I’ve spent the last several months talking to advisory firms about industry and secular trends and their business strategies. One would hope these two things would be linked—that strategies would be built with the future in mind. But to my dismay, many of the larger firms I’ve talked with have no answer to this important question: “How are you preparing to serve the next generation of investors?”
What I’ve realized is that wealth management business leaders (largely of my generation, the baby boomers) see serving the next generation of investors as somehow optional.
This complacency is incredibly dangerous for the long-term health of existing firms and creates an opportunity for even more disruption in wealth management.
What’s Going On?
I decided to interview a few advisors that focus on millennial investors to understand how they do it. Eric Roberge and Sophia Bera are both members of Michael Kitces’s XY Planning Network. They’re also friends who share ideas between their firms, Roberge’s Boston-based practice and Bera’s in Austin, Texas. Kelly Morgan, meanwhile, is an older advisor at a more traditional firm—the managing director and owner of Seaward Management, a $3 billion RIA, also based in Boston. Yet she, too, is trying to crack the code on reaching younger clients. Seaward is a client of mine that’s working with FinLife Partners, United Capital’s platform offering for advisory firms.
Observation No. 1: “Not Your Father’s Financial Plan!”
Kudos to Bera for the very cheeky website she runs at her firm, Gen Y Planning. The site puts that statement about your father’s financial plan front and center. She and Roberge both talk about how younger, upwardly mobile investors need help with the shorter-term issues first. That means traditional retirement-focused planning is a mismatch for them. Roberge’s firm is called Beyond Your Hammock, and he says, “Live a life you love today while still planning responsibly for the future.”
While these two help clients spend well (budget), manage debt, maximize benefits and tackle other issues, Roberge and Bera are adamant that this is not “planning lite.” In fact, because they go very deep to solve complex problems millennials have, such as education loan refinancing, they can charge up-front planning fees of $2,000 to $3,000 or more. Their business model includes the initial planning “setup” fee and then a monthly retainer, akin to a gym membership for financial coaching. This pricing strategy feels familiar to the millennials they serve, and typically pays for itself with the concrete nature of problems solved.
Kelly and her firm are focused on asset retention for the next generation, and her fees are based on the AUM of the overall family assets. Her young clients might be future inheritors, but they are also more concerned with the here and now—getting married, buying a house, establishing a budget. Kelly uses the tools from FinLife Partners to engage her young clients, notably “Money Mind,” an exercise to help clients understand decision-making biases, and “Honest Conversations,” an exercise to help them establish goals. She’s found that the financial life management system and digital tools really appeal to younger clientele. The exercises help them identify how they feel about money and what matters to them in life, clarifying their fears, aspirations and values without requiring a ton of financial education or lingo.
Morgan’s firm is also known for socially conscious investing, something many young inheritors appreciate.
Roberge and Bera have the advantage of being younger themselves, and both feature their own life stories in their value propositions. Their work style is also relevant to the digital natives—I am very impressed with the appointment scheduling tools and communication options they offer. There’s no need for stuffy offices, or in fact much overhead at all, because they tap into cost-effective technology that scales what they do. When their clients begin building investable wealth, Roberge turns to TD Ameritrade and Bera to Betterment for Advisors for turnkey solutions allowing them to grow their clients’ assets under management.
Kelly admits that age is a problem for most advisors, including her. She and her partners have spent the last year building and investing in a plan to be “future ready.” That means they must hire younger advisors and refresh the brand. In the meantime, she has found a way to bridge the generation gap by training a young, outgoing person on her team to conduct the exercises with clients, getting them to explain how they feel about money and talk about their personal priorities.
Observation #3: Efforts Need To Get Bigger, Faster
It’s great to hear the enthusiasm and success stories from entrepreneurial young planners and forward-thinking industry leaders, but we have a scale problem. With their coaching models, Roberge’s and Bera’s businesses are incredibly lean, but they have only so many hours in the day. How many clients can they take on before their own lives are out of balance? Kelly, meanwhile, is prioritizing inheritors, but that’s a defensive marketing strategy, not offensive. Where will the huge wave of young people and their assets go?
Imagine calculating pro forma projections for the wealth management business as boomer assets “roll off” and only a portion are retained by traditional firms. What if Amazon entered the industry? The traditional direct-to-consumer firms like Schwab and Fidelity will use marketing, technology and scale to get their share. But the wealth managers—boutique firms, RIAs, broker-dealers and private banks, for example—how will they fare?
Let’s Get To This Now, Not Later
What Bera, Roberge and Kelly are proving is that many upwardly mobile millennials value and are willing to pay for human advice that feels timely and relevant to them. So why do so many industry executives have their heads in the sand?
As a marketer and consumer advocate, I’m worried. In the short run, there may be opportunities for creative entrepreneurs like Bera and Roberge to pair up with established firms like Kelly’s to form referral relationships or joint ventures. More transformations like the one going on at Seaward could be successful in attracting young advisors and clients, or the small firms out there today could find ways to attract capital and scale. That would be great.
But this is a big market we need to be prepared to serve. For the larger industry, the profitability of smaller accounts should be a problem we can solve. Where the money is now ignores where new money will come from. The time is now—the next generation won’t wait for us.
This article appeared on fa-mag.com and written by Gail Graham. Gail Graham is CEO of Graham Strategy, dedicated to helping wealth managers build brands people love. As the former CMO of United Capital, she created an industry-leading marketing platform. Previously, she spent a decade at Fidelity Investments.