Creating a niche practice makes it easy to build business

Jun 19, 2011 @ 12:01 am

By Jessica Toonkel

James Barnette Jr. never had trouble getting clients, largely because he focused on a very specific niche: providing retirement plans to American educators who work abroad.

In his previous career, he lived in a small German town — Geilen Kirchen — working with Unisys Corp. as the financial manager on a NATO contract. While still living in Germany, Mr. Barnette decided to go on his own as a financial adviser.

“I tapped into this group that specializes in working with Americans overseas, and this kind of became my niche market,” he said.

Because Mr. Barnette focuses on such a specific niche and has little competition, it has been easy to find clients by tapping organizations that serve international educators. For example, a few years ago, he signed a deal in which International Schools Services, a nonprofit organization that serves American international schools overseas, refers clients to him.

“That's 50% of my business today,” Mr. Barnette said.

Because he has so many referrals coming in, he learned quickly that to keep his business running smoothly, he had to hire a staff and they couldn't be just paper-pushers.

“I realized I needed people who I would feel comfortable with handling my clients' issues,” Mr. Barnette said.

An independent adviser with Raymond James Financial Services Inc., Mr. Barnette, who is based in Sterling, Va., has a staff of 13 people, five of whom are certified financial planners. Two others are in a CFP training program.

Mr. Barnette also has learned that outsourcing money management duties has helped him focus more on client issues.

“It's really interesting, 24 years ago when I first got into the business, I spent a lot of time doing research and picking stocks,” he said.

Today, the firm uses many of Raymond James' managed-account programs.

“I am trying really to spend my time meeting with the clients,” Mr. Barnette said.

As he has built his business, he has learned the hard way that not all clients are good clients.

“I used to want to make everyone a client,” Mr. Barnette said.

Now the firm is pickier, opting for clients with at least six figures to invest.

“We don't have investment minimums, but most of our clients today have large-six-figure or seven-figure accounts,” Mr. Barnette said.

His firm has $240 million in assets under management.

And though Mr. Barnette, 52, is a veteran, he has no plans to stop. “I anticipate doing this for another 20 years,” he said.

E-mail Jessica Toonkel at jtoonkel@investmentnews.com.

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