Ed Vargo Photo by Angelo Merendino
Ed Vargo

Carving a New Niche

Ed Vargo found the focus of his practice practically by accident. Now, how to optimize it.

Without trying, Ed Vargo has attracted mostly female clients to his Burning River Advisory Group. Now he’s trying to refine his market by focusing more on women going through a divorce.

He started his two-person independent firm, which is located in Westlake, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, in 2009. Then in 2013, after moving to a different broker/dealer, he analyzed his practice and found, to his surprise, that about three-quarters of his clients were either single women or women-led households. He thinks that’s because he focuses on comprehensive planning, has five daughters and his colleague is a woman, a CFP with whom he shares all clients.

With all that in mind, Vargo redesigned his website to emphasize women and rebranded the firm. More recently, he’s started to fine-tune his niche to focus on women in transition, especially those going through a divorce. To that end, about a year ago, he became a certified divorce financial analyst.

But he’s realizing his designation was only the beginning. “It’s like going to college and thinking you’re going to be great at your job and then understanding there’s way more to it than that,” he says. Now he‘s trying to build relationships with local divorce attorneys and mediation specialists and started holding occasional workshops for women going through divorce. And he’s thinking of switching from charging a flat fee for pre-settlement work to an hourly rate. After that, he uses an AUM model.

Bottom line: How to get really good at targeting and working with this group? And how to structure his fees?           

Brandon Odell 
Partner and Director of Business Consulting 
The Ensemble Practice

He has to make sure divorce is the right way to ramp up. He needs to assess the opportunity in his market. You don’t want to choose something that won’t be a great source of growth. He could dive into a number of other areas, like women business owners or single moms, instead.

If he sticks with that niche, how does he get his message out? Centers of influence are best, but you have to keep engaging with them so you’re top of mind. He also could reach out to community groups, like churches, where people might look for comfort. Another source is existing clients. If someone in the community is getting divorced, the one place they’re likely to go is someone who’s been through it. This doesn’t mean a massive referral campaign, but continuing to trudge along and build up your reputation in the community.

John Nersesian 
Managing Director, Wealth Management Services 
Nuveen Investments

One approach to building a presence in this market is to hold educational programs for divorce attorneys. But you have to understand that these lawyers probably don’t fully appreciate what you do. A lot may suspect you’re looking to develop a relationship so you can sell their client something, rather than helping to provide better counsel. So you need to demonstrate that you’re different from what they may be expecting.  

I’ve also seen really creative ways to network. For example, one female advisor I know got 10 wealthy divorced or widowed women together at a salon and talked about financial planning. I’ve seen “finance and food,” where you invite women to a local cooking studio to learn about how to make different dishes from a chef and end with a discussion about financial issues pertaining to women in transition. 

Matt Lynch 
Managing Partner 
Strategy & Resources

Working with local divorce attorneys and mediation specialists and holding workshops—those things make sense. And I understand the need to have a niche. But this is a small practice, and I’m wondering if the niche is too narrow. It would be better to make it broader so that he’s working with women going through different transitions, only one of which potentially is divorce. That would help him reach a critical mass. Or he could consider partnering with other advisors in this niche; maybe even merge with another practice.

Also, he needs to be clear about how he positions his services up front, especially with attorneys and other professionals. Does he want to present himself as someone who can help with the financial analysis during a divorce and with negotiations, or does he want to be positioned as a professional whom clients can eventually work with on an ongoing basis? They’re very different roles.

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