my industry, everyone is an expert, everyone (now) is trying to label themselves a fiduciary, and everyone has something unique (supposedly) that sets them apart. I’m pushing 40 this year, and I’ve been a financial advisor since sometime between 2000 and 2004. How could I not know when I became an advisor? Selfishly, I will say 2000 because that’s when I first entered what I thought was financial advising so I will grandfather that time in the name of learning. Yet here I am, 40 years old, a principal at a successful fee-only Registered Investment Advisory firm (RIA), and I still struggle with how to differentiate. My entire career has been a search for this holy grail. Let me put you on the express lane for a quick recap.
I graduated from college in the summer of 1999 and took a job in public accounting. I was bored stiff after one year and two days*. So I thought I would go sell 401(k) plans for a leading insurance company using all the technical knowledge I had gained in my 368 days* (2000 was leap year) of public accounting. Unfortunately, I was about 15 years too early to the Department of Labor party because in the early 2000s, many company sponsored retirement plans were still being “managed” by a good friend of the decision maker. (i.e. Those quotations are intentional as very little work was being done to manage much more than golf tee times)
Without moving on, I opted instead to start calling myself a financial advisor, and at an insurance company, by financial advisor I mean a life insurance salesman. My training consisted of (insert client challenge/goal/objective) and I was taught the solution was a high premium permanent life insurance policy. Just got out of college and finally have a small amount of discretionary income? Let me introduce you to life insurance. College funding problem for your children? Meet my good friend, the life insurance policy. Can’t save enough in your retirement plan? You need some more life insurance. Terrible news at your last doctor’s appointment? Let’s see if we can get you underwritten for some more life insurance. You get the picture.
An Eye Toward the Future
As I began to develop some trusted clientele, I quickly realized that I needed to get my career (and my clients) to higher ground so over the course of 18 months I passed 5 single topic exams and a two-day comprehensive exam and received my CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) designation. From there, I moved my “practice” to an independent broker/dealer, which allowed me to still service client product needs while converting my clients to a model more built around fees. In simpler terms, I could be compensated by both commissions and fees when necessary. Although this model has merit, it still didn’t satisfy my professional preferences.
I could see my industry moving to greater transparency and regulations, not to mention the internet was really starting to have a buzz about these topics from clients of all types, many of whom were not happy with their current advisor. I should note that in 2010, shortly after my son’s 1st birthday party, I set out to sit for the 4 parts of the CPA Exam while working full-time, being President of my local Financial Planning Association chapter, and trying to figure out how to be a father. My fear was the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) designation by itself would not be a differentiator in the next 5-10 years; rather it would be the minimum standard that clients would require. I would like to note that most credible articles written on this topic suggest just that! By late October of that year, I had lost 7 months of my life, but I was a newly minted CPA. Without question, you must have a true partner in life to make this work and that’s what I have in my wife Terri. I should actually dedicate an entire blog to how wonderful she really is in supporting every aspect of our family.
The Journey Continues
In early 2013, a professional opportunity came along that I could not pass up. I joined a fee-only RIA and became one of the principal owners a year later. All of the clients that I had gathered over the previous 13 years followed me to my new firm which was a very proud accomplishment. This firm, PDS Planning, Inc., was founded in 1985 and has had unbelievable leadership since. Our clients are the millionaire next door types, wonderful people with realistic expectations. So here I am, 17 years later and every move I’ve made in my career has been geared towards trying to improve my ability to serve my clients, while hopefully differentiating myself. Objectively, there’s really no way to tell for certain. I’ve challenged so many of my professional colleagues on what our value proposition is, and how we differentiate ourselves. After those conversations and reflecting on my 17 years, here’s what I have:
- Clients value sincerity (or authenticity) over almost all else, assuming you meet some standard of professional competence.
- Being transparent about fees and expenses further enhances my authenticity in their eyes.
- If I can make these complex topics more approachable by simplifying the conversation, then I can empower them with knowledge and understanding.
- With that knowledge and understanding, clients can confidently make decisions during their lifetime to help them live the life they want to live.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am stubborn, so these things are not enough for me. There is more that can be done. I want bring about significant change to the advisor industry and the positive effects it will have for clients. For too long, the industry has wanted the client to see wealth management as complex. It’s not. I’ve been fairly successful building my own net worth through some basic principles. You deserve to know how to do this, without me fearing for the livelihood of my profession. YOU DESERVE MORE! And I intend to try to bring that to you.
When I’m done, hopefully that will have made a difference.