Firm finds nirvana as its focus on the new-age market pays off

Abacus Wealth Partners tuned in to 'hippies with money'

Jan 28, 2008 @ 12:01 am

By Charles Paikert

Many financial planners and wealth managers describe their practices as holistic, but few place advertisements in such publications as Shambhala Sun, Yoga Journal and the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. Abacus Wealth Partners LLC is one firm that does, and its focus on a spiritually oriented market appears to have paid off for the Philadelphia- and Los Angeles-based fee-only advisory firm. For instance, assets under management have more than tripled in five years — growing to more than $800 million, from $250 million in 2002.
Describing Abacus' market niche half jokingly as "hippies with money" or "Whole Foods-shopping millionaires," the company's co-founder, Los Angeles-based Brent Kessel, said his firm spends about 4% of its annual revenue on marketing, which includes advertising, public relations and book promotions. With marketing becoming "more and more important" to the firm's continued growth, he said, Abacus last year hired a full-time chief operating officer whose responsibilities include overseeing its marketing budget. Many of the clients Abacus attracts from its ads in publications devoted to yoga and Eastern spiritual practices come, somewhat surprisingly, from "red" states, or those perceived as more conservative, Mr. Kessel said. "They see the ad and see that we have like-minded values," he said. About two-thirds of his client base could be characterized as "socially conscious" or "progressive," Mr. Kessel said. A typical ad that ran in the Buddhist publication Inquiring Mind last year described Abacus as having "Buddhist values" and providing "independent, unbiased financial advice to conscious people across the U.S. who want to use their resources to create good for themselves and others." Robin Blake, a retired public-relations executive in Minneapolis who practices Vipassana meditation, called Abacus last year after seeing an ad in the Shambhala Sun. "I wanted to invest in ways that would be in line with my spiritual practice," she said. Although personal circumstances prevented her from following up with Abacus, Ms. Blake said she was impressed with the firm's website, especially a questionnaire section that categorizes the characteristics of investors. "It was pretty accurate," she said, adding that she may contact the firm again. Most of Abacus' clients (who include, according to Mr. Kessel, "some of the biggest names in entertainment") have investible assets of $3 million or more. But the firm also has a subsidiary, Abacus Portfolio, that offers telephone- and e-mail-based financial planning to clients with as little as $75,000 in investible assets. With a new self-help book, "It's Not About the Money: Unlock Your Money Type to Achieve Spiritual and Financial Abundance," which is scheduled to be published in April by New York-based HarperCollins Publishers, Mr. Kessel is aiming for an even broader audience Abacus' other co-founder, Philadelphia-based Spencer Sherman, who merged his own financial planning firm with Mr. Kessel's in 2003, is completing his own book, "The Cure for Money Madness," which is slated to be published in 2009 by New York-based Random House Inc. "People's behavior patterns and habits are dictated by the unconscious mind much more than their conscious mind," Mr. Kessel said, explaining his philosophy. In his book, he elaborates on the notion of the unconscious mind as an individual's financial "core story," and details a number of "financial archetypes," including: pleasure seeker, idealist, saver and empire builder. The book promises to help readers "access inner and outer wealth," and, in addition to traditional investing advice, includes quotes from spiritual teachers such as the Dalai Lama, Ram Dass and Thich Nhat Hahn. When it comes to investing for his clients, Mr. Kessel favors index funds from Santa Monica-based Dimensional Fund Advisors, global investments, small-cap and value stocks, and funds that aren't correlated to the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. He also emphasizes socially conscious investing, and screens portfolios using a filter from Boston-based KLD Research Analytics Inc. While Abacus advisers spend only about 20% of their time with clients on non-materialistic issues, it's actually "the most pivotal" part of the experience, Mr. Kessel said. "You can sense what's going on emotionally," he said. "A client may be talking about real estate, but what it may really be about is terminal illness. We don't want to try to solve an existential problem with a financial tool." "A lot of what we do is about asking pregnant questions," Mr. Kessel added. "We might ask a high-net-worth client what's driving them to work so hard. It might be considered too in-your-face by other financial planners, but we think the client may not really be getting any marginal fulfillment by following a particular financial habit. We may explore how they break that habit and, for a saver, how they can spend more and give away more."

Szifra Birke, a therapist and wealth and transitions consultant at Lexington (Mass.) Wealth Management Inc., said she is "encouraged and excited by any new work that integrates spirituality, psychology and finance."

"Most financial professionals operate as though finance and emotion are somehow very separate," Ms. Birke said. "But neuroscientists have shown that's hardly the case. When you think about what disturbs our peace of mind, money is one of the top offenders. It is a lightning rod for emotions, so any book, adviser, workshop or other tool we use to reduce our money anxiety is of great benefit."

Charles Paikert can be reached at cpaikert@crain.com.

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