David Edwards was a financial advisor in New York City who did enough business to take a few months off each summer to live on Nantucket with his wife and two children. Because he was the sole person in what Edwards called a lifestyle firm, he could leave work at 3 p.m., pick up his kids from school, spend time with them for after-school, homework, dinner, bath stories and bed.
After a couple of decades of this, things went bad in 2011. Country-song bad.
His wife divorced him, his children went off to college and his dog died. Edwards stumbled into in a lonely life he had never imagined.
He didn’t lie down and die as a classic country tune might have had him do. He dusted himself off, took a hard look at his life and turned the dial up to rock ’n’ roll!
“I have no responsibilities to any living creature,” Edwards remembered saying after the shock wore off. “What do I want to do with the rest of my career? I decided to grow my firm from $75 million in assets to $1 billion.”
He has since expanded his practice to a seven-person agency with $325 million in assets under management and a map to reach $1 billion soon after 2020.
Edwards made it happen by quickly adopting new technology, not only to handle the growth but also to deliver Tiffany-grade service that his high-net-worth clients expect.
He sees that although circumstances inspired him to retune and get serious about his practice, no advisor can be complacent now. Clients are raising expectations and requiring more services. Technology is the lever to reach those higher standards.
“We’re based in New York City, where real estate and personnel are the highest possible cost. So, you have to use technology to deliver the same service with fewer people,” he said. “Also, it’s an Amazon world. The clients have very high expectations about how we’re going to serve them.”
How he does it
Edwards’ registered investment advisory, Heron Wealth, provides financial planning, investment advice and estate planning for “executive families” with $1 million to $10 million in investable assets. They are typically couples between the ages of 45 and 60, raising two children and worried about their parents. But they also want a second home and a dream retirement.
Not only do these clients have complex needs, but Edwards also wants to provide a luxurious level of service. Both of those endeavors require substantial attention from his firm.
In a move that shows how far he’s come, Edwards recently created a role to uphold that high standard online and in person — director of client experience. It is not a small job, Edwards said, because that level of service requires 30 to 40 touches per year.
That can be tricky with clients spread across the U.S. and Europe. He uses a combination of platforms, including an up-close-and-personal one.
“Some of those touches are in the form of an in-person meeting,” Edwards said. “I’ll do a loop through Southern California, a loop thorough Texas, through the Carolinas, through Georgia and Florida.”
Everybody keeps plugged in to the office through laptops or cellphones running remote desktop protocol (RDP) that taps in to a server in Ohio. It doesn’t matter if an advisor is in New York or New Mexico; they have the same access. “With that application and my cellphone — because there’s dual authentication on this — I can connect from a hotel room, a client’s office or an aircraft, and have all the resources of my firm right at hand,” he said.
He has met with clients on their yachts, in their ski houses, in their summer homes — wherever they are comfortable.
“Because they’re relaxed,” he said. “They’ve got a margarita in their hand; they can think ‘big picture.’ The worst thing you can do to a client is make them sit in a waiting room with CNBC blaring in the corner. By the time they see you, they’ll be so amped up that they won’t hear a word you’re saying.”
And that is no condition or circumstance in which to talk about a subject that makes everybody anxious — money.
“Even people who have tens of millions of dollars are still terrified of money,” Edwards said of why advisors should assume the role of therapist. “You’ll tell your best friend more about your sex life than about your financial situation. Money is the most intimate, difficult, shameful thing that most people confront.”
Clients can also dive into their accounts remotely, through the financial planning online platform, eMoney. They can get questions answered that in the past might have required a call to the office and a staffer’s time.
Through that application, clients can see their entire financial life broken down into cash, checking accounts and credit cards. They can dig into investment accounts, retirement accounts (even those the firm is not managing), real estate and insurance policies.
“Furthermore,” Edwards said. “We have all of their cash flows, like salary income, routine expenses, taxes, mortgage expense. We know what their savings rates are.”
The easily accessible data provides more than a convenience for clients; it was the fulcrum for an exponential leap for the practice.
Expanded client base
The system allowed the firm to expand the type of clients it could serve.
Edwards couldn’t really take clients with less than $1 million to invest because they couldn’t afford the service. All of the information used to be collected on paper.
A paper-based financial plan took 20 hours at $500 an hour, totaling $10,000. Now it takes two hours, costing $1,000.
“All of a sudden, we could take on clients who didn’t meet our historic $1 million minimum,” Edwards said, adding, “That was important for the HENRYs.”
HENRYs are high-earners, not rich yet and an important new group for the firm. They’re important enough that Edwards has an advisor devoted to them.
“These are individuals and couples who are making $200,000, $300,000 a year designing web apps, and they’re still paying off 80 grand of student debt,” he said. “If we say to them, ‘Hey, Billy. Hey, Jamie — we would love to work with you, come back when you have $1 million,’ we’re never going to hear from them again.”
The group is particularly important because they are younger, in their 30s rather than in their 50s.
“You have a significantly more valuable process, because now, your lifetime connection with that family is not from age 55 to age 75, it’s from age 35 to age 90,” Edwards said. “That is a very satisfying sense of protection on the client’s side. And it’s very valuable for the advisor because that’s a very long income stream.”
The firm can quickly play out scenarios so clients can decide what is really important for their future. They can even peel away the dollars to uncover true value.
“Because we can model all the clients’ cash flows for the next five, 10, 25 years, and because we know that things change, we can show clients not only the likely path that they have, but also alternatives.”
For an example, Edwards described a client family with about $10 million in assets. He’s a law firm partner and she is a managing director at a bank, both making $600,000 annually. But they hated their jobs. So, they wanted to retire now, at age 52.
The problem was that they owned two expensive properties. The advisors were able to show them that if they kept them both, they would run out of money by age 85.
But if they sold one and put the money in retirement accounts, they could retire today. If they worked for five more years, they could keep both.
“So now, it’s no longer a numbers question for the family,” Edwards said. “It’s a values question. Which do we value more? Retiring early or keeping the big country house?”
During the meeting, the advisors can instantly model any scenario the clients might imagine.
Going paperless and building processes
Edwards began his career a little on the geeky side. He started with Morgan Stanley in the early 1980s in systems, bringing his math degree to bear. Although he had a head start in computers and had done programming until the early ’90s, he was relatively late to digitizing his practice.
His office went paperless three years ago, as he was adding staff and ramping up business. He instituted processes for new business and worked backward to digitize existing records.
Edwards’ early career at Morgan Stanley came in handy in figuring out how to systemize his processes. It also gave him an opportunity to assess the value of tasks and eliminate the unnecessary ones.
It was a heavy lift, as going paperless always is, but the work paid off exponentially in the freedom he gained to focus on clients and growing his business. The system and dependable staff made it so he doesn’t even have to go into the office to work.
“I’m not much of a manager — I hire only self-managing people,” Edwards said with a laugh. “We have two offices. I talk with the Midtown office once a day by phone. I don’t need to worry about what they’re doing, because I can see through the CRM, the task management system, exactly what’s going on.”
Now he can travel and still access the tools and data he needs. But even with high-tech support, he still can deal with clients just as he did in his analog days. He uses a paper agenda and writes notes as he goes along the process with clients.
“Then I walk out the door and around the corner or back to my office, or I sit in my car,” he said of his post-meeting process. “I take out my phone and use an application called Mobile Assistant, and dictate five or 10 bullet points into the phone. Eight hours later, I get a transcript prepared by a human being, not by Dragon, because I never was able to get that to work.”
He then edits the document before he uploads it into his CRM as a strategy note. If the list calls for tasks, he creates them in the system and assigns team members.
“Let’s say we decide in our client meeting that we’re going to change the asset allocation from 75 percent stocks to 70 percent. Well, I’ve written that down on a piece of paper, then documented it in Mobile Assistant, and uploaded that into the CRM and created specific tasks for our portfolio manager to change the asset allocation.”
Edwards knows not only that request will be an open item in his portfolio manager’s system the next morning, but also that he’ll get a notification when the manager has completed the task.
“Previously, all that work was contained on about eight to-do lists scattered across my desk,” Edwards said. “And I lived in permanent paranoia that something was overlooked.”
Now, instead of spending 80 percent of his time on administration and 20 percent on his clients, he has reversed that proportion.