Marty McCoy brings in $150,000 a year in revenue - not bad for a planner who doesn't even have an office. Most days, in fact, McCoy can be found at the Spectrum gym in Westlake Village, a small town west of Los Angeles, where fashionably dressed, perfectly styled women do lunch and keep in shape.
Financial planning may never be a business that doesn't require in-person interaction. But that doesn't mean planners like McCoy need to spend much of their time in a high-status office. He's hardly alone: According to a 2010-11 survey by the Financial Planning Association, about a quarter of financial planning firms use an alternative workplace strategy.
In an era when clients can easily reach their accounts online, many planners are cutting overhead and staff and working remotely. Many have few face-to-face sessions with clients who may travel frequently or move far away. And some planners are targeting younger clients who don't seem to mind skipping a formal sitdown. Will these trends grow in the years to come? Financial Planning examines the practices of six planners.
McCoy, a former software engineer who's a CFP, spends about three hours a day at the gym, which he joined in 1997. The rest of the workday he visits local businesses and calls on prospective clients who have been referred to him.
He regularly invites some of his 850 clients for a discussion at the gym, where he'll join in their favorite workout. McCoy rarely brings along a laptop, relying instead on his smartphone.
People generally are cautious before turning their finances over to "a guy from the gym," so he knows his strategy must include patience. "Once they get to know me and find that I am very helpful, they usually are more open," McCoy says.
Some customers who come to him through referrals or his website live far away. In such cases, he turns to Skype.
McCoy, whose financial plans often include life insurance for "retirement accumulation and redistribution," says his business is growing by 10% a year.
Distribution is the most important phase of retirement, he says. "It's not what you accumulate, but rather what you get."
OFFICE ON WHEELS
Susan E. Honig of Veritana Financial Planning rents space for 16 hours a month at Barrister Executive Suites in Burbank, Calif. In a milk crate strapped to a luggage carrier, she lugs her equipment: a laptop and monitor; a portable printer, scanner and fax; and a multiplug extension cord.
But for $154 a month she gets a mailing address, Internet access, a professional staffer to assist her, plus her name on a big screen directory in the building foyer that greets clients. There is also a conference room with a large monitor for presentations that she has yet to use.
She contracts with Ring Central, a cloud-based business phone system that forwards all her calls and offers services such as voicemail and fax. She uses a free iPhone app to access faxes and voicemail. Her firm, which she launched in 2009, manages about $5 million in assets, with projected revenue of $40,000.
"I don't see myself ever being able to go back to the wirehouse model," says Guy Penn of G.M. Penn Wealth Management, which he runs from his home in O'Fallon, Mo. The 30-year-old was a registered rep for companies such as Citigroup, Banc of America Investment Services (now Merrill Lynch) and L&F Group for almost a decade before opening his own firm in the spring of 2010.
In the new digital world, Penn says a home-based advisor has access to the same technology, third-party research and computing power as the largest of firms. And he can meet clients wherever they are most comfortable - in their home or at a local coffee shop.
His low expenses allow him to charge lower fees and be picky about the clients he takes on. Penn says there is no longer a stigma attached to home offices and that clients actually appreciate the efficiency. "When a client walks into an office and is greeted with a marble entryway, plasma TVs and a team of secretaries, they automatically think, 'Who is paying for all this?' "
Working remotely allows certified financial planner Matthew Tuttle to hire accountants and other professionals based on talent, not geography. He does have a tiny, one-person office outside his home in Stamford, Conn. But the 42-year-old owner of Tuttle Wealth Management - who oversees $100 million in assets, grossing revenue of more than $1 million a year - works with 100 CPAs spread out over 14 states.
"Some work out of their homes and others have offices. Our clients are all over the country and most of our work is done over the phone. Because of this, I can hire good people no matter where they are and they can work from wherever they are comfortable," he says.
TARGETING GEN Y
Raymond J. Weiss, a 26-year-old CFP, ran an entirely virtual practice from his home in Illinois for two months this year before he went to work for Weiss Insurance Agency, his family's firm. His modest website, genywealth.com, targets members of Generation Y - those born after 1976. Weiss used a go-to meeting program from Mikogo, in which he and his client could see each other's computer screens simultaneously, while talking on the phone or on Skype with a webcam.
Weiss blogged. He Facebooked. He Twittered. He YouTubed, posting videos showing Gen Y-er's how to manage their money, along with notices of prizes and sweepstakes, in hopes of drawing traffic to his site.
He was quite happy not having to support an actual office that he would have to pay to heat, air condition, furnish and maintain. He set his hours based on when people want to meet with him, and coached his young, middle-income clients on financial tools, helping them set up retirement accounts.
Weiss admits that he did sometimes lose the nuance of communication over a webcam or phone, or in an email. And clients in higher-income brackets wouldn't typically trust their money to someone they haven't met. But he will continue to build a virtual following through his blog while he heads the marketing department at Weiss Insurance.
The trappings of an office are most important at the beginning of a relationship, says Jennifer Hartman, 45, of Green Leaf Financial Group. As her clients move away, they often stick with her, communicating long distance. In fact, they are more likely to send an email than they are likely to call.
Nonetheless, Hartman spends about $15,000 a year on two offices, one on Wilshire Boulevard near Beverly Hills, on the 26th floor with a great view, and another in Santa Monica. She doesn't plan on giving up her offices - they're her excuse to get out of the house.
Hartman also sees them as a worthy investment: "It's a message to clients that you have established roots. I believe having a receptionist and a professional atmosphere is a cost of business."
Geraldine Otero is a freelance writer in Malibu, Calif.
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