Advisers Turn to Image Consultants
By Murray Coleman
As baby boomers move into retirement, a more youthful financial advising industry finds itself facing a possible image gap with a growing number of investors.
While a typical adviser is around 52 years old, clients age 60 or older command almost half of the market's assets, according to Cerulli Associates. The next-biggest group is made up of investors between the ages of 50 and 59 years old, the Boston market research firm estimates.
So younger advisers need to look the part to gain older clients' trust.
Jim Miller, president of Woodward Financial Advisors in Chapel Hill, N.C., which manages $150 million, has 17 years' worth of planning experience despite being just 39.
"When you're sitting across the table from business executives who are about to trust you with their life savings, you want to look the part," Mr. Miller says.
His firm has turned to an image consultant to work one-on-one with advisers.
"By its very nature, wealth management requires a somewhat conservative look--you can't afford to be too flashy," says Wendy Bryant Gow, the consultant hired by Mr. Miller.
That's especially true when an adviser is much younger than his or her clients. "A way to bridge any generation gap is to wear darker colors--every young professional should own a deep charcoal gray suit," Ms. Bryant Gow says.
Following with that theme, she suggests leaning towards suits made of lightweight wools with subtle patterns. Pinstripes can work, if understated, and silk ties for men should feature power colors like red and blue, Ms. Bryant Gow suggests.
"You don't have to be boring, but you can take advantage of elegant designs and quality materials to look more distinguished and responsible," she says.
Brian Maynor, an image consultant in Columbia, S.C., has been working with Abacus Planning Group as part of the firm's broader expansion plan.
When he first started discussing various issues with founder Cheryl Holland, she had decided to move the company to a more modern building.
"The whole goal should be to stay relevant with clients," Mr. Maynor says. "If the place you work looks like it's a relic of the past, people won't think of you as cutting edge."
Dark offices with wood panels and rich leather chairs might look very masculine, he adds, "but it speaks to where wealth has been, not where it's heading."
The new wealth manager should present a welcoming environment, according to Mr. Maynor. "Clean lines with no clutter or overstuffed furniture, square sofas and lighter wood accents should be the building blocks for today's wealth manager," he says.
Abacus Planning, which manages $700 million in assets, also has brought in a professional grammar coach. "No matter what age your client might be, it's important to get across the right message," Ms. Holland says.
Advisers tend to write in their own jargon, points out Ann Summer, Abacus Planning's grammar consultant. "But that doesn't make someone sound more knowledgeable or mature," she says.
Words like "obfuscate" and "benchmark" should be replaced or defined, Ms. Summer recommends.
"Advisers need to speak to clients according to each individual's understanding of the financial world," she says.
Developing a unique image can also involve less tangible approaches that span different generations of affluent investors, says Barbara Wolf, a senior adviser at Abacus Wealth Partners.
The Santa Monica, Calif., firm, which has about $800 million in assets, isn't associated with Abacus Planning.
At each of its five offices around the country, Ms. Wolf says that Abacus Wealth stresses the importance to advisers of supporting local volunteer efforts and nonprofit groups, she says.
"Ultimately, we're trying to give our clients a peace of mind about dealing with wealth," Ms. Wolf says. "So creating a strong image for our business has to include encouraging our advisers to see themselves as a part of their own communities."
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