Financial independence has always been a top priority for Sheryl Garrett.
That is why she has strived to bring that same peace of mind to those who don’t meet the minimum account requirements at traditional registered investment adviser firms.
After almost a decade of working at brokerage firms and fee-only financial advisory firms, Ms. Garrett, 50, founded The Garrett Planning Network Inc. in 2000.
The network focuses on offering financial planning to the middle class; instead of meeting account minimums and paying a fee based on assets to see one of the 325 financial advisers in the network, clients are billed hourly.
“Our target client is someone who doesn’t feel like they’re rich,” Ms. Garrett said.
Her model stands in stark contrast to the rest of the financial advice industry, which has been pushing for higher account minimums. Bank of America Merrill Lynch raised its minimum account size to $250,000, from $100,000, early last year, for example.
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Ms. Garrett first got the idea to get into hourly financial planning after having to turn away a couple who didn’t meet the minimum requirement at the firm she was working for.
“I didn’t even have anyone to refer them to,” she said. “I decided I was going to be that outlet.”
Striking out on her own came naturally to Ms. Garrett, who started her first job at 8, working in a neighbor’s greenhouse. She was offered a choice of 50 cents or a plant as payment and ended up choosing the plant.
“I wasn’t always that good with money,” she said.
As a teenager growing up in Kansas, Ms. Garrett did everything from delivering newspapers on horseback to selling greeting cards and candy door-to-door, and even set up a roadside stand to sell grasshoppers by the dozen — asking price: 10 cents.
She didn’t become interested in financial advice until she had a chance encounter with an adviser at a local chamber of commerce mixer.
“She was talking about money, investing and the markets,” Ms. Garrett said. “I was drawn to her and impressed by her.”
So impressed, it turned out, that Ms. Garrett ended up following in the adviser’s footsteps and taking a job at Investors Diversified Services Inc., now part of Ameriprise Financial Inc.
The day-to-day life at IDS didn’t sit well with Ms. Garrett, however.
“We were supposed to be making 100 cold calls a day,” she said.
“I don’t feel that type of service offering gets sold over the phone at dinner hour. I just couldn’t do it,” Ms. Garrett said.
That led her to the fee-only world, where holistic financial planning — not cold calls and product sales — was the focus. That is where Ms. Garrett had her epiphany on working with so-called middle-market clients.
In her first year as an hourly planner, she received three referrals from friends within the financial advice industry of clients who didn’t meet minimum-account requirements. In fact, that is how Ms. Garrett met the majority of her clients.
“All I had to do was pick up the phone,” she said. “Hourly financial planning was that in demand.”
Ms. Garrett doesn’t see any end to the demand. Eventually, she would like to see her 325-person firm grow to about 1,500.
“There’s 125 million to 130 million people in our opportunity pool,” Ms. Garrett said.
“How many advisers does it take to serve just 1% of that?” she said. “There’s a need for this type of service in every community.”
Still, Ms. Garrett doesn’t want the network to grow so large that it loses its sense of community. Today, the members share ideas with one another through webinars, podcasts and regular discussions.
Ms. Garrett has also recently set up a fee-only RIA firm called Garrett Investment Advisors LLC that includes 23 advisers from the Garrett Planning Network. Eventually, she would like it to grow to 40 advisers.
“We’re trying to leverage things as a group and have one person do certain things rather than all of us doing everything,” Ms. Garrett said.
Even with the success of the network, she doesn’t expect to have the middle market all to herself forever, and she is OK with that.
“We do anticipate other organizations doing similar things,” Ms. Garrett said. “That’s the ultimate compliment.”