Advisors looking to speed up business growth have often looked at minimum-fee increases as one lever to push-particularly during the 1990s bull run, when clients would acquiesce without flinching.
But now that portfolio values are falling and clients are enduring some pain, the decision to raise fees isn't being taken so lightly. Some advisors, in fact, are taking the opposite approach.
Take as an example Bergland Capital Management Inc. in Ridgeland, Miss. The firm was founded 22 years ago by principal John Bergland with a required minimum account balance of $25,000.
Then the 1990s rolled around, and things started to change. Clients grew more affluent, and the firm with them. Pretty soon the minimum rose to $100,000 and then to $250,000. "At the end of the 90s, there was a gravitation and a tendency to move in the direction of focusing on assets under management and getting larger accounts for higher fee income," says Bergland.
Indeed, Bergland was recently was toying with the idea of continuing the trend by upping the firm's minimum-account requirement to $500,000. Instead, he took a few steps back and did some soul searching.
Over the past year, several of the firm's longest and most cherished clients had passed away, and Bergland gave some thought as to why they were the firm's best. The answers he came up with, it turned out, had nothing to do with asset size.
"It wasn't their net worth and it wasn't the income we got from them," he says. "It was those with whom we had the closest human bond, to where there was no question of trust."
With that conclusion, Bergland made a decision-the firm would no longer have hard and fast account minimums. It's not that the firm would take on anybody who walked through the door as a client. But Bergland says his firm will at least consider anyone, regardless of their assets. The higher priorities in client evaluation will be how serious they are in working with the firm to achieve their goals, he adds.
Not long after he made the change, Bergland put it into practice. One day a married couple who own a local chicken farm walked into the office looking for help in setting up a 401(k) retirement plan. The firm took them as clients, even though they don't have close to $250,000 in investable assets.
The policy is so new Bergland is still working out how he will charge them. That's because the firm is still drawing up a schedule of project-based fees to use in place of account management fees. The couple will probably end up being charged $300 for the creation of the 401(k), and annual $500 maintenance fee, Bergland says. "What the decision was is to take people on who are in genuine need of help," he says.
Bergland feels the change represents a deeper shift than just doing away with minimums. It's a new outlook on the firm's mission, he says.
"The primary business we are in is financial planning. It's not money management," he says.
About 60% of advisory firms require a minimum fee from clients, according to the 2002 Financial Performance Study of Financial Advisory Practices recently released by the Financial Planning Association. The survey of also found that firms have a median minimum fee of $2,125 and a median minimum asset requirement of $250,000.
Anecdotally, it's also clear that firms are no longer as apt to raise minimum fees as they were three or four years ago, says Mark Tibergian, a consultant with Moss Adams LLP in Seattle, which produced the study.
"In this uncertain market, we do not see a pattern of people raising their minimums or changing their minimums," Tibergian says. "Before the market slide, people were going up to different brackets."
But like Bergland, some firms are also finding creative ways for clients to get around minimum fees. At Leonard Wealth Management in El Segundo, Calif., founding principal Scott A. Leonard says the minimum asset management fee has been $10,000 for several years. The average client, in fact, pays an annual fee of about $13,000.
In January, however, Leonard opened the firm to clients with lower assets by creating an "Emerging Millionaire" program that's built on fixed fees and a more systematized financial planning component.
Under the plan, clients with less than $1 million in assets can pay a first-year fee of $1,500 that includes a comprehensive annual plan, 401(k) recommendations, phone support to help with plan recommendations and basic tax and estate planning services. Past the first year, the service costs $125 per month. Clients with a minimum of $750 in assets also can get asset management services for 0.75% to 0.25% of assets.
Leonard says he finally decided to make the move because he felt "hypocritical" in being a big proponent of fee-only planning and yet not taking clients with less than $1 million to invest.
"It always kind of bothered me that someone would be sitting across the table with $300,000 or $400,000 to invest and we couldn't help them," says Leonard. "At the end of the day, you have to go to Merrill Lynch because I'm not taking your account and no other fee guys are taking your account, either."
Leonard also discovered that his higher-net-worth clients wanted to refer friends to the firm, but were holding back because not all of them met the firm's minimum. Since the program started, the firm has about 15 emerging millionaire clients with assets totaling about $5 million.
Now he's looking to expand the program by adding a CFP to the staff who is just starting out in the fee-only field. "One of the problems with the fee-only model is there's no real career path for it. It's difficult to start a fee-only shop," he says.
Eventually, Leonard hopes to phase out asset-based fees altogether and tie fees to financial planning. "In reality, I want to get away from having our fees based on assets. What we do is so much more than that," he says. "What I'd like to do is have an annual retainer, and a small asset-based component."
Even smaller players are finding themselves struggling with the issue of lowering fees. Sal Miceli, who started Miceli Financial Planning in Littleton, Colo., two years ago, is wondering if lowering his asset-based fee from 1% to 0.75% will help drum up business. "It's in the back of my mind, but I haven't pulled the trigger on it yet," he says. "It's harder to go backwards once you do it, so I'm holding off for a while."off for a while."