Suit? Khakis? Financial advisers ponder the power of pinstripes

Dressing up can help - except if your clients are in flip-flops

Jan 31, 2010 @ 12:01 am

By Lisa Shidler

If there were a “Dress for Success” guide for financial advisers, its take-away message well might be: Dress the way your target market believes you should dress.

Consider adviser Jack Russell, president of Lexington, Ky.-based Russell Capital Management, which manages $400 million in assets.

Mr. Russell wears a suit to the office every day and keeps his jacket on when meeting with clients, though he occasionally works in shirtsleeves if he's alone in the office.

“I don't care if I were working in Miami; I'd still wear a coat and a tie,” he said. “If a guy comes in after me in jeans and sloppy attire, who do you think is going to get the client's business?”

The experts, who say that advisers continually ask them about appropriate attire, tend to agree with Mr. Russell.

“It's a positioning issue,” said Richard Weylman, president of an eponymous consulting firm for advisers. “One of the greatest mistakes advisers make is being underdressed. The reality is that dressing casual sends an unprofessional message.”

Consultant Mary Dunlap, whose eponymous firm works with about 50 advisers, believes that financial professionals can be flexible as long as their style of dress fits their clients.

“It all depends on the region of the country and the culture of the particular area,” she said. “Maybe advisers should talk to their top clients and see how they feel about it.”

Cale Smith realized he had to change his style four years ago when he moved from Washington to the Florida Keys. The self-described “yuppie workaholic” brought along his wardrobe of dress pants and button-down shirts and immediately felt out of place.

“People gave me odd looks and thought I was a salesman,” said Mr. Smith, who is the managing partner of Islamorada Investment Management, where he manages two portfolios totaling $7 million in assets.

To fit in with his clientele, Mr. Smith changed his wardrobe to the more casual Keys style and sometimes even wears blue jeans and flip-flops to the office.

“If someone can show me the correlation between wearing a suit every day and portfolio returns, I'd be happy to wear a suit — despite the odd looks I'd get around town,” he said. “Around here, everyone is focused on performance, and that is all that matters.”

Perhaps performance is what really matters north of Key Largo, too, but performance delivered in a suit and tie seems to be a more successful combination.

Ted Feight, president of Lansing, Mich.-based Creative Financial Design, which manages $25 million in assets, said that wearing a dark- blue pinstriped suit with a white shirt and tie increases his chance of landing a client by as much as 50%.

Jay R. Brennan, a certified financial planner, CPA and president of Brennan Financial Group in Princeton, N.J., admits that wearing “dressy casual” — nice slacks and polo shirts — may have cost him a few potential clients.

“I'm a casual person who be-lieves that if I wear a suit, I come across as stuffy and out of touch,” said Mr. Brennan, whose firm manages about $20 million in assets. “I like to believe that I provide substance, and hope that prospects and clients are not judging me by my attire but on what I provide.”

Vying for honors as having the most fastidious advisers could be Briaud Financial Advisers Inc. in Bryan, Texas, where clients often comment positively about staff attire. Thanks for that goes to receptionist Kimberly Breedlove, a self-described fashion queen who rides herd on the 11 members of the firm.

Once, she had to tell a female co-worker that the top she was wearing was a bit too tight.

“It was a little awkward,” she said. “I explained that what you wear is connected to the image of the company. She was fine with it.”

E-mail Lisa Shidler at lshidler@investmentnews.com.

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