Nobody would argue that it's easy being a financial advisor these days, with the U.S. economy still on life support, investors still nervous about their assets and wondering what all that government borrowing to prop up the financial sector is going to do to the long-term value of the dollar. That said, you could say with confidence that things are just ducky for Salt Lake City financial advisor Darin Dewsnup.
Dewsnup, a senior vice president for investments with Wells Fargo Advisors, an ardent duck hunter and dedicated wetlands conservationist, has parlayed his twin loves of hunting and nature into a successful practice that today boasts almost half a billion dollars under management, with 2011 production of $1.56 million.
Get Dewsnup talking about the vast but threatened wetlands around Utah's Great Salt Lake, a giant body of densely saline water that has no outflow but is fed by rivers and streams flowing down from the snow-covered Rocky Mountains to the east, and you could almost forget he and his long-time partner, Lebanese-born Sam Sleiman, are in the business of managing other people's money. But make no mistake, protecting wetlands and hunting ducks is more than a passion—it is a great way to build an advisory business.
"I've always had an interest in nature and in hunting," says Dewsnup, who was born in California, but who has lived the majority of his life in Utah, even graduating from Brigham Young University. "About 10 years ago, though, I got involved more in conservation, joining a couple of groups, including Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Audubon Society, Delta Waterfowl, and also Ducks Unlimited and the Utah Airboat Association."
He admits the juxtaposition of conservation and hunting has raised some eyebrows. "There aren't a lot of bird hunters in the Audubon Society," he says. "But we're all friends in the organization, and everyone's concerned about saving and protecting the wetlands."
The Salt Lake's wetlands, and its abundant brine shrimp, it turns out, make the 85-mile-long Great Salt Lake one of the most important migratory stops and wintering-over areas in the world, with an estimated three to four million birds passing through the lake's wetlands every year. It's also a resource under threat, with mineral interests always seeking to tap the lake's mineral wealth and developers going after the fresh water in the streams that feed the lake and its marshes.
Dewsnup takes his conservation work seriously, and has served as a board member of the Audubon Society and as president of the Utah Airboat Association. In that latter role, he has done a lot of work ferrying scientists, politicians, government officials and business people around on research projects, tours and, of course, hunting outings. "It turns out to be a great way to build goodwill and to meet people," he says.
About 20% of his client base today, he reports, consists of people he has met through his duck hunting and wetlands conservation activities.
"I met my biggest client on the lake," he says. "He was a member of an organization called the Lakefront Duck Club. I met him on a goose-nesting operation where we set up nests for the Canadian Geese that fly down here."
Not all his clients are met on the lake, though. He met one big client on the coast of Siberia last year when he was on a trip to hunt King Eider sea ducks in the Bering Sea.
One of the ways Dewsnup meets prospects is at fundraising banquets and fundraisers that he helps to organize. Some of his existing clients buy tables at these events.
"You get all kinds of people joining these organizations—people who just love western living and wildlife," says Dewsnup. "Some are really wealthy and use some of their money to support the organizations."
His own clients generally are people who have at least $500,000 to invest, with the average amount of investable assets being about $1.2 million.
He says his approach is to "bore down and get to their objectives, and to match that with the risks of the marketplace."
He and his partner don't do anything fancy, he says. "We don't trade at all or monitor any one stock or handful of stocks for our clients. We are asset allocators, allocating and risk monitoring across investment categories. For example, we won't choose to invest in small-cap stocks right now because they happen to be roaring at the moment."
He says, "People bring us money that they want to protect and grow. We are pretty conservative because that has played to our benefit here."
In general, he says clients like tax-free investing. "We're overweight in fixed income, and especially in tax-free bonds," he says. "We do have equities and some commodities in portfolios. We also have international and emerging market equities to a pretty good degree, though most of our debt is U.S, corporates and U.S. munis."
Dewsnup says his and his partner's conservative approach served them and their clients well during the market collapse and the tough patch that followed. "There was no run-off of clients," he says. "I'm not saying we didn't hit a few bumps. If anything, we allocate more broadly now than we did back in 2005. That's kept us out of some of the hotbed areas everybody seems to want to own."
As an example, he says he tends to limit alternatives like REITs, commodities, hedge funds and currencies to a combined total of between 5% to 8% of portfolios.
Dewsnup says he always knew, from high school, that he wanted to go into financial securities.
Initially, after earning a B.A. and a master's degree in public policy, he figured he'd go to work for a wirehouse. He hired on with Morgan Stanley and started out working in Atlanta. He and his wife, both confirmed westerners, didn't like it there, so when an opening came with Wells Fargo back in his old haunts of Salt Lake City in 1997, he jumped, and has been there ever since. "It was a good time to make the move," he says. "Wells Fargo only had three licensed advisors in Utah at that time. Now, there are more than 50."
Ten years ago he teamed up with Sleiman, another Wells Fargo advisor. They make a good team, Dewsnup says, though they don't see eye to eye on the duck hunting. "Sam's from Lebanon," explains Dewsnup. "It's not that he's opposed to hunting, but even though he's been in this country for 30 years, he says he's just seen too many guns."
Sleiman, he says, uses networking and charity events to cultivate clients, and, an avid soccer player, he also works with athletes.
Though not birds of a feather, Dewsnup says their partnership has gone swimmingly now for a decade.
Name: Darin Dewsnup
Bank: Wells Fargo
Location: Salt Lake City
2011 production: $1.56 million
2010 production: $1.53 million
2011 AUM: $485 million
2010 AUM: $455 million