Thinking of expanding-or retiring?
Taking your name off the shingle
may be one step along the way.
Gifford Lehman's path to settling on the name of his financial advisory firm included a legal tussle with a financial industry powerhouse and a mental tussle with a Latin dictionary. When Faye Doria decided her firm needed a name change, she treated some of her clients to dinner and let them chose the firm's new name. And after Lauren Gadkowski joined her mother's firm and they realized a new moniker was in order, the inspiration for the change came from the harbor lighthouses visible from her office.
An advisory firm's name is its image. Small, independent outfits often begin life with the name or names of the founders on the shingle, and while many never change their handle as they grow and thrive, others decide at some point to rebrand themselves with a generic name to create a new image, accommodate future growth, facilitate succession planning, or for a combination of reasons. Rebranding isn't for everyone, and the time, cost and effort involved can vary greatly.
RegentAtlantic Capital changed its name from Bugen, Stuart, Korn and Cordaro in 2001, which was itself a rebranding in the opposite direction after the merger in 1996 between two advisory firms-Economic Advisory and Individual Asset Planning. "When we merged firms we put our names on it so our clients knew we weren't going away," says David Bugen, a certified financial planner and wealth manager at RegentAtlantic in Chatham, N.J. "We went back to an institutional name after clients were convinced we were here to stay."
Bugen lists four reasons for the second rebranding. First, they were taking on more partners whose names weren't on the front door. And that ties into the second reason. "Whenever you have a company's name with people's names on it, there's like this pecking order of 'Oh, you're number four on the list or number two or you're not on the list,'" says Bugen.
Another reason for the name change was to put an end to phone calls from people wondering what type of law the firm practiced or what type of accounting they did. But the foremost rebranding goal was the desire to create a name that had a long-standing institutional presence to it.
It took a handful of people at the firm more than a half-year to settle on the right name. They looked at English-city-themed names such as Oxford Financial Advisors or Dorchester Financial Advisors. They considered Apex and Acorn. They looked at a lot of potential names in hopes of finding something that denoted familiarity and stability. "A lot of issues you would think are more complex and harder to agree upon were easier for us to agree upon than agreeing on a new name that wasn't already used by other folks," Bugen says.
He says the name RegentAtlantic Capital got the nod because it fit the firm's desired image while telling the world what it did-investments and financial planning. Bugen adds that the name change didn't mean much to existing clients as long as the service levels and existing partners remained in place. "Maybe it had an impact on prospects, and it certainly eliminated confusion about what we do," he says. "From our perspective, we're very glad we did it."
Gifford Lehman began his one-man practice in 1997 under the name Lehman Advisory Services. "I had originally thought this was egotistical," says the Carmel, Calif.-based certified financial planner. "But I realized in this business, where trust is so paramount, that I was the brand."
But lawyers from Lehman Brothers eventually sent a
notice saying he was infringing on their trademark. After some haggling
with the help of a trademark attorney friend, he agreed to change the
firm's name to Gifford Lehman Advisory Services in exchange for a small
sum of money to compensate him for the cost of new business cards and
When Lehman took on a partner, Michael Leavy, he wanted to change the firm's name to Lehman & Leavy Wealth Management, but his attorney friend warned of another potential snit with Lehman Brothers. The attorney suggested that a generic name would avoid further legal wrangling. He also was convinced it would make it easier to add additional partners without diminution of the brand over time, and that it might help the practice fetch more money if the partners ever decided to cash out.
Lehman poured over his daughter's Latin-English dictionary and found some words he thought conveyed the appropriate image for his firm. He then did Web searches and checked the SEC Web site to see if his possible choices were taken by other investment advisors. "Using a Latin word sounds somewhat erudite," he explains. "But there are lots of small financial planning firms out there, and I guess some of their kids also took Latin because every meaningful and relevant Latin name was taken."
He tried other languages and local geography, and briefly considered LBS Wealth Management (the LBS standing for Lehman Brothers S----), but he thought better of it. Lehman and his partner ultimately settled on Integris Wealth Management, essentially a made-up word with a Latin sensibility. "We actually like the name because it suggests two attributes that are important in what we do," he says. "Integris is suggestive of integrity. The second is more obscure-suggesting an integrative approach to financial planning."
After factoring in a new Web site, business cards, stationary and assorted registration requirements, Lehman estimates the name change cost about $8,000. That figure is a drop in the bucket compared with the amount shelled out by Polstra & Dardaman, the Norcross, Ga., firm that changed its name to Brightworth in early January. After principals Dave Polstra and Chris Dardaman brought in Alan Gotthardt as the third partner in 1997, the trio realized the firm would be best served with a new name.
Aspiring to become a leading advisory firm in the Atlanta area and beyond, the group wanted an enterprise-level name to match its ambitions and to make it easier to add other partners later without creating an unwieldy masthead. "When you hear the name of a couple of guys you've never heard of before, it sounds like some guys in a small office working with local clients," says Gotthardt. "An enterprise-level name has the notion of a more substantial organization. We've hit the level where we're one of the larger fee-only independent firms in the country, and we wanted a brand name to reflect that."
They eventually hired a high-powered consulting firm to help with rebranding. "We went upscale significantly," says Gotthardt, noting that Polstra & Dardaman was a small fish to this consulting firm that's accustomed to working on high-profile media campaigns for very large consumer and energy companies. "We made that commitment because we figured we were going to live with this new name for a long time."
The consultants asked Gotthardt and his colleagues to think hard about themselves and what message they wanted to communicate to the public. They threw hundreds of words on the board but nothing stuck. "We weren't enthusiastic about anything we saw," recalls Gotthardt, adding that the firm was in a fog during the second session until someone threw out the combination of "bright" and "worth." "We said, 'That's it!'"
Including consultant fees, the total tab to change the firm's name to Brightworth topped six figures. But Gotthardt says he and his partners consider it money well spent. Of course, smaller firms with tighter budgets need to rely more on in-house creativity and maybe even a little help from their friends.
Faye Doria conducted business under her own name when she started her firm in Dover, N.H., in 1990. But after the certified financial planner added a second planner and had thoughts of adding a third, she concluded it would be better for both the additional planners and the overall business if it had a generic name. "We had one shot at it," she recalls, "and we wondered who we would hire to do this. We said, 'Let's hire our clients to do it. They're all really bright and are qualified in their own worlds.'"
In 1998, Doria invited roughly 20 clients and referrals to a local Italian restaurant and asked them to put some thought into helping the firm choose a new name. She set up a two-hour meeting in a private room, and asked them to consider how they perceived the firm and its services and how that could reflect in a name. As a reward, she promised to buy them dinner. "They did their homework and came with lists of ideas and suggestions," she says. "I was amazed they really cared about this. I remember thinking you couldn't buy this kind of thoughtfulness and expertise."
The ultimate winning name was Financial Guidance Associates. And as an added bonus, Doria says the dinner meeting helped forge friendships among this disparate group of former strangers, and that it increased their loyalty to the firm "by 1,000%."
"It turned out to be the best $750 I ever spent," she declares.
After Lauren Gadkowski got CFP-certified while working at Putnam Investments in Boston, she joined her mother's advisory firm, Linda Gadkowski Inc., in 2001. Linda had been on her own for 13 years, and they originally decided to keep the name after the daughter came on board. But after Lauren kept hearing comments like, "Who are you?" and "You're not Linda," they decided it was time for a new name.
"We did everything off the top of our head," says Lauren, who drew upon images common to her as inspiration for the new name, Beacon Financial Planning. She was raised on Cape Cod, where her mother's office was located. Her office overlooked Boston Harbor and its many lighthouses. The firm's light blue stationary and business cards, both with royal blue ink, worked well with the region's water theme.
Lauren asked a graphic designer friend to create a lighthouse logo, and they added the tagline, "Let us show you the way." She says it took longer than expected to pick out the proper lighthouse for logo purposes, as well other layout issues. "It probably took a few weeks to iron out what essentially aren't complex decisions," says Lauren. "There were just a lot of possibilities to sort through."
She also created a Web site with another friend, and traded services with a client who is a marketing specialist. All told, the rebranding cost roughly $5,000. "But it made things a lot easier for me," says Lauren, adding that the big payoff came when her mother wanted to sell the business and could do so using the whole "Beacon" package, rather than just Linda's name.
"It's very problematic to sell a business with someone else's name on it," says Lauren, "when that person isn't that business anymore." She now works for Personal Financial Advisors in Covington, La., a firm whose generic name was already in place before she arrived.
Martin Shenkman, a tax attorney in Teaneck, N.J., advises all of his financial advisory and other professional services practice clients to adopt a long-term exit strategy that includes using a name that doesn't feature any of the partners' names. "Having your name on the practice is very personalized," he says, "but you greatly minimize the ability to transition a practice when it comes time to sell whether it's done voluntarily or due to disability or death."
But some firms are reluctant to take their individual names off the door, so Shenkman suggests a middle ground: a generic name coupled with a proprietor's name as part of the marketing strategy.
That's Robert Smith's strategy, although he did it the other way around. The certified financial planner in Exton, Pa., has gone by the business name of Comprehensive Financial Advisers since he opened his one-man shop in 1998. But he realized that marketing isn't his forte, so in 2001 he hired a consulting firm to help spruce up the firm's image. They zeroed in on the sole-proprietorship angle, and decided to brand Smith by the name most people call him-simply, Bob.
"They branded me as Bob because it's a relationship business," says Smith. His logo and slogan refers to "Bob Smith, Making an Impact in Wealth Management," followed by Comprehensive Financial Advisers.
In the end, rebranding is an individual process. "It comes down to what you need done and what you're willing to do for it," says Joshua Itzoe, a principal at Greenspring Wealth Management in Towson, Md., formerly called J.P. Collins & Associates. After he partnered with his friend, Patrick Collins, in 2005, the two late-twenty-somethings plotted a new name that would match their vision of a team-oriented, growing company that would succeed them in 30 years or so. They kicked around names between themselves and their advisory board of Baltimore-area businessmen, and they settled on Greenspring Wealth Management. Greenspring is a wealthy area in the Baltimore region, and to them it combined the notion of "green" and "growth" with the image of being conservative and safe. "We're very happy we did it," says Itzoe. "But you can have the greatest name, Web site and stationary in the world, and none of that really matters if you're not competent in your job."