Last month, I had the good fortune to escape the Northeast weather and attend TD Ameritrade's conference in San Diego. It was especially fun to see all the locals parading around in ski parkas and woolen caps in 63-degree weather.


The conference had several high-quality speakers, including Pimco's Paul McCulley, the ubiquitous Ben Stein, Newt Gingrich and Bill Bradley. But there were two other speakers who grabbed this attendee's attention in very different ways.

The second of these two was famed small business consultant Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It, and numerous other bestsellers. He began his talk by describing his own business. In Gerber's own words, he set out to become the McDonald's of small business consulting.

An almost slavish Ray Kroc disciple, Gerber seemed enamored with everything Mickey D, placing the company on a pedestal usually reserved for major innovators like Ford Motor, IBM, Microsoft, DuPont and Standard Oil-companies that changed the face of the world, not the face of cholesterol.

Like Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Ray Kroc always worked on his business, and never in it. Visions, according to Gerber, cannot be created without a turnkey process. "The system works so you don't have to," Gerber said. "The product is secondary or tertiary; the process is king. You want be an imagineer."

Despite his obsequious attitude about McDonald's, Gerber is under no illusions about the quality of its food. "The food sucks," he bellowed repeatedly at attendees.

Systematization and process have their place in any organization, but Gerber was absurdly contemptuous of product quality and didn't seem to understand the importance of skill and service. After the audience told him the most important part of their businesses was client relationships, Gerber roared, "Bull____!"

Questionable as his knowledge of the advisory business is, Gerber had a message that advisors might need to hear, even if they understandably never intend to worship at Ray Kroc's altar. Fortunately, the first of these sessions was more remarkable than Gerber's.
At last year's TD Ameritrade conference, the CEO of Ameritrade, Joe Moglia, who had just bought TD Waterhouse was asked a question at the start of the event whether the transaction was a merger or an acquisition. "We bought the company," he responded, leaving little doubt.
Many advisors were left with the impression that Moglia was a New York tough guy-not a real New York jerk like Donald Trump-but a tough guy nonetheless.

This year his talk was as good a reason as any not to judge a book by its cover. Moglia only gave the talk because the chief of his institutional arm, Tom Bradley, prevailed upon him. Since he's a former Dartmouth football coach who said he has been giving the talk for 36 years, he's had some time to practice and perfect it.

It was filled with lots of humor about immigrant life in the Big Apple and a searing short tale of life as a 13-year-old gang member. But it also addressed subjects any businessperson should confront, like recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses. Suffice it to say it was almost as powerful as it was touching. And one year after buying Waterhouse, he gets it; Gerber doesn't.

Walking out of the room, I was immediately reminded of a line in this month's Parting Shot column on page 128 by Lee Eisenberg, author of The Number. What most people want in a financial advisor is some combination of Vince Lombardi and Mother Theresa.

Evan Simonoff