Editor’s note: In this edition of What’s Working Now, an AdvisorRADIO feature in which Horsesmouth members tell us about recent success they have had running and growing their businesses, we hear from advisor Laura Basballe, who enjoys the Horsesmouth Master Membership for its wealth of resources and educational opportunities.
The following article includes edited excerpts of Laura’s interview.
Advisor: Laura Basballe
Years in business: 22
Firm: Focus Financial—The Basballe Group
What’s working now: Using the Horsesmouth Master Membership to leverage marketing and education opportunities.
I’ve always been in a “helping profession,” from waitressing at a family restaurant through college then after graduation working with special needs people and supervising educational programs to help them learn to be more independent.
Then I turned 30 and realized I didn’t want to be in social service work for the rest of my career. I had a financial advisor at the time, and he told me that with my people skills and educational background, he thought I would make a good transition to financial advising. And 22 years later, here I am, running a thriving financial practice.
A household name at the airport
My office is in the Minneapolis-Twin Cities area, roughly 10 miles south of the Mall of America. Minneapolis is a major airport hub and over the past 10 years or so I’ve found my way into a niche of working with airport workers—not pilots, but ramp ground crew, flight attendants, and so on. I’ve become very familiar with their pension programs and 401(k)s. But I am able to help a wider swath of people who come to me.
It wasn’t a planned decision to fall into this niche, but more serendipity. Eighteen years ago another advisor was leaving the industry, and he had maybe 10 “small clients”—less than $1 million—that he wanted me to take over. One of those clients worked for Delta Air Lines at the time, and he came in wanting to have a conversation about his 401(k). He considered himself to be a fairly knowledgeable person, but the number of choices offered was a bit beyond him and he wanted someone he could just talk ideas with.
Long story short, he was very well connected within the airlines, and started talking to his coworkers about all I was doing for him and referring them to me. I’ve become somewhat of a household name out at the airport, and I would get two or three referrals a month. Generally when prospects call they start with “So and so and I were talking about our 401(k)s and he said I needed to call you.”
It’s been amazing, and that’s really how I’ve grown my practice over the last 10-12 years. Probably right now airline employees make up 40%-50% of my overall practice, both retired and current employees. Then they start referring their adult children to me as they graduate from college, and it’s more organic growth. It might have started as airline employees but we’re growing leaps and bounds above that because my clients want their extended family to have that same type of high-touch, fast turnaround, clear communication, and service-oriented working relationship with me.
Proving actionable knowledge
I would say most of my clients are blue-collar middle class. They’re busy raising families, trying to do the best that they can every day. They know finances are important, but they would rather delegate them to someone else. I’ve become a “delegator” type of financial advisor where I focus on financial planning. Yes, we do a lot of asset allocation within 401(k) plans, but it’s really about helping people in any area of their lives where finances cause them stress and confusion. They want to work with someone their friends have worked with, someone they can trust. They just want to turn it over.
When clients hire me I tell them I will be their chief financial officer, but they will still be the CEO, they get to make the yes or no decisions. My job is to assimilate, analyze, bring research to them and make it into bullet points. They can just say, “I want that; that sounds good.”
The longer I do this, the more comfortable I get in my own skin, I find that I’m much better able to use my own life experiences in working with these clients and basically telling them what they need to do. I break everything into action steps, since they want someone who can just point them in the direction they need to go. They trust me to do the right thing for them, but they don’t know where to turn because they’re being bombarded by financial information left and right and they have no way to filter that into real, actionable knowledge. That’s what they’re coming to me for.
I have a fee-for-service model, since, as most advisors know, we cannot charge an assets under management fee for 401(k)s, but I can charge a financial planning fee or a consultation fee where we can give general advice and help people build up their allocation. The airline employees have a Fidelity 401(k) platform and Fidelity has the brokerage link option, but I’ve been able to drum up a lot of referral business because people want more than just the cookie cutter choices they get within the core 401(k). They really do want a more specialized focus for their investments, whether that be more dividend income, more risk protection using stop loss orders or stop limit orders.
So they come in with a particular pain point, wanting to know about their 401(k) and what they can do to make it work better. But from there it evolves into looking at benefit plans for the spouse too, and all of their other financial planning needs. The 401(k) is basically the entryway into the conversation. They seek me out for that specific thing, but then as we talk we find out that they have all these other questions, like looking over an insurance policy or helping spouses integrate a benefit plan in the best way possible.
So much more than investments
Like I said, a lot of the airline employees I work with are blue-collar middle class, and while they have a superficial knowledge of finances, they’ve never had a true financial planning relationship. They might have had somebody at the bank who put them into a mutual fund but never calls. They’re surprised when they hear from me, or hear from their coworkers, “Wow, Laura takes proactive steps to let you know you should be changing your withholding after the new tax act, and whether you should be doing a Roth 401(k) instead of a pretax 401(k)?”
I think if you ask most people, “What does a financial advisor do?” they would answer, “handle investments.” But once they’ve sat down with someone like me who takes an interest in all areas of their financial life, they realize that, wow, financial planning is really so much more than just the investments, it’s making sure you’ve got the right tax strategy and benefits in place.
Part of what has made me a good advisor are the people skills I learned along the way, all the way back to being a waitress. I learned how to draw people into conversations and find out what their stress points are, which is very similar to what I do today with clients.
I think that’s why my practice continues to grow. People aren’t getting that type of service and knowledge in a whole package from anywhere else. Or they might have had bad experiences in the past. That’s why they are pleasantly surprised when they come to me, and they’re very loyal. Most of my clients have been with me for 15+ years. I rarely see a client leave my practice, because we’re able to meet their needs and they are very loyal. I earn their business.
Like a peer group advising me
I’m a solo practice, but I’m within a larger firm, and that firm is part of the broker dealer Royal Alliance Advisor Group. I’ve been with the same firm my entire financial planning career, but I would say it has been trial and error. I did not have a mentor, so I’ve kind of had to learn a lot of stuff on my own. I’ve always been education-oriented. I want to do my job to the best of my ability for my clients and for me that means staying on top of current strategies that other advisors are using and finding best practices that I can emulate and bring to my clients.
Then there is the challenge of staying on top of day-to-day compliance stuff. I wanted to know, where do I go to get all the information I want so I can serve my clients as well as I can? I started out with Horsesmouth a few years ago, one Savvy program here, one there, and the Daily Oats newsletter. That’s part of my routine every morning, the first thing I do when I get into the office: I scan through my Daily Oats and read through the practice management articles.
Horsesmouth and now the Master Membership make me feel that I have a peer group advising me. I can learn “Debra Taylor is doing this” or “Jeffrey Levine is giving advice on tax planning.” I find resources there that I’m not able to get from my broker dealer, or at least not packaged in a client-friendly way.
Horsesmouth helps me meet the challenge of bringing best practices to my clients, and they package it so effectively and competently that I can access it anywhere—the airport, a hotel, here at the office, or in a coffee shop reading up on the latest Debra Taylor article or Charles Sherry’s monthly market update with talking points for my clients. It gives me a way to keep my professionalism at the top of the game so my clients get the benefit. They feel confident when they call me with a question and I can give them an answer because I’m using all of my Horsesmouth materials. If I don’t know the answer right away I have a deep well of articles that I can go and research and call the client back later. It’s been just an invaluable resource.
Custom marketing materials at my fingertips
In addition to building my confidence level and giving me access to all this research, a key piece is the materials I can order through Horsesmouth and all of the different programs. There is no better way, and I’ve been in the business for 22 years. The level of customization and branding for Key Financial Data, the Retirement Calendar Checklist, and other handouts gives me a leg up in terms of looking very, very professional.
They make great takeaways, and I put a lot of those trifolds into my new client welcome folders and when I do educational workshops or my local Chamber of Commerce events. I think any advisor would be head and shoulders above the rest of your competition with these materials. There’s no way I could produce those materials in house and have it look as good as it does at the price I pay Horsesmouth to do it for me.
Education for me and my clients
I haven’t done a lot of workshops before because I haven’t had the infrastructure in my practice to be able to do so, but now I’ve got team members and I’ve reached another level of stability. I can now spend more time doing marketing and client education work. I enjoy the discount my Master Membership gives me on advisor workshops, and I’m definitely looking forward to coming to the Financial Educator Marketing Workshop in Chicago.
I think it’s going to be time well spent. It’s so worthwhile for me to absorb your knowledge so that I don’t have to recreate the wheel. Why not learn from people who have done it before, so that I can maximize my time? What I really want to do is spend my time educating people. I don’t want to have to learn all the ins and outs of how to do it, if Horsesmouth has a template for me to follow and add my own touch.
I’ll admit, I don’t use all of the programs included in the Master Membership, but those that are in my wheelhouse—Savvy Tax Planning, Savvy IRA, Savvy Social Security—are more than enough to keep me busy. I have contacts at a local senior center and my Chamber of Commerce membership, which gives me the ability to do workshops for women in the baby boomer/early Gen X age group, who are starting to have questions like, “Am I supposed to be doing a health savings account or just my normal health insurance plan?” “Should I be doing that Roth 401(k)?” “Help, I don’t know what I’m doing!”
Inoculate yourself against robos
At the end of the day, financial advisors are never going to go away, because people will always crave that deep personal connection. They want to talk to someone face to face, someone who really gets what their life experience is. And they’re willing to pay for that. For me, doing the workshops and investing in the Horsesmouth Master Membership is inoculating myself against further robo competition. No other system, no robo is going to be able to compete with what you learn there and how you can turn that around to your clients to give them the deep knowledge and relationships that they’re looking for.
Again, I’ll say that my Master Membership gives me so much internal confidence knowing that I’ve got so much research behind me. But you get out of Horsesmouth what you’re willing to put into it. It’s not a magic bullet, you have to work at it. When I first started using it, it was mostly about marketing and branding, getting my logo and headshot out there so people knew who I was in the community. Now I’m going a bit deeper and getting more into using the Master Membership for educating and broader marketing, not just to my current clients, but to a whole new group of warm prospects, or people who haven’t been exposed to any type of financial planning at all.
For the amount Master Membership costs, if you’re willing to put the time into it, you can make it work for you and see really strong results. There’s no more cost-effective way to get that level of expertise and professional marketing materials. If people really use it as part of their overall business marketing plan, I think they would be very pleased with their results.