Curt Anderson, a financial advisor at Busey Bank, a small regional bank headquartered in Champaign, Ill., with 37 branches in that state, Indiana and southwest Florida, used to be a corporate president. But as many others can attest, "Being president isn't all it's cracked up to be," Anderson says.
Anderson headed up First Busey Securities Inc., a wholly owned broker-dealer subsidiary of Busey Bank, until 2007. That's when the bank decided to keep regulation and compliance costs down by shutting down the independent broker-dealer and going with a third-party firm. "I don't miss being president of a company," says Anderson. "Not being president frees me up to focus on my clients."
Not being president of a broker-dealer operation certainly didn't put Anderson in the poor house, either. In the last 12 months ended in August, he says his production was $830,000, which was up 40% from the prior 12-month period. But it didn't add to his free time, either. With more than 800 clients and 1,200 accounts, he certainly has his hands full.
But Anderson didn't start out to become a president or even a financial advisor. After graduating in 1977 with a degree in finance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the Danville, Ill., native was focused on law school. But before he could decide which offer to accept, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. "So I went home to be with my family and started working at my dad's lumber yard." He later went to work at a steel mill in the area. "But my brother was in a bank, and that looked kind of attractive to me," he recalls. "So in 1984, I took a job with Busey Bank, commuting to Champaign from Danville for two years before finally moving there in 1986."
Initially Anderson was hired as a personal banker on the trust side of Busey's wealth management unit. "I moved quickly from there to the investment side," he says. "It interested me more, and nobody was doing it at the time. You had lots of people back then who wanted to be commercial lenders, but not financial advisors."
Anderson had the job of building up the investment management side. Basically he says, wealth advising was handled by the trust side of the operation, and dealt with clients who had more than $1 million in assets to invest. The investment services side handles people with less than $1 million in assets.
"I'd like to say I got most of my first clients through referrals by the bank, but the truth is at first there was a lot of concern at the bank about the investment program getting people to pull money from the bank. So what we started out doing was a lot of financial planning-in fact my first title was financial planner."
He says that led to frustration all around. "I'd start talking but then people would get exasperated at the end when you'd recommend where they should invest, and we couldn't help them to do it... It was like taking your car to a mechanic who didn't own a garage."
So the bank started bringing in experts and building up services to support the financial planning process. That led to the founding of a wholly owned broker-dealer, First Busey Securities. "It was an exciting time," recalls Anderson. "We were the first bank to do something like this in Illinois, and we actually had the big banks in Chicago sending people down to look at how we had done it. Even Sam Walton flew his son Jim in to look at us, because they were interested in setting up a broker-dealer."
Anderson says getting the operation going wasn't easy. "To get clients, we just did everything we could to get our names out there in the community," he says. "In the 1980s, remember, people didn't take bank brokerages seriously. If they had serious money to invest, they'd go to a Merrill Lynch or Smith Barney. So we had to overcome a prejudice that we wouldn't have the resources to do the job."
He started doing market reports for a local radio station-something they still do every day. They got on local television too. Then there were weekly investment seminars and, of course, visits to every business and civic organization Anderson could find-Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce and so forth. "This is a people business," he explains. "People want to work with people they know and trust, but you have to earn your clients one at a time."
He says, "One of my proudest moments, and when I knew we'd made it, was when a polling organization came to town, and they reported that when they asked people, 'Who do you think of when you think of financial services?,' the answer was Busey Wealth Management."
Interestingly, Anderson says he has seen his own advisory business blossom in the wake of the financial crisis, even as investors have been pulling money out of stocks and even bonds. Between 2009 and 2010, he saw his clientele grow, and his production rose from $570,000 to $800,000, a 40% gain. The pace of growth has continued, with production for the last seven months running at an $830,000 annual pace.
"I believe you can actually enhance your business in hard times," Anderson explains. "When the market is doing the heavy lifting, like it was in the 1990s, people just sit in funds. But in hard times, clients are concerned about whether they can retire, getting laid off from their jobs or losing a lot of money."
So, he says, "We did three things."
First, "We migrated to fee-based management. We're also introducing alternative assets into portfolios, and our clients appreciate that," he says. He noted that fees, about 1% to 1.25%, are kept to a minimum.
Second, "We've redoubled efforts to get in front of clients." He says he hired someone to handle trades, track down lost paychecks or Social Security checks, and to get people to the advisor. Letters are sent regularly to clients, whom he sees at least two to four times a year.
Third, "We've refocused on financial planning." Anderson says he doesn't have to personally research client information. "We have a unit that pulls all that information together. I just put it in front of a client."
There's also an incentive program in place at the bank. Bank employees aren't paid a bounty on a per-referral basis. Rather, at the end of the year, if they reach a certain number of referrals, they get an annual bonus. Anderson notes that the bonus works both ways. "If I refer a certain amount of business to other parts of the bank, I get an annual bonus too," he says. Still, he estimates that only 20% of his clients come to him through bank referrals. The vast majority, close to 80%, are referred by existing clients.
But Anderson is particularly proud of his nearly 70 physician clients. "We have the Carle Clinic here, one of the largest medical clinics in the world." Doctors, he says, are a special type of client. "They are difficult to get to," he explains, "because they're bombarded by people trying to sell them stuff and so they sort of put up a wall. But I've learned that if you can get through that wall with one doctor, then you end up getting all the doctors in that area because they all know one another."
Interestingly, Anderson sees himself as an "investment doctor," of sorts. "Being a financial advisor you become a part of people's lives, sort of like a family doctor." He gives an example of a client he met for the first time just this past month. "He was an attorney I met in Florida," says Anderson. "He had all his investments someplace else than our bank, and just a checking account with Busey. His investments were with three different firms-all wirehouses. But nobody ever sat down with him and went over his retirement planning, and yet he wanted to retire next year."
Anderson found out the attorney had no idea what his portfolio was costing him. He'd never thought about it. "I said, 'I want to do a risk-and cost-audit of your portfolio.' That got his attention." It turned out that while the man's portfolio was reasonably well structured, it was costing him over 4% a year. "He had no idea."
Anderson showed him how he could reduce that cost, and also assured him that he was in good shape to retire immediately if he wanted. "They're moving all their assets to us now, and his wife came and told me how happy she was for what we'd done," he says.
He adds, "Of course, there are times you have to tell people the bad news that they need to work longer to retire, but it's really fun when someone tells you they're going to have to work until they're 70, and you look at their assets and you can say, "No you don't. You can keep working, but only if you really want to. You can retire right now."