If Susan Welo weren't choosy about eating food with tire tracks or paint chips, she would have plenty of pheasant and venison on her table. "The biggest problem I have servicing 10 banks around the state here is the deer and pheasants crossing the road," says the North Dakota financial advisor. She travels an average of 2,200 miles a week year-round through the northern prairie.
Welo, a US Advisors rep, works out of the main office of First State Bank, a 10-branch, $235 million deposit institution in Casselton, N.D.
That's a good 18-mile drive from her home in Fargo, but that's just the beginning. To keep in touch with her burgeoning list of 300 clients at several branches of First State Bank, as well as those at Goose River Bank, a second institution in nearby Mayville with $98 million in deposits, Welo has to stick to an incredibly demanding schedule of visits. "We've gotten it down to a science," she says. "Luckily, I have two awesome assistants—one full-time and one part-time—who do my scheduling. On Mondays, I do one branch, though now that we've added another branch to our list, I'm alternating every other week. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I alternate, doing two banks one week, and one bank the second week. On Thursdays, I have two banks I alternate between, and then on Friday, I spend a half day at each of two smaller banks. I typically see seven people a day," she says.
Welo's assistants will prepare a folder, particularly in the case of new clients, so she can get down to business with them when she reaches her destination. "I've got a great fact-finder sheet, developed from three sheets for banks and other sources. That gives me all the information I need—everything from estate planning to stock trades," she says. With all that information in hand, she's able to move the advising process right along. "Last Tuesday, I opened nine new accounts."
Her secret to success? "We are very good at talking to people and we are very good at conducting reviews."
Welo, who has two grown sons and now a grandchild, says the key to hanging on to her accounts is insisting on annual (or more frequent) reviews. "Even if a client says they don't care, we tell them we must have at least a yearly review of their accounts," she says. "Too often, advisors will just forget about clients who aren't trading. We contact everyone during the first quarter of the year and at least talk with them."
She describes her clients as mid-sized and varied. "I do many $100,000 annuities," she says. "And I'd say when someone can write you a check for $100,000, [he/she] is a mid-sized investor." Many of her clients outside of Fargo are farmers, but she also handles the two banks' 401(k) plans and so she consequently also has the investment business of many of the banks' employees. "We've also been doing more and more small employers," she adds. Plus, many of the farmers in her jurisdiction are incorporating and have several employees. "We're setting up a lot of Simple retirement plans," she says, referring to an IRA plan specially designed for small employers.
In fact, a big part of her job lately has come from a US Advisors program called Preserving Rural America, which is designed for farmers who have a number of children to pass on their farm holdings to. "A lot of our clients are interested in that," she says.
Earlier this year, Welo was honored as US Advisors' top rep, with production in 2010 at $500,000.
Fargo Over-Brokered—Who Knew?
Welo began her career as a bank manager; moved to a wirehouse (PaineWebber); and then, about seven years ago, began working as a bank-based advisor. Remarkably, she says she, "never once had to make a cold call in over 20 years."
With the exception of a book of about 50 private clients who date back to her PaineWebber and bank manager days, she says all her clients have come to her through what she calls "a pretty good bank referral program," or through client referrals. She adds proudly, "Our close ratio is 100%. When there is a referral, we get the new account every time."
It was never Welo's ambition to be an over-the-road financial advisor. That just kind of happened. Originally, when she worked at the wirehouse, she says was invited to offer her services to the clients of the main bank branch of First State Bank in Fargo. "Fargo was pretty over-brokered," she says. "So I decided to add the bank's other branches." That's when her road trips began.
Then the bank manager of Goose River Bank, a related institution that shares its HR office and auditors, as well as several board members, with First State, asked her to work as an advisor there too. The road trips grew longer and more frequent. "I really enjoy it," says Welo. "Every location is different, and I enjoy the interactions with the employees and the customers in each of the different places. Plus, I can walk in, and then walk out. There's no office politics."
Most people might find all that driving draining, but Welo says, "To me, I like it. I can relax on the road."
It also helps that North Dakota is pretty flat. And a state with less than 673,000 residents spread out over an area of 70,700 square miles, there's not that much traffic. "I can drive for an hour sometimes and not see another car," says Welo.
She uses her driving time to the branch offices to plan out the day. No texting or writing, just planning and answering questions from assistants at the home office or from clients she's about to meet. "Okay, it's not so nice in the winter," she acknowledges. "I can't do much planning then because the driving can be pretty difficult." This spring hasn't been too great either, with large swaths of the state under water in mid-April.
The ride home from these run-outs is her down time. "That's when I listen to a lot of music," she says. "I like the radio. Sometimes it will be Christian music, sometimes rock, sometimes Western—it's never the same thing."
She says she tried books on tape once, but gave up when she started daydreaming and dozed off. Fortunately, she didn't crash. A side from a deer she hit last year, she has maintained a spotless driving record. (And, no, she didn't take the deer home as dinner.)
There are a few drawbacks when you drive the rough equivalent of Los Angeles to Cincinnati each week.
One is the gas. Welo, who drives a Lexus SUV in the winter months and a Honda in the summer, says, "These days, gas prices can be significant. I put four full tanks in the car each week, and now that's $75 per tank."
Another drawback: Having to eat on the road so much, as well as all that sitting behind the wheel. "I end up eating in a lot of roadside restaurants," says Welo, who admits to putting on 20 pounds over the course of the past seven years. "I'd pay a lot if someone could invent a way to exercise while you're driving a car," she joked.
Help may be on the way though. Welo, who has been handling this whole job by herself to date, recently hired two financial advisors. "I'm hoping if they work out, and if they can handle the driving, that I'll be able to cut back over the next five years to handling fewer branches," she says.
With any luck, she may be able to start eating some meals at home, and even find some time to go to the gym too.
Banks: First State Bank of North Dakota and Goose River Bank
Location: Casselton and Mayville, ND
2010 production: $500,000
2009 production: $425,000
2010 AUM: $55 million
2009 AUM: $48 million
Production mix: 25% funds; 35% VAs; 20% REITs; 15% stocks; 5% life insurance
No. of clients: 300
No. of branches covered: 11