Archive for March, 2012

Book Review: The Start-up Of YOU

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

The Start-Up Of YOU is a recently released book co-written by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. It’s well worth reading, not only because it presents an interesting perspective based on the entrepreneurial experiences of the authors, but is also includes a number of practical exercises (called “Invest in Yourself”) which can help you improve your networking and self-improvement skills.

(Of course the book does its share of promoting LinkedIn and other Hoffman ventures (what similar books don’t?), but at the end of the day, after reading the book, LinkedIn will become a more valuable tool to you.)

The book is not a book about looking for a new job, but in essence it recommends that you do things every day that we usually only do when looking for a job. To quote the cover of the book: “Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career.”

Here are some highlights from the book:

  • We should all think like entrepreneurs and create networks that outlive the initial start-up phase
  • Every person is a small business, and should be constantly planning and adapting as businesses do
  • You can’t be complacent. Always think of yourself as being in “beta” – constantly striving to evolve and make yourself better
  • Your personal asset mix is not fixed – you can and should learn new skills

Frankly, the main value of the book to most people will be its chapters (and follow-up exercises) on networking. The book talks about developing both a small inner circle of 8-10 key people – called professional allies – and an outer and larger circle of contacts – which can reach into the hundreds. As in all things, the more you view your networks from a “we” rather than “I” perspective, so that both parties can benefit from the relationship, the more effective your networking efforts will be.

The book concludes this way: “So start tapping into your network. Start investing in skills. Start taking intelligent risks. Start pursuing breakout opportunities. But most of all, start forging your own differentiated career plans; start adapting these rules to your own adaptive life. For life is a permanent beta, the trick is to never start stopping. The start-up is you.”

Let me know if you end of buying the book and agree with my assessment.

Advisor Opportunities For Growth Abound

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

My posting last week focused on the results of PriceMetrix’s annual report on retail advisors. It included a number of criteria by which advisors can compare themselves to their peers as a way of introspectively evaluating their businesses. (Click here to see that posting.)

To recap the major finding of the PriceMetrix study – 1) advisors are increasingly migrating their books of business from smaller accounts to larger accounts; 2) advisors are increasing the percentage of fee-based accounts in their books; and 3) the average fee on fee-based accounts has been trending slightly downward over the past few years.

The study also outlined a number of opportunities that PriceMetrix feels exist for advisors. I want to take a look at, and give you my thoughts on, each of these opportunities:

1) 30% of the typical advisor’s book of business is comprised of accounts that produce less than $150 in revenue. Opportunity/Action: Review your book of business carefully, and identify accounts that you can transition out. Set a relationship minimum fee, and let this fee guide you. Of course, exceptions will be made, and you will keep certain accounts – but transitioning whatever smaller accounts that you can out of your business will help you leverage your time.

2) New fee-based accounts are being opened at an 11% discount to current relationships. Opportunity/Action: Ask yourself if this is the case with your business as well. Perhaps it’s time that you reviewed your value proposition and the way in which you approach prospects and describe your business. Even though times are tough, clients will pay for premium service and performance. Are you worth a premium?

3) More than 100 basis points separate premium and discount fee pricers.Opportunity/Action: Similar to (2) above, analyze the way in which you conduct business, and determine how you can elevate yourself to be a premium provider if you are not one today (according to the statistics). If you are at the top of the heap – don’t be complacent. Use this as an opportunity to improve what you are doing so that your business does not become vulnerable to the competition.

4) 44% of households have only one account. Opportunity/Action: Review the questions that you typically ask clients about themselves and their families, and review your referral process. If clients are happy with you and the services that you are providing, they should be amenable to moving more assets to you, bringing in related and family accounts and making referring. But you have to ask. And then you have to help them articulate your value proposition.

Opportunities abound for those advisors that evaluate them and act upon them.

Advisors – How Do You Compare To Your Peers?

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

PriceMetrix – an industry-leading data aggregator – just released its annual review of the retail wealth management business. The study confirmed some of the trends that have been playing out in the industry for the past few years and offered up some interesting data which advisors can use to see how they match up with their peers.

(One of the reasons that PriceMetrix is highly regarded is the breadth of their surveys – their data represents 3.2 million investors, 500 million transactions, 1 million fee-based accounts, 4 million transactional accounts and over $900 billion in investment assets.)

Some of the general results of the survey include:

  • Advisors and firms significantly moved away from smaller and less productive households to larger and more productive ones. The average number of households per advisor dropped 8% last year while the average revenue per household increased 7%. (Smaller households are defined as having less than $250,000 in investible assets.)
  • Overall, the industry percentage of smaller households decreased from 71% to 65%. And the percentage of larger households (defined as having more than $1,000,000 in investible assets) increased 12% and now represents 57% of all new assets added.
  • The trend toward fee-based accounts continued, with the number of fee-based account per advisor increasing 10% on average in 2011. Fee-based revenue, as a percentage of total revenue rose 10%.
  • The average return on assets declined slightly to 1.19% (it was 1.23% in 2009). The average new account had a ROA of 1.06%, confirming that the trend is to price new accounts lower than existing accounts.

None of these trends are surprising. Many advisors understand that it is much easier to service a smaller book of larger clients. The trend toward fee-based accounts has also been in place for a number of years. Somewhat disturbing, however, is the trend toward lower ROA. Even though we are in tough economic times, advisors who are able to articulate their value-added should not have to discount their fees to be competitive.

Take a look at your business and see how you compare to the average advisors in the study in the following four metrics:

  • Number of households – 177
  • Average household revenue – $3,174
  • Percentage of households with more than one account – 56.2%
  • Average household revenue of households with more than one account – $4,525

So advisors, what are the implications of this report? If nothing else, look at your book of business and see if you are using your time and resources efficiently. Are you providing the best client service? Are you operating efficiently? Are you being paid adequately for your time? Are you pricing your accounts correctly?

The goal here is not to see if you are “average.” But rather to see if there are ways that you can use these statistics to make improvements to your business model.

Bank Of America Still Doesn’t Get It

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

The seemingly endless discussion of whether advisors at Merrill Lynch are benefiting from their marriage with Bank of America continues; the most recent war of words was sparked by Merrill Chief John Thiel, who defended the partnership after his predecessor made disparaging comments on the subject upon leaving the firm.

Bottom line? Band of America just doesn’t get it. Ever heard the expression perception is reality? Well, in this case the perception has been – and will likelihood continue to be – that the negatives of this relationship outweigh the positives – certainly from the perspective of many advisors who have always been loathe to be told what to sell.

This mentality among advisors is unlikely to change – so why fight it? I’m not saying that Merrill Lynch should stop trying to help advisors cross-sell so that they can deepen their client relationships. And I’m not saying that Merrill clients won’t benefit from the broad range of banking services that Bank of America offers. But management – why do you have to be so vocal about it? A little defensive, maybe? Why not just do what you are doing and allow advisors to utilize the services that they want when they want? If you build it they may come; if you force feed it they will not.

Advisors prize their independence, and the sanctity of the client relationship to many advisors is based on proving unbiased advise and services at all times. That’s not to say that many won’t use Bank of America banking products – they will if they feel that a particular offering is in their clients best interest and that the actions of the bank won’t cost them their client relationship. Anyone remember the $5 debit fee fiasco a few months ago?

The latest evidence of Merrill’s continued misreading of the situation was a Fundfire ( A Financial Times Service) survey last week. 41% of respondents (many presumably Merrill advisors) said that while the acquisition was good for the bank, it has not been good for the brokerage or advisors. This was the most popular answer. The second most popular answer, given by 30% or respondents, was the even more negative choice that the merger has proved bad for both parties, and is a bad fit with no lasting benefits. And just this week, Investment News reported that over the past three months, seven of the ten largest advisors moving firms left Merrill for greener pastures.

Hey John Thiel – stop talking about the benefits and let nature take its course. You can’t win this one in the press – win it quietly!

A Growing Threat To Financial Advisors

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The E*Trade baby commercials might not be so funny after I tell you about the latest comments from Cerulli Associates on the growing threat of direct providers such as Fidelity, Schwab, E*Trade and other similar firms.

The offerings of these firms in areas such as asset allocation, managed accounts programs and access to financial planners are today, according to Cerulli, “robust enough to mimic traditional financial advisor models.” Cerulli believes that the most at-risk clients are those with between $100,000 and $ 2 million to invest, which seems reasonable to me.

Many advisors might not want a lot of clients at the lower end of this range, but I bet most would not want to believe that their $2 million client relationships are at risk. Now, while a segment of those that go direct probably includes people that don’t want to ever pay a fee, and thus don’t represent a threat to many advisors – don’t get too comfortable yet.

Another Cerulli reports points out a scary dichotomy – while only 20% of advisors think that their clients have other advisors and/or direct accounts, 75% of clients surveyed said that they owned direct accounts. According to Cerulli, “Clients think of their direct accounts as a place to try their own investing ideas or as an emergency fund, which is segregated from their main pool of assets.”

This last point may be a saving grace for many advisors. However, given that I have reported before in other stories that many wealthy clients have more than one advisor, and given the fact that many clients do not seem to be forthcoming in admitting these relationships, advisors would be wise to focus more on this threat than they would be to rest easy.

My recommendation is to view direct providers as as large of a threat as other competitors and to make sure to continually point out to clients your competitive advantages vis-a-vis them, as you do everyone else. Ask the question of whether they have such accounts; offer to add these accounts into your performance analyses (as you hopefully do for all of their outside accounts); demonstrate to them why your fee is more than justified and you deserve to be their “Alpha” advisor.

Your brand should be able to set you apart, as should your client experience. But take the threat seriously so that you can still laugh at those commercials!