Is it better to be a planner in a state with a lot of other planners, or in a state with only a few? The answer is ... there is no simple answer. Advantages - distinctly different ones - exist in very crowded planning marketplaces as well as in those that are sparsely populated.
The state with the highest proportion of certified financial planners is New Hampshire, which has one financial planner for every 2,633 residents, according to figures from the 2010 census and the 2013 CFP Board's membership roster. At the other end of the spectrum is West Virginia, with one planner for every 15,703 residents. In the middle, Iowa ranks as the 25th state in terms of density of CFPs, with one planner practicing for every 4,978 residents.
One firm that has intimate knowledge about both crowded and sparse market conditions is McKinley Carter Wealth Services. This partnership, which has $600 million in assets under management, has its headquarters in Wheeling, W.Va., but also has offices in Pittsburgh. While West Virginia is last in planner density, Pennsylvania is the 12th highest, with a planner for every 3,702 residents.
COMPETITIVE & COLLEGIAL
Brian Gongaware, McKinley Carter's regional managing director, works from the Pittsburgh office. "I find that the density makes it a much more competitive environment, but it also creates a more collegial environment," he says, with more well-attended professional gatherings and more planners to share with and learn from.
One advantage of a dense market, Gongaware says, is relative ease in recruiting employees. In Pittsburgh, he says, rival firms provide a large potential pool of well-trained prospective hires. But in West Virginia, there are hurdles to expanding the staff.
David McKinley, the firm's president and managing director, says he has to hunt vigorously for prospective hires for the firm's offices in Wheeling, Parkersburg and Charlotte. He recently made a contribution to Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., to help the school launch a program to train financial planners; he hopes the new program will eventually create a pipeline of job applicants.
But both advisors say the scarcity of planners offers some advantages to West Virginia. One benefit is loyalty. Once clients select a planner, McKinley says, they tend to stay with the firm. And staffers behave similarly. "We have very little turnover with clients and employees," McKinley says.
Christopher E. Ashworth of Ironwood Wealth Management in Hurricane, W.Va., agrees that West Virginia clients exhibit "stickiness." After college, Ashworth started practicing in Cincinnati; Ohio has 4,589 residents for every practicing CFP. But he eventually returned to his native West Virginia; his current firm reports roughly $75 million in assets under management.
Ashworth is aware of the challenges facing CFPs in West Virginia. As with many other states with relatively few CFPs, the state has a low median household income. West Virginia and Mississippi, which has the second-lowest density of planners, have median household incomes more than $12,000 below the national median household income of $50,502, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.
In West Virginia, Ashworth says, relatively few residents have large sums to manage - and those who do often have very conservative approaches. "People here work extremely hard to get money, so you are not going see a lot of risky strategies attract them," he says. "You are not going to see a lot of hedge funds, or trading in options. It's not because the financial planners here don't know those things exist, but because they would never fly with the people here."
The sophistication of potential clients tends to be greater in Massachusetts, the second-highest ranked state in terms of CFP density. No question, residents' income levels play a part in attracting all those planners. Massachusetts median household income is $62,860, some $12,000 more han the national median household income.
Heydon Traub, the founder of Traub Capital Management in Needham, Mass., which has $100 million in assets under management, says he views the crowded field as a mixed blessing. "We have more competition for clients," Traub says, "but there are a lot of people to talk to and share ideas with." Clients enter his office as educated consumers, he says: "It's rare that I get a client who hasn't already talked to another planner."
Paul Rotell, a CFP with Christopher Street Financial in Boston, says that one result of the intense competition in his state is that planners often focus on distinctive niches. His firm, which has $240 million in assets under management, caters to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market. In fact, the firm is named after a street in New York that was a center of the gay rights movement.
Because the Massachusetts field is so crowded, Rotell says, prospective clients in the state are likely to learn about a planner from someone they know rather than by trusting web advertising. In many places, there are too many CFPs for prospective clients to sort through, he explains. "People have to know you from somewhere to feel they can trust you," he says.
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
But competition can also feel intense in places where the numbers may seem to be more in a planner's favor. In Nevada, for instance, the density of CFPs is the fifth lowest in the nation, with one for every 10,077 residents.
Yet the state's household median income is also about $1,500 below the national figure, and Russ Bucklew, a CFP at Miller/Russell & Associates in Las Vegas, says times are tough. "There is a general reluctance on the part of the people in this town to invest with anyone, because they have been hit so hard by the real estate downturn," he says. His firm sets $2 million in assets as a minimum for its clients and has $1.3billion in assets under management.
Nevadans, he notes, tend to favor cash over securities. "There is a perception that stocks are a big boys' game," he says. "I don't know that being in this underserved market is any real advantage."
One factor inhibiting demand for planners is Las Vegas' cash economy, says Kevin Cusack, an advisor at TriCor Financial in Las Vegas who previously lived in California and Washington.
"A lot of our population here has cash-based income, meaning in tips," Cusack says. "They don't want to have to declare that, so they don't want to invest it."
There's one spot that might seem like a promising destination for a planner thinking of relocating: Alaska has one financial planner for every 9,729 residents, ranking it seventh from the bottom in terms of planner density, but its median household income is about $17,000 higher than the national average.
Michael R. Hanrahan, a CFP and CPA at Hanrahan & Associates in Anchorage who offers advice only to his clients, with no assets under management, says the opportunities for planners are good in Alaska. In part, this is because the state has a high percentage of government employees who expect to receive significant retirement benefits.
According to a Gallup report earlier this year, a whopping 29.6% of Alaskans work for federal, state or local government; that percentage is the second highest in the nation, slightly behind Hawaii. "We've got a damn lot of people with a damn lot of money," Hanrahan says.
Tiffany Ballard is a CFP at Bergland Wealth Management, which is officially based in Ridgeland, Miss., although that headquarters is what Ballard calls "a virtual practice." She actually lives near Houston and communicates by phone with clients in Mississippi, where she used to live. The arrangement lets her do "what I tell my clients to do: live the ideal life," she says.
Ballard, whose firm has about $25million in assets under management, says the scarcity of advisors in Mississippi means that "there simply is a lack of investment knowledge in this state." She says she often handles financial planning almost on a triage basis, helping clients regroup after others have taken advantage of them. This gives the job an almost humanitarian aspect, which she finds appealing. "This is a huge calling, what we do," Ballard says.
John F. Hill, founder and managing partner of WealthPartners, also has a practice in Ridgeland, with $125million in assets under management and clients in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Having a practice in a region where household incomes are generally low, he says, requires a planner to do a lot of traveling. The Mississippi native gets on the road several times a month for long stretches. "There are not a high number of prospects who are a 30-minute drive away," he says.
But that doesn't mean he wishes he could be somewhere else. "I enjoy the quality of life too much in the Southeast," Hill says.
Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.