Advisor Peter Wheeler says his network can give any advisor the ability to offer family office services.

If the family office is indeed the wave of the future in the advisory business, Peter Wheeler thinks small independent shops are in for the fight of their lives.

It's hard to argue the point. It's generally recognized that advisors are under pressure to provide a wider array of wealth management services to affluent clients. It's also a fact that the demand for more services comes at a time when profit margins are eroding and many advisors are looking for ways to cut costs.

Throw in the fact that advisors are facing more competition from banks, full-service brokers, insurance companies, CPAs and the like, and you can't blame independent advisors for feeling like they're under siege. While the bear market of the past three years may have prompted some financial giants to retrench temporarily, they'll be baaaack.

Wheeler, however, doesn't see the situation as hopeless. In fact, he feels he's found a way for independent advisors to affordably compete with the Merrill Lynchs of the world. "That's something of which I'm most convinced," says Wheeler, president and CEO of Wheeler/Frost Associates, a fee-only wealth management firm in San Diego he started 20 years ago. "I can give any independent advisor the ability to look his client in the eye and say we provide comprehensive wealth management services."

What's most important, he says, is that they can do it without spending heaps of money to add in-house staff. That provides the additional benefit of opening up wealth management services to less affluent clients, he says.

Wheeler claims the service can be cost-efficient, even for clients with less than $1 million in assets. "They can provide all that service, be the quarterback of that team, without adding functionality in-house," he says.

What Wheeler says can do all this is FamilyOfficeNetwork LLC, a Web-based platform he launched in April that allows small, independent advisors to set up and manage a virtual family office.

Wheeler's vision is that FamilyOfficeNetwork will spur the creation of local networks of advisors, CPAs, attorneys and other wealth management professionals, all sharing client information online via a secured Web site. He likens it to a "virtual filing" cabinet, with the advisor controlling who has access to which client documents, and who has the ability to make changes to client information.

The network also allows members to send private electronic messages to one another. A crucial element, as Wheeler sees it, is that the financial advisor will be at the hub of the activity-managing the relationships as well as the client's assets. "The advisor stays in control," Wheeler says.

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