Scottsdale, Ariz., a seasonal town that is ideal for baseball and golf three-quarters of the year, but unsuitable for human life in the summer, was home this week to Wealth/Stack, a new financial adviser conference that promises to "bridge the gap between technology, investment management and practice management."
Wealth/Stack is the brainchild of Ritholtz Wealth Management executives Josh Brown and Barry Ritholtz, who say they want to address a perceived decline in conference quality with something less formal and less sterile than others. They billed Wealth/Stack, which was co-produced by Inside ETFs, as an event produced by advisers, for advisers.
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Ritholtz Wealth is arguably the most media-savvy registered investment adviser on the planet. It is quoted in industry and consumer-facing press, produces podcasts and YouTube videos, and Mr. Brown, a bona fide celebrity, appears regularly on cable news channels like CNBC. Several of the company's employees are among the most followed personalities on Finance Twitter.
"The Ritholtz team has established a great niche online and huge following, so the next step for them was to do a conference and I am not surprised they sold out [the event]," said financial planner George Papadopoulos.
What I wanted to know as I arrived in Scottsdale was who was attending Wealth/Stack, and why? Conferences aren't cheap when you add up event tickets, plane tickets, hotel costs, meal costs and bar tabs. And fintech is a central topic at most conferences hosted by large financial institutions, not to mention events like T3.
So why attend a brand new conference presented by a popular, yet still relatively small firm?
For some, Wealth/Stack was a chance for "the cool kids" of the advice industry to get together and bro out. There were undeniably a few advisers hoping to meet some of their professional icons and potentially lift their own brand.
For Mr. Papadopoulos, it was the chance to try something different.
"I have been around a long time and I was getting bored with the same boring conferences I usually attend," he said. "I think many younger advisers are really in tune with the edginess and 'cool' feel and, of course, want to be part of the in-crowd, I guess," Mr. Papadopoulos said.
Of course, Wealth/Stack didn't sell out because of the Ritholtz Wealth brand alone.
Wealth/Stack's agenda featured a diverse lineup of industry giants, including United Capital CEO Joe Duran, Consumer Federation of America director of investor protection Barbara Roper, Dynasty Financial Partners' president and CEO Shirl Penney, and several alumni of InvestmentNews' 40 Under 40. Keeping true to the "for advisers, by advisers" ethos, most sessions featured advisers, academics or reporters (Full disclosure: I hosted a panel on building an adviser tech stack.) who shared useful information and strategies, rather than sponsors giving sales pitches.
"Content was great because we are hearing from practitioners," said Manish Khatta, president and chief investment officer of Potomac Fund Management. "Most tech conferences have 10% advisers and 90% product providers. Wealth/Stack does the opposite and is dominated by advisers; you don't feel like a sales pitch is coming to get you at the urinal," he said.
The content engaged attendees. Following a Sunday session on mergers, acquisitions and succession planning, a group of advisers joined me at the hotel bar for football and a discussion on how they had never considered the possibility of selling their firms or acquiring another, but were now thinking about it. Before attending that session, they had thought their businesses were too small to sell or merge.
But for many of the advisers I spoke to, the biggest value of the conference was simply to meet IRL — millennialspeak for "in real life." Nina O'Neal, a partner with Archer Investment Management, said Wealth/Stack provided an opportunity for her study group, which primarily connects digitally, to get together in-person.
"All of the advisers here who I know came to network in-person with people they know from social media or regular media, and get to know them better," Ms. O'Neal said. "I have loved taking the relationships I have made online to face-to-face opportunities to have larger engaging conversations with like-minded people."