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Case Studies

First Form a Plan

Keep your goals and strategy up front to help focus marketing and development efforts.

By Bert Schweizer III
October 2006

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
The most valuable service trusted CPA investment advisers bring to clients is a clear direction. A business plan helps provide a road map—a sound investment approach based on the tenets of prudent investing—and the discipline to stay the course.

A PFP-niche business plan should contain a mission statement, positioning statement, value proposition, investment approach, competitive advantage(s), implementation resources, implementation steps and financial projections.

The type of investment approach a PFP practice advocates is the most important decision it will make. Strategic alliances can increase a firm’s scope of services.

Marketing financial services requires a clear goal, a methodology, client and staff education and implementation. Choose a champion to organize development.

A firm should adhere to client confidentiality guidelines regarding details such as individual clients’ assets under management, but sharing internal financial information can earn employees’ trust. Success stories inspire and teach others within the firm.

Firmwide awareness of your strategic plans also benefits your clients, who receive a relatively consistent message no matter with whom they speak.

Bert Schweizer III, CPA/PFS, is a principal and founder of St. Louis-based Buckingham Asset Management Inc./BAM Advisor Services LLC ( www.bamservices.com ).


uilding a business plan for a registered investment advisory (RIA) firm isn’t just about pursuing wealth. It’s about helping your clients achieve carefully planned life objectives and in so doing fulfilling professional goals in which you take pride.

When three colleagues and I founded Buckingham Asset Management in 1994, two of us were CPAs with PFS designations. One associate assisted us with everything from answering phones to portfolio reporting. Today we have 12 principals and more than 65 associates. In 1997 we added BAM Advisor Services LLC to provide support services to other investment advisers, now more than 100 mostly CPA/PFS affiliates. In 2001 we added Bemiston Insurance Services LLC to address risk management needs.

The point: None of this would have been possible without careful planning from investment, business and marketing perspectives—that is, a business plan. Such early attention can help practitioners control the growth of a personal financial planning (PFP) niche rather than letting it take control of them. This article describes the major steps we followed to develop a business plan and the key marketing efforts that helped us achieve it.

No Single Formula

Business plans vary with business types, but all of them need to

Describe the business.
Outline the marketing strategy.
Secure and allocate finances.
Have a management strategy.

Source: Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov/starting_business/planning/writingplan.html .


BUILD A PLAN TO GROW
A PFP-niche business plan should contain these key components: a mission statement, positioning statement, value proposition, investment approach, your competitive advantage(s), implementation resources, implementation steps and financial projections. You may wish to prepare your plan at a firm retreat, with or without professional assistance.

Mission statement. Articulate your firm’s mission briefly (in no more than five sentences) and define the issues you consider critical to success. These issues vary by firm and could be a philanthropic accomplishment or financial metrics such as meeting a growth target for clients or assets under management.

Positioning statement. Identify the niche markets upon which you intend to focus, the specific investment approaches you plan to use and your firm’s unique features. Explain how and why each point is important to your niche market(s) in a few sentences. One of our message points is, “We are poised for growth.” We often work with a consultant (Maring/Weissman) on our positioning statements, related message points and taglines.

Value proposition. Simply put, outline why your service will be the best.

Investment approach. Write a paragraph on the investment approach you will recommend to your clients. Because of the immense range of options and related licensing requirements, this is absolutely your most important decision. Research it carefully and don’t proceed until you clearly define it.

We chose a fee-only structure and passive asset class investing. Asset classes are investment categories such as U.S. large growth, international small value, fixed income or equity. Long-term data exist for most asset classes and allow for risk and performance estimates. A passive asset class investment portfolio holds assets diversified by type and rebalances them infrequently (unlike active management, which seeks to outperform the market via stock selection or timing). Choosing passive asset class investing helped us select fund manager alliances based on whether they could implement our strategies.

Competitive advantages. Next, in a few brief paragraphs describe

How you will measure success.

Your major competition.

The advantages that will enable you to succeed over that competition in your target niche.

The reasons why investors will want to work with you.

Implementation resources. Identify the major strategic alliances you intend to use to achieve your mission. In a few paragraphs, describe those candidates’ advantages over their competitors. Broad categories include fund providers, financial custodians, back-office support, compliance support and allies offering services that complement yours (such as risk management tools, retirement plan services and marketing support).

List the services they will enable you to offer or improve upon and how those services will benefit your clients and firm. A turnkey asset management provider should be able to provide many of those services in a single relationship.
Alliances have been a big part of our growth. Typically we get word-of-mouth referrals and make our choice after extensive due diligence and a period of getting to know one another to confirm the relationship is a good fit. Allying with firms whose services and personality complement yours increases the depth of your organization.

Implementation steps. Defining specific marketing goals in your business plan helps you move efficiently into implementation. Make bullet-point lists of specific, measurable plans to

Grow assets under management (AUM) by X% over Y period of time (three-year projections are typical).

Implement related plans according to a defined schedule.

Educate prospects about your investment approach. List outreach goals such as the number of calls to place or the number of meetings to hold per week or per month.

Create awareness and excitement throughout your network of affiliates via scheduled programs such as talks, dinner meetings or other professional events.

Complete any other specific steps your PFP firm will take to form a unified team to fully support its mission.

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR ACTION
A formal, written business plan provides a living document to guide your first steps, measure achievements as you proceed and revisit as you evolve and grow. But words are no substitute for action. Among the best practices for rapid and satisfying firm growth, we found “Measure twice, cut once” is a wise saying that applies. Expend extra effort early to grow purposefully over the long term. In roughly chronological order our best practices are

Assign a niche champion.

Get firmwide buy-in.

Educate all your employees about the new service on an ongoing basis.

Create and educate a client base.

Implement your investment strategies to lead by example.

Establish and define ongoing plans.

Define your champion. Part of your marketing plan should be to identify a firm champion to spearhead your particular RIA services. Define the individual’s role and describe what he or she will accomplish in a measurable way. List the educational steps he or she will undertake to become a strong PFP leader. These include books to read, seminars to attend and credentials to achieve. Then describe the programs he or she will implement to coach the rest of the PFP team.

Get firmwide buy-in. Put your RIA goals in writing, develop a program to educate your firm’s leadership about your efforts, and ask them to read and sign off on your documented goals.

BAM Advisor Services, in alliance with Fidelity Investments, cosponsored a 2005 study to identify the characteristics that contribute to a firm’s fast growth. The study concluded that CPA firms that had unanimous management buy-in for their investment advisory practice experienced 53% higher annual revenue than firms where not all of management had bought into the concept.

Educate employees. Provide the same level of education for your employees as you do for your clients. Your success hinges on having all employees row the boat in the same direction, so they naturally have to know which way the boat is headed.

We encourage Buckingham associates at all levels to be aware of our firm’s annual goals as well as our financial overview. We hold quarterly company-wide meetings to provide significant updates and answer employees’ questions. Sharing information earns their trust. While still maintaining client confidentiality regarding details about clients’ assets under management, you can share success stories to inspire and instruct your staff. Stress to them the critical importance of firmwide client service in the new and existing practice areas.

Firmwide awareness of your strategic plans also benefits your clients, who receive a relatively consistent message from everyone with whom they speak. Always alert your staff you want the information you share with them to remain confidential to the firm—and always protect client confidentiality in accordance with your fiduciary obligations.

Create and educate a client base. Describe the places you plan to market your RIA firm, such as to existing CPA firm clients. ( Caveat : Outline any regulatory requirements that govern accessing your firm’s client information.)

Beginning with the firm’s current client list, develop an ideal-prospect profile and build a prospect list. Rank those who meet the ideal-client profile in order of suitability and use the list as a guide for contacting them. Meet with as many of those on the list as possible.

There also are extensive techniques for identifying and targeting specific niche markets within the high-net-worth community. CEG Worldwide LLC training addresses this in a “cultivating the affluent” program that we have used ( www.cegworldwide.com ).

We found that our best clients are individuals who understand and agree with our passive asset class investment approach. A little education can go a long way here. For example, either before or after they are clients,

Develop (and trademark) a tagline that you repeatedly share with your clients. Make it a mantra until they repeat it by reflex when someone asks about your firm. It could be something like, “We make a commitment to quality.”

Produce client and prospective client letters, newsletters and other regular “touches.”

Explain the merits of your investment strategy.

Emphasize the importance of transparent fee and expense structures, so clients can make informed decisions regarding their investments.

Explain that among the most valuable services an investment adviser can provide is the discipline to remain focused on the investment approach when market fluctuations might otherwise steer them off course.

Implement your investment strategies. One obvious but often overlooked strategy is to invest assets for the CPA firm principals and employees, or the company’s 401(k) retirement plan, according to the investment approach defined in your business plan. This demonstrates to clients that you strongly believe in the approach you recommend and helps build your experience and your assets under management.

Establish and define ongoing plans. Make a weekly or monthly schedule of contact calls, prospect meetings and referrals, reviewing internal clients’ needs, meeting with clients outside the office, educating employees, developing marketing materials and identifying additional marketing opportunities.

Practical Tips
Develop target prospects from your current client list.

Communicate technical and analytical information in easy-to-understand language to team members and clients.

Regularly revisit and revise your business plan.


WHICH WAY NOW?
Growth doesn’t happen by accident. Perhaps the most valuable service trusted CPA investment advisers bring to clients is a clear direction. A business plan provides a road map—a sound investment approach based on the tenets of prudent investing—and the discipline to stay the course. With its help we now are an organization with more than $6 billion in combined assets served. And we remain true to our original goal, to implement an investment approach that meets our clients’ long-term financial aspirations.

 
AICPA RESOURCES

AICPA Professional Standards, Code of Professional Conduct, www.aicpa.org/about/code/index.html .

Conference
AICPA Personal Financial Planning Conference
January 7–10, 2007
Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino
Las Vegas

Web sites
AICPA Personal Financial Planning Center, http://pfp.aicpa.org .
AICPA Professional Ethics Division,www.aicpa.org/members/div/ethics/index.htm.

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