When Mike Cunningham, an independent with Cunningham Kaestner in Oklahoma City, found himself doing a lot more business thanks to the recession, only one thing helped keep that growth manageable: in his words, “blatant honesty.”
Cunningham has been receiving a lot of referrals recently, first because he make a point of asking clients for them in every meeting — he says face to face works best — and second because his business, which is heavy in non-traded real-estate investment trusts and other alternatives, has strong resonance with every investor frightened by market volatility and leery of sticking all their assets in low-yielding bonds or moving to cash.
The result of his client approach and product mix is that he now has 600 clients, up 8% from a couple of years ago, and average account size has shot up from $300,000 to around $1 million.
The challenge now is how to handle that growth, which basically boils down to being a lot more picky about who he takes on as a client.
“There are only so many hours in a day and I can’t give my smaller clients the service I want to give,” Cunningham says. “I’m limited in what I can do.” Another part of the problem is that since many alternative investments carry minimums and tend to be illiquid, it’s not prudent for a smaller client to lock up so much money in a product that locks it up for years.
Cunningham’s approach is direct. “I tell them what they need right now is not what I specialize in,” he says. “I say, ‘The last time you called a plumber who wasn’t qualified, wouldn’t you rather have known upfront?’”
It’s an approach that isn’t as antagonistic as it sounds. Cunningham has only had one prospect object to the advisor’s polite refusal to take on his business, and while Cunningham is still tempted when a potential $200,000 account walks through the door, he stays on point.
“If it’s not a match we’ll shake hands, but what we sell just isn’t what they’re in the market for,” he says. “It has to work for both of us now because if we don’t know exactly what’s going on, we’ll break up down the road.” At that point, the client won’t be happy and if there’s one thing about unhappy clients, they can talk. “If you do a good job, your clients may tell others,” Cunningham says. “But if they’re not happy, they definitely will, so why start down that road?”