Ordinarily, you might think that having your office-in fact, the entire bank in which your office is located-submerged under 18 feet of water in an epic flood that wipes out all your records would rate as a disaster for a financial advisor. Especially for one who had only set up shop in his current job a year or so earlier. But Keith Laterrade, a New Orleans native who found not just his office but the businesses and homes of nearly all his clients washed away by the flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, says the experience, while daunting, had an upside for him.
The flood and its aftermath "helped me to cement my relationship with my clients," says Laterrade. He explains that when his bank building was taken out, he stayed in touch with his clients via cell phone. The clients, meanwhile, like most residents of the destroyed city, had to evacuate the Big Easy for months and were scattered far and wide across many states, living in refugee centers or with relatives. "They needed access to their bank accounts, access to their investments, and help with applying for small business loans," says Laterrade. At one point, in the wake of Katrina, Gulf Coast Bank & Trust, the community banking where Laterrade works, was one of the country's biggest processors of Small Business Administration-backed loans, he reports.
"Katrina ironically turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to my business," drawls Laterrade. Not that it was easy. Like most people in New Orleans who stayed put, he was busy helping first with the rescue operation and then with the recovery effort. And his cell phone was always ringing. "Almost all my clients had multiple financial relationships and advisors," he says, "but they'd tell me I was the one who would answer their calls."
He recalls one case where a local doctor called him. "This was a guy who, back in 2003 when I was working for Edward Jones, I had knocked on his door hoping to drum up some business. The first time, he had turned me away, but I came back again a couple times, and eventually he gave me $28,000 - a pittance really - to invest. But now he was calling me."
The doctor told him that three of his other brokers and advisors had not been responding to his calls. His own office also had been flooded, and he needed access to his assets. "I answered on the second ring, and he told me he wanted to transfer everything over to me. That ended up being a $2 million relationship," Laterrade recounted.
Besides his own money, Laterrade says the doctor brought him his children as clients. "And there were so many others like that," he says.
It helped, he adds, that LPL Financial, his broker dealer, was "really supportive" through the Katrina crisis, helping him dig up missing records, obtaining client money when needed, and being patient about meeting deadlines. (All his old LPL records had been backed up as PDF files, he says, but legacy data from his work with clients at Edward Jones were lost, as were "current files of clients I was working on."). It also helped that Gulf Coast Bank & Trust wasted no time in getting back in business almost as soon as the water was gone.
"We were on a street with all the banks," he says. "There was Chase, CapitalOne - all the big banks. But our bank was rebuilt and had its doors open within weeks of the storm. We were the first bank back in business after Katrina."
In the end, thanks to his own efforts, the bank's and LPL's efforts, and the can-do attitude of his clients, Laterrade went from having $8 million in assets under management before the storm struck to having $93 million in AUM today, just eight years later.
One advantage for Laterrade in getting back on his feet when the ground dried was that his client base, almost from the beginning, has been 90% small business owners. "There are a lot of people who left New Orleans after Katrina who never came back," he says, "but the small business owners did mostly return. They're the ones who rebuilt this city. And those who came back have been rewarded."
"Helping people with their homes and businesses and with their lives was really something," recalls Laterrade. "It was a challenge in every way, but now I have those people I helped as clients for life." So while that was a tough year and his business fell off substantially, by the very next year, 2006, it was growing again.
The epic Katrina experience continues to be important for Laterrade. "Being a New Orleans native, and having come through Katrina, is central to every relationship," he says. "It's how every conversation with a new client starts out. We all know what we've been through and that we all made that decision to come back to New Orleans."
Laterrade came to Gulf Coast Bank & Trust thanks to the actions of a friend and colleague, Troy Richards. The two men were working as advisors at Edward Jones which had an office adjacent to a Gulf Coast branch. "Troy went out and put an Edward Jones sign right on the front of Gulf Coast Bank's property," recalls Laterrade with a laugh, explaining that Richards figured that way they could land the business of people exiting the bank. Looking back, he assumes that the woman in charge of Gulf Coast's investment program was impressed by their nerve because she offered both of them positions at the bank, and they jumped ship.
At that point, Laterrade says, he decided to work on developing referral relationships with four of the bank's top-performing loan officers with whom he felt compatible. "It made sense," he says. "I came from a family of small-business people, and New Orleans is a small-business town. It only has one Fortune 100 company so the pond I'm fishing in is small business."
He also notes that the bank had developed a niche of small-business owners. So, after looking at the loan officers' production numbers, he settled on four. "After that, it was a five or six-year process. Mostly it was time, and getting my foot in the door."
For starters, he says, he talked about the bank's 401(k) program, "which we were all part of." He says, "I would offer them advice on investments, and they all liked what I was saying. Then they'd ask me if I worked like that for all my clients and when I'd say `Sure!,' they'd open brokerage accounts with me and also entrust me with their own clients. When they realized they could offer my services to their clients, the floodgates of referrals opened."
He also occasionally offers to run informational programs. For example, in the case of one of the lenders he partnered with at the bank, he says he started out managing his money, helping to set up a trust, and arranging a college fund for the man's kids, and discussing the implications of the last year's fiscal cliff crisis with him. "Then I suggested, 'Tell your clients to come in. We'll buy them lunch and discuss what's going on.'" The lender liked the idea and brought in seven of his lending clients. All seven became Laterrade's investment clients. "Two of them were $2 million clients," he says.
Laterrade's aggressive strategic approach to building a practice owes something, he says, to his early days as a goalie on the farm team of world soccer champion Manchester United. A grad student studying international finance abroad in Manchester, he got hired onto the farm team (at a salary of $40,000) where he was known simply as "the Yank."
Two broken legs on the field put an end to his soccer career, but he says the skills he learned as a goalie have been useful in his career as a financial advisor.
"As a goalie, you're responsible for defense, but once you've got that locked up, you are also kind of a coach setting up the offensive plays...My more risk-based approach to investment comes from the idea of trying to get on offense. It's like: I've got the goal so now let's put five people out front and try to score."
Laterrade focuses his efforts on clients with assets of at least $250,000 to invest, but he says that's not a hard-and-fast rule. "If a client asks me to help a friend or relative in setting up a 529 college fund, I'll do that," he says.
He doesn't play much soccer anymore, but he does coach his five-year-old daughter's team. "I have to try to keep my killer competitive instincts under control," he concedes, with a chuckle.