This story has been updated.
The future is unclear for the planners at LearnVest in the wake of the company's deal to be acquired by Northwestern Mutual.
And the outlook seems to depend on whether you talk to the company's leaders or its new owners.
"We are going to have an opportunity to double" the number of planners, says Stephany Kirkpatrick, LearnVest vice president for operations & advice strategy. "We are going to scale extra fast with an incredible partner."
Yet in announcing the deal, Northwestern cited LearnVest's "breakthrough technology" as a top reason for acquiring the firm -- not its planners. And when asked to confirm whether the ranks of planners would indeed grow, a Northwestern Mutual spokeswoman demurred.
"It's premature to speculate on specifics at this stage," she said.
Tim Schaefer, the company's executive VP of operations and technology, said via a spokeswoman that "Northwestern Mutual supports the continued growth of the LearnVest business, which includes planners" -- but did not provide specifics.
HOW MANY PLANNERS?
One reason for the confusion: It's unclear how many planners LearnVest actually has.
Northwestern's press release pegs the number of LearnVest employees at 150 and a LearnVest spokeswoman says it has 60 planners. However, the firm's most recent Form ADV, filed in February, says the firm's employees, including part-timers, number only 45 -- although it says that 43 perform investment advisory functions.
LearnVest did not reply to a question about whether its advisors had equity stakes that would allow them to benefit financially from the deal. The planners were told of the deal in a companywide meeting led by founder and CEO Alexa von Tobel, a LearnVest spokeswoman says.
At least a couple of former employees speculated that the new arrangement would undermine von Tobel's earlier promise that LearnVest planners would "not [be] required to sell."
Sophia Bera, who worked for LearnVest for a year starting in 2012, says she used to pry her LearnVest clients out of unsuitable whole life insurance products that other planners had sold them. Now Bera -- who now runs her own firm, Gen Y Planning, in the Minneapolis area -- fears that the startup could end up selling clients the very same products.
"Now Northwestern Mutual is going to have access to all these emails and all of this contact information for LearnVest's" 1.5 million users, Bera says. "My concern is that it will move from a fee-only program to a product sales with commission sales one."
Nothing could be further from the truth, Kirkpatrick says.
"I have absolutely no concerns about [this]. We believe LearnVest will continue to run independently. There's no plan to change that," Kirkpatrick says. "I trust wholeheartedly in Alexa and John Schlifske, Northwestern Mutual's CEO."
Another current LearnVest planner Rachel Sanborn showed similar optimism. "As a financial planner, Northwestern Mutual is one of the insurance companies that I really respect," Sanborn says.
Meanwhile, at least one rival firm is using the LearnVest deal as a recruiting opportunity. "I WOULD hope that advisors at LearnVest who are concerned about now being owned by a life insurance company would contact my firms," says Ric Edelman, founder of Edelman Online -- another digitally enabled advisory offering aimed at middle-class clients. "We have lots of great opportunities for advisors."
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