Even before he became a financial planner, David Rosell knew something about creative life planning. While still in high school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he resurfaced driveways. When he sold the business at age 30, he netted $200,000, enough seed money to fund the next phase of his life.
In 2000, he and his wife launched a hunt for the perfect place to settle down. Like many other winter sports enthusiasts, as well as retirees, they chose Bend, Ore., a community on the lip of the Cascade Range.
"It's half make-believe and half real world," Rosell says of the forested mecca for skiers, hikers and mountain bikers. Rosell next decided to turn his avocation for investing into a new career as a financial planner.
In a decade, Rosell built his firm, Rosell Wealth Management, to $20 million in AUM. But he took just a single year to jump to nearly $40 million in AUM in 2011. He did it mostly through a $26,000 breakthrough campaign that targeted certain big earners around Bend - and marked a departure from his previous marketing efforts.
The city is small, with just 77,000 residents in 2010, but Rosell made himself known after moving there. He joined the local chapter of Toastmasters International and the Chamber of Commerce, becoming its president. He began writing a financial advice column for the local paper and appeared on the local morning cable TV talk show. In 2010, he spent $30,000 advertising locally.
"So let me understand something," his friend Robert Berman, a business development consultant in Bend, remembers asking Rosell one day after Rosell shared his marketing budget. "You are casting your net out to people who could be anybody, right? Why aren't you attracting people of interest to your company?"
GIVING AND GETTING
Berman had designed campaigns for Nordstrom, the NBA and Verizon using promotional products. He persuaded Rosell to try using them too.
"Think about it," Berman says. Most people avoid advertising at all costs. But if you hand them a pen with their name on it, he explains, they say "Thank you."
Together they crafted a unique - some might say gimmicky - campaign to reel in new clients. Berman and Rosell identified 125 prospective clients in Bend who had the kind of "earthy, wholesome" personalities Rosell wanted to attract, along with (they guessed) at least $500,000 to invest. Most would turn out to have much more.
The campaign would be a success, they decided, if five prospects met with Rosell and two became clients. The objective was to increase AUM and revenue by 5%. They also hoped to create local buzz.
From March through August of last year, they began sending those prospects personalized gifts, all purchased from Southwick Specialty Advertising, a Portland-based promotional products supplier, with carefully crafted letters.
FIRST GIFT A HIT
The first was a Louisville Slugger bat engraved with the recipient's name. The letter said, "You have been identified as a heavy hitter." In a lighthearted tone, the letter told the recipients they could expect to hear again from Rosell.
"We said, 'We are having a little fun and when you deem the time appropriate, we would love to hear from you,'" Berman says. He describes the approach as sincere, personalized and relentless. "It was all done with a tremendous amount of respect and with no strings attached."
The two sat back and waited. They had four more rounds of gifts to send out. After receiving a bat, a local inventor called.
"Excuse the pun, but the bat just struck him," Berman recalls. "He said, 'Anybody who is this creative and working this hard to get my attention, I need to meet.'"
Right off the bat as it were, the man became the firm's largest client.
Next, prospects received desktop safes. The accompanying letters read, "You earned it, let us help you protect it." Gift No. 3 was an engraved Maglite flashlight. "One of those big Maglites," Rosell says. "No one in the world is going to throw out a Maglite, especially with his name on it - ever." The note accompanying the letter read: "Do you have a clear vision of what your retirement looks like? Let us help you shed light on the whole picture."
The fourth gift was a leather-bound journal, embossed with recipients' names, along with tickets for an upcoming drawing for a record-high Mega-Millions lottery. "If by any chance you do have a winning ticket,'' the accompanying letter said, "we do expect to see you sooner rather than later. While it can be fun to play the lottery from time to time, don't gamble on your financial future. Write down your thoughts, goals and dreams, then bring them to us and we'll put a solid plan together for you."
After receiving the journal, a former police chief of Bend called Rosell. He said he couldn't keep taking gifts without calling. "The Catholic guilt is killing me," he told Rosell. He became a client too.
For the fifth and final gift, each prospect received a prepaid, precharged cell phone preprogrammed with Rosell's cell phone number in the speed dial list. The accompanying letter read, "When you're ready, give us a call."
Rosell urged recipients to donate unwanted phones to a local homeless shelter. Twenty prospects did so. "A lot of people in Oregon are green [environmentalists] and we wanted to counteract what potentially could have turned into a negative," Rosell explains.
By the end of 2011, the campaign had brought in 12 new clients and nearly doubled the amount of Rosell's AUM to $37 million. Rosell is still meeting with another group of the campaign's prospects who have a combined $12 million in assets.
Marketing expert Michael Brizz, the creator of the Referral Mastery System who was not involved in Rosell's efforts, called the campaign "brilliantly executed." He cautioned that many advisors could not have pulled it off as well. Any advisor who attempts such a campaign had better have a strong practice to keep clients they attract, Brizz says. While a robust referral system could have created similar results at a fraction of the cost, Brizz says, Rosell was trying to build a practice in a new town. "It's a great way to break into a group where you have no presence," Brizz says.
Rosell and Berman were so happy with the results that Berman entered the effort in a national contest for marketing campaigns. His tiny operation took first place in its category, beating out campaigns by Jack Daniels and DSW Shoes.
NEW PLANS AHEAD
Rosell says he's keeping his ambitions scaled to suit the size of his small community and only wants to build his practice to $100 million in AUM. "It's finding that right balance in offering myself and the staff and our team members a certain quality of life to do the things we've always imagined," he says. "I don't foresee the need to grow beyond that."
But he's not there yet, so he's tapped Berman's creativity again. Next, they are sending copies of the book, Wealth Secrets of the Affluent, by Christopher R. Jarvis and David B. Mandell, to CPAs and estate planning lawyers. They also plan a fall campaign directed to another 125 prospects.
Although the inaugural effort ended nearly a year ago, its impact has not. In April, Rosell addressed 6,500 people at the annual Oregon Dental Association meeting in Portland. A Bend dentist approached him after.
"'You're the one who's been sending me the bat and safe. I love it!''' Rosell says. The man asked for an appointment.
Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.