When James Brewer was seeking his own financial adviser in 2005, he was interested in investing in companies that had a history of hiring African-Americans like himself. One adviser he met with was sympathetic and at one point suggested Mr. Brewer consider becoming a financial adviser. A year later, he did just that.
After earning a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Brewer was told he'd never have to worry about being unemployed. He soon discovered that was not true for African-American graduates. He said he has frequently experienced racism despite his credentials.
After various sales and marketing jobs with technology companies, Mr. Brewer embarked on a career as a financial adviser in 2006 at age 43. He started his new career working for Ameriprise, and in 2009, joined the regional broker Ziegler & Co.
In 2010, Mr. Brewer took the plunge and went independent, afilliating with LPL Financial. Mr. Brewer's business, located in Chicago, is divided into two divisions: Envision Wealth Planning addresses the needs of individuals, while Envision 401k Advisors tends to retirement plans. Mr. Brewer decided to enter the 401(k) space when he realized that some employees "didn't know a stock from a bond" and might have trouble choosing from an investment menu. He believed if he could work with employers, "it would be a more effective way to help people with smaller balances."
To serve those clients with high incomes but few investible assets, Mr. Brewer has fine-tuned an unusual flat-fee structure. He charges a fee based on the complexity of a case, starting at $2,400 for an individual and $3,200 for couples. For those minimums, he spends about six to eight hours creating a plan and further time on maintenance, which breaks down to about $300 to $400 an hour.
"People usually hire me on an ongoing basis to help them implement [their plan] and stay on track," he said.
Mr. Brewer is determined to help African-Americans, but he acknowledges that it can be a struggle to find clients. He said middle-class African-Americans, who are often less affluent than whites, may be interested in his services but may not be "financially fruitful" for him. His frustration is that when he finds minority prospects, "there may just not be enough money there."
Compounding the challenge is the fact that Mr. Brewer lacks a local network, as he's not from Chicago. (He hails from Gary, Ind., but has lived in Michigan, New York and New Jersey.) Despite some obstacles, Mr. Brewer's clientele by last year was 30% African-American. He attributes his success in locating clients to web searches, which identify him as a black adviser.
Mr. Brewer starts by asking new clients about their values, which he tries to integrate into their financial plans. Most favor socially responsible investing, "but I'm not forcing it down their throats," he said. "Many don't even know it is possible or (wrongly) think they might be sacrificing returns."
Mr. Brewer enjoys the mental stimulation of helping people reach their goals. A former colleague from Ziegler, Chuck Self, said he has always been impressed with Mr. Brewer's determination to seek out every available option for his clients. Mr. Self, also an African-American, is chief investment officer for iSectors, an investment management strategy firm.
"JB combines a unique combination of factors: intelligence, curiosity and an intense effort to find the best solutions," Mr. Self said.
He was so impressed, he convinced his own parents to become clients of Mr. Brewer.
Vanessa Drucker is a freelance writer.
This story is part of an ongoing initiative by InvestmentNews to cultivate a financial advice profession in which diverse perspectives are welcomed and respected, and industry best practices can be shared across organizations.