Successful firms are putting meaning into the term.

    The term "wealth manager" has provided more sizzle than clarity in recent years, as more and more advisors have adopted the name as they transition to more comprehensive practices geared toward affluent clients.
    Yet while there still is no standing definition for the term-to the point where advisors themselves admit they're not clear on what it means-wealth management practices appear to be gradually defining their niche.
    A recent survey by Fidelity Investments, for example, found that both advisors and clients have certain expectations when it comes to wealth management firms, such as the availability of estate and tax planning services, a focus on all areas of a client's financial life and a wide range of investment options. The popularity of the wealth management model, in fact, seems to have given rise to yet another buzzword, as many wealth managers use the term "holistic" planning to describe what they do.
    "There are a number of firms that are helping define what holistic wealth management means, just by the way they are structuring their practice," says Scott Dell'Orfano, executive vice president of Fidelity Registered Investment Advisor Group. "There has been an expansion of services provided by advisors, and it has helped define what is true wealth management."
    The survey indicates that a typical wealth manager often is cast as a manager of managers, working with a client's accountants, attorneys and other consultants on issues ranging from financial planning, taxes, estate planning, long-term care, risk management and transactions involving the sale or transfer of a business.
    But it can go beyond that. As wealth managers delve deeper into issues related to life, health and long-term care insurance, for example, their role as consultants is expanding. Some of them are doing the research necessary to advise clients on what hospitals are best for treating certain illnesses, Dell'Orfano says.
    Typically, a wealth manager uses a mix of in-house specialists and outside consultants, often aligning himself with outside accounting and law firms, as well as outside investment managers for portions of a portfolio, Dell'Orfano says. Target markets vary, he adds, depending on the advisor, but wealth managers usually hold their clientele to minimum assets of at least $2 million or $3 million.
    The expectation among advisors who adopt this model, he says, is that their client relationships will be deeper, longer lasting and hopefully multigenerational.
    Yet there are still costs. The relationships are labor-intensive, and the wealth management model, with its heavy reliance on specialized consulting, increases operating costs. So why the upstream rush to wealth management?
    Part of the reason is market-driven. The number of millionaire households has been on the rise, while at the same time employers have foisted more and more retirement responsibilities on their employees. That has resulted in a market comprised of a lot of people with both money and issues-as well as a desire for a trusted advisor who can provide all the answers.
    "Clients want simplification and access to a primary provider," Dell'Orfano says. "Whatever the problem is, they want one trusted advisor they can go to that has a process to solve the problem."
    Some describe wealth management as financial planning taken to a higher, or more complex, level. "It's a multidimensional process where it's client needs analysis-essentially what you're doing is taking a much more holistic approach," says David Levine, director of wealth management at GunnAllen Financial. "Holistic means you're thinking of investment assets, real assets, as well as their insurance needs and the structure of their holdings from a tax and estate planning standpoint."
    Wealth management clients can run the gamut from inherited wealth, to people who sold businesses, to professionals and executives, to sports stars and lottery winners, according to Gail Cohen, executive vice president and general trust council for Fiduciary Trust International in New York City.
    In addition to comprehensive advice, Cohen says, these clients are looking for someone who is unbiased. "Most clients are looking for a division between the advice they are getting and the person who is providing the service," she says.
    Carlo Panaccione, partner and co-founder of Navigation Group, a wealth planning and management firm in Redwood City, Calif., started adopting a wealth-planning model for his firm about seven years ago. "Back then it meant just doing asset management and using institutional style managers, and doing some pretty comprehensive estate planning techniques," he says.
    Yet as time went on, and the firm became a trusted advisor to its clients, the responsibilities have grown. Panaccione, for instance, recently negotiate a fixed-rate home construction contract for a client. He's also coached several clients on how best to sell a high-end home, after having gone through the experience several times himself.
    The firm has increasingly relied on group meetings, where all of a client's advisors will have a roundtable discussion on a plan's creation and implementation. Responding to another demand by clients-the centralization of their financial information-Navigation Group is getting ready to launch a client Web site that has been in the works for nine months.
    "I think now being a wealth manager is kind of being a comprehensive one-stop resource for your clients," Panaccione says. "Even if you don't do something, you need to be aware of it and help them do it."
    Some advisors say their practice turned into a wealth management practice naturally, before the term "wealth management" became the buzzword it is today. Jane H. Williams, CEO and co-founder of Sand Hill Advisors in Palo Alto, Calif., says her practice became more advice and service oriented as a natural evolution after it began in 1982.
    The first key change, she says, was their decision to switch from a transaction-based to a fee-based practice in 1988, and eventually dropping its broker-dealer license altogether in 1992. Another influence was the firm's cultivating a subspecialty of serving people-mainly women-who were dealing with a divorce. The specialty created deeper relationships with clients, extending beyond the portfolio, and also allowed the firm to forge relationships with accounting and law firms, Williams says.
    With about 170 clients and about $1 billion under management, the firm now has relationships with lawyers, accountants and a trust company, and provides services that range from investment management to life planning to career counseling. Williams feels that the meaning of "wealth management" has become "muddled" in the marketplace, but adds, "Because of the way we evolved we have a sense for what needs to happen for a client going through a transition," she says. "Ninety percent of the time someone enters this marketplace as a consumer, it's because there has been a big life change."
    Broker-dealers have, of course, been quick to support advisors as they try to transition upstream to a wealth management model. LPL Financial Services, for instance, has within the last three years acquired a mortgage company, a general insurance agency and trust company to help advisors deal with their clients' estate and wealth transfer issues. "The demand for these services grows with the general growth in millionaires," says Bill Dwyer, LPL's executive director of branch development.
    It's a market made of clients who historically were served almost exclusively by bank trust departments. "Now the modern-day millionaires are really looking to the people who've kind of invested their money along the way or helped them buy that variable annuity at age 45, and who are now 55 or 65 and really worried about their estate needs," Dwyer says.
    While LPL has been rolling out wealth management tools, it has also launched a campaign to educate its advisors on how to use them. Called Fast Forward, the education campaign is holding seminars in 12 cities during the course of the year. "I think that probably the biggest challenge facing the financial advisor today is getting themselves up to speed to support this type of client," he says.
    At Commonwealth Financial Network, a broker-dealer that has about 300 support staff available to its advisors for wealth management issues, CEO and founder Joe Deitch sees technology as one of the primary drivers of the wealth management trend.
    The Internet, software and computers have basically made asset allocation and investment management a commodity, he says, while also giving advisors the tools to run a comprehensive practice.
    "At the same time, financial planning has always been the smart thing to do because, truth be told, whether you be affluent or middle class or somewhere in between, you have a lot of things going on that need to be understood, dealt with and coordinated," Deitch says.
    Linda Deane, who has wrapped financial planning together with investment management since before 1980, says she's grown tired of the term "wealth management." More often, she calls herself a retirement specialist, which she feels more clearly portrays the firm's services.
    "I'm the one doing the quarterbacking," says Deane, branch manager of the LL Deane New Orleans Branch of Raymond James Financial Services. "When I do the estate planning, for example, I am quarterbacking with their attorney, their CPA and their insurance agent."
    Her melding of planning with investment management, which was not the norm in the late 1980s, grew out of estate work she did for clients with IRAs, eventually leading to the comprehensive wealth management business she runs now. She notes that the planning portion of her business just manages to pay for itself where revenues and profits are concerned. However, she says her role as a planner has strengthened her ties to clients-some of whom have been with her more than three decades-and led to multigenerational ties.
    "It absolutely has led to deeper relationships," she says. "What I'm starting to see is that as the next generation is inheriting, I'm keeping those assets."