“Are you going to IMPACT this year?” I heard it over and over again from executives, advisors marketers, recruiters, attorneys, compliance experts, technology people and other reporters for weeks leading up to the event. Schwab IMPACT 2009—this year in San Diego—is not all hype. The attraction is that the conference, which opened last night and runs through Wednesday, reliably draws a big audience, and it pulls advisors from around the country under one tent.
What's different this year is how many people are cutting back on travel and choosing to make IMPACT their one big industry outing. This conference is no boondoggle; FAs are here to make the most of it.
Schwab’s RIA business drives about half of the Charles Schwab Corporations profits. Therefore, its legion of RIAs are important to the company. How many companies can you say that about: that they depend so heavily on an army of mom and pops that could take their customers away at any moment? Wirehouses have a similar dynamic, of course, but their brokers are employees; those assets are trickier to move.
At IMPACT all of us participants are the beneficiaries of Schwab showing its appreciation to this conglomeration of thousands of small business owners. Schwab throw a good party. RIAs return the favor by showing up and keeping their accounts in place.
RIAs don’t hold all the cards. They depend on Schwab's high level of service to run their practices. They also seem to revel in having a big stalwart to counterbalance their own fragmentation. Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services has some of that paternal presence. But they don’t throw a party and invite the industry. [TD Ameritrade Institutional puts on a good conference for RIAs on a lesser scale in the winter.]
Though IMPACT events are similar from year to year, Schwab makes efforts to freshen them up. Here are some things that I would want to know headed in to Schwab’s conference.
1.) Schwab is heavily leveraging IMPACT this year to recruit wirehouse brokers. There are 47 brokers coming who represent 28 wirehouse teams, about a threefold jump from prior years. And they’re not just coming from local environs. They’ll be showing up from across the U.S. How will you recognize them? They're not likely to have a company name on their badge.
2.) Schwab is embracing Twitter. Honestly, I didn’t quite get it myself when I heard about it. One of its outside spokesmen, John McInerney, got back to me with this explanation: “It’s really simple: To create a thread so that users on Twitter can follow IMPACT 2009, simply end or begin all of your tweets from IMPACT with the “hash tag” #IMPACT09. Users can click on it and they can find what others had to say about related topics. You don’t have to scroll through user names. Flip through Twitter and you’ll find oodles of them.” This hash-tagging will be an interesting experiment. I just wrote an article based on an InvestmentNews survey that showed that only about 19 percent of advisors use Twitter. Maybe IMPACT can drive it to 20 percent.
3.) Schwab says it had 1,300 advisors booked. There’s also a whole world of Schwab employees, exhibitors and other non-advisors that will also be in attendance. Schwab has not provided those attendance figures. That brings the number of potential Tweeters to 2,000.
4.) Jim McCool, head of the Schwab custody unit for RIAs, will be speaking at the first general session on Monday. I wouldn’t normally consider this noteworthy, but when I scoured the Schwab agenda, I didn’t see any speaking time assigned to its executives. I found out more by contacting the company. This speech slot was famously filled by David S. Pottruck and John Philip Coghlan in years past. If Schwab has a major initiative to report it happens here. Sometimes Schwab breaks some tough news or reports on progress with regard to previous friction. It'll be interesting, for instance, to see whether McCool has an update on how Schwab will custody alternative assets.
5.) Walt Bettinger, CEO of The Charles Schwab Corp., will be on stage Tuesday for the presentation of the lunchtime IMPACT awards. Again, it wasn’t on the agenda and I thought I’d pass it on. It seems unlikely he'll handle any heavy topics at an awards ceremony.
6.) Charles “Chuck” Schwab, the chairman and legend, is not attending the conference this year.
7.) Schwab will be showing off its new website for RIAs, Schwab Advisor Center, in a splashy way. This sounds pretty boring, but this is actually a pretty big deal. It’s the company’s first revamp of its web site in more than a decade. I interviewed beta users, who were highly impressed. Nevin Freeman, who developed my new website, RIABiz, did a two-hour demo and reviewed it on my website, riabiz. Nevin went in skeptical. He came away impressed that Advisor Center’s developers made a quantum improvement. The site does things, such as recall your searching habits to make it easier each time you log on. It also fills in the page in “liquid” fashion.
8.) I will be reporting from the conference and throwing in the occasional Twitter update from @RIABiz and #IMPACT09. I will be writing about IMPACT for both my own site, RIABiz.com and for Registered Rep. magazine. RR’s editor, David Geracioti, was unable to attend and asked me to fill in. I’ll be looking for what’s new in the industry and trying to monitor the dynamics of the relationship between Schwab and its RIAs.
9.) I know of at least one surprise that I was told to keep under my hat. This factor will add to the conference energy but will have no impact on RIAs.
10.) Schwab's conference will feature Newt Gingrich and Robert Reich.
Editor's note: If this list should be 12, 15 or 20 items, let me know at [email protected] and I'll add on. Or just add a comment below.