To serve millennials, advisers must adjust not only fees but their mindset

Advisers have to make accommodations, but some believe the changes are worth it to forge deep and long-term relationships with young clients

Apr 10, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

When it comes to pursuing, and working with young clients, veteran financial adviser Tim Holsworth is decidedly old school.

"I just don't see the point," said the president of AHP Financial Services.

"Generally, I don't believe they have any money," he added. "Any rep that has a lot of millennial clients is either broke or working inside a start-up (robo) firm,"

In a financial planning industry seemingly obsessed with the awesome demographic potential of the millennial generation, Mr. Holsworth might represent an outlier. But that doesn't necessarily mean his insights are off base. Even advisers who have developed entire practices around the 87 million Americans between the ages of 17 and 36 admit it requires a different mindset, service model and fee structure.

"Getting creative with fees and services is what it's all about if you're working with millennial clients," said Eric Roberge, founder of Beyond Your Hammock.

Mr. Roberge said he even wanted to be outside the box when naming his four-year-old advisory firm.

"I designed my firm to work with just this type of younger client, and the appeal is that they aren't 65 years old," he said. "From a business perspective, it's like investing in a bunch of start-ups."

Like a lot of advisers who are embracing millennial clients with designs on deeper and longer-term relationships, Mr. Roberge is getting clients in the door with monthly subscription fees, which he compares to "a monthly gym membership."

But he is also hopeful that client accounts will grow to the point where traditional asset-based fee structures will eventually make sense.

"I think a lot of young people are making good money but are not always making good financial decisions," he said. "If you want to get into the millennial game you have to adjust your fee model, because if somebody has a good-paying job and not a lot saved, I don't' want to turn them away because they're going to be good clients in the future."

To be clear, Mr. Holsworth, who is in his late 50s and has $180 million under advisement, doesn't turn away younger clients, but he does generally service them the way younger clients have always been served, with less-customized and packaged investment strategies.

"We have some children of clients that have IRAs and small trading accounts," he said.

Deliberately overlooking the millennial market goes against the grain of most popular demographic analysis, including the recent J.D. Power Full Service Investor Satisfaction Study.

According to the report, millennials with $100,000 in investible assets control the largest portion of at-risk assets managed by traditional financial advisers. And half of those investors, say they "probably will" or "definitely will" leave their current advisory firm, compared to just 8% saying that among all other generations of investors.

Even if younger investors don't represent that same kind of robust revenue stream as do older and wealthier clients, some advisers just like working with younger people.

"It's hard to fuel a practice just on millennial clients, but I take every chance I get to work with them, and I'm currently looking for more," said Christine Haviaris, an adviser at TTR Wealth Partners.

"For me, the appeal is all about the impact I know my amount of good advice can have on their lives, both present and future," she added. "I also love their intelligence and eagerness to learn and avoid the mistakes they've seen other generations make. Smart cookies, those millennials."

Kylie Felker, chief operating officer at Foster Victor Wealth Advisors, is a millennial adviser with a firm that is unabashedly focused on millennial clients.

Foster Victor was launched a year ago, and about 40% of the clients are millennials, Ms. Felker said.

"Generally, millennials have less assets because they are still in the accumulation phase, so one of the ways we help them is focusing on financial planning, for which we charge an engagement fee," she said.

With less assets to manage, and often saddled with student-loan debt, younger clients are often served through advisory firm relationships with digital platforms.

"Robos are great for smaller accounts," Ms. Felker said, but she added that smaller accounts don't necessarily equate to less work.

"It can often be more work with a newer investor, because a seasoned investor will have already lived through some different market cycles," she added.

While the advice industry has seen the emergence of several firms focusing primarily on the millennial market, a lot of firms are taking a more measured approach to reaching younger clients.

"I was brought on to focus on millennial clients," said Alexander Rupert, the 26-year-old assistant portfolio manager at Laurel Tree Advisors, which bills most millennials on a flat-fee or hourly basis.

At Tri-Star Advisors, investment representative Jonathan Swanburg said millennials represent a "very important" client segment, but still just $5 million of the firm's $130 million under advisement.

"I work with about 25 clients with about $100,000 each," he said.

But the smaller account sizes are not deterring Tri-Star, where all clients are charged the same 1% of assets under management.

Tri-Star recently launched a website aimed specifically at younger investors, Guided Wealth Management.

"We elected to not restructure our fees for smaller accounts," Mr. Swanburg said. "We thought about a retainer model, but decided it would be hard to transition those accounts to fee based once they got larger."

To help make the numbers add up for smaller accounts, Tri-Star is following the lead of other firms by placing lower-cost junior advisers in front of smaller clients.

"These clients are growing faster than the more traditional retirement accounts because they have market returns and they're regularly contributing new money," Mr. Swanburg said. "The numbers work when you are bringing in new financial planners, but it wouldn't work if you were bringing on an adviser making $300,000."

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