Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mrs. Lentz was right: I am disruptive. Clients love me for it, though!

Hold up your hand if you like disruptive innovation! If you love your iPhone or enjoy a flat screen television, you are one of millions who benefit from dramatic changes in the marketplace.

Telephones and televisions have been around for decades, of course, but the old ones are nothing like the new ones. In fact, in a few very short years, traditional models are forever gone. Consumers – folks like you or me – love new products and services. Businesses, especially ones steeped in those old products and service models, don’t share our giddiness.

Banks and brokers are slow to adapt. Rapid changes in technology make some inroads, but ATM machines and on-line banking haven’t replaced the branch bank on every urban corner. Brokerage firms (well the ones that have survived, anyway) still manufacture investment products and rely on captive brokers to sell them to investors. Debit cards haven’t replaced checking accounts, and the sales commission still reigns as king of the brokerage compensation model.

Twice, I’ve been part of disruptive innovation in my home town (St. Joseph, Missouri). Both times, we changed some things forever, but not enough to satisfy me! The first time was in the late 1980s, when four of us founded an independent trust company. Trust services are a specialty financial service, and you probably don’t remember or care about the details. Let’s just say that other banks in our city and region weren’t especially pleased with our early success.

Ten years later, I left that trust company to start Family Investment Center. I grew frustrated because we couldn’t keep up with consumer-friendly technology (even in a firm I founded, for crying out loud). That was 1998 and our investment clients didn’t have on-line access, checking/debit privileges, auto-deposit or withdrawal to other accounts, or a host of other things we take for granted today. I could see them coming, just couldn’t provide them through the trust company platform.

So I left to start something better and, again, the bankers weren’t happy. This time, however, the brokers weren’t happy either. The RIA model we adopted was both commission-free and highly-regulated, putting us in direct competition with both groups. It was disruptive to the status quo and I discovered quickly and painfully that many important people in St. Joseph had financial and social ties to that old order!

Funny thing, though. Consumers loved us from the very start. One former colleague famously predicted that “Dan won’t last six months in the business.” That was 1998, and we never even looked back. The truth is that we’ve grown progressively over years where many traditional providers have lost clients, lost support staff, and lost quality professionals. Today, we are the only independent, locally-owned, commission-free, registered advisory firm in this city. No locally-owned bank trust departments or brokerage firms, either.

That’s nice and it makes us proud. What makes us even prouder is that consumers put us here. We’ve enjoyed little institutional support in building this company. Many of the groups and businesses who ordinarily support entrepreneurial effort have financial or social ties to our older competitors. No worries, though, consumers love us and that’s all we needed to thrive. National newspapers, journals, and trade groups appreciate us, too, and that has helped spread the word.

It turns out that disruptive innovation is pretty popular with the people who really matter – clients.

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