The Independent Establishment
Thomas Ackmann left and Seth Whicker have found success through specialization

Thomas Ackmann (left) and Seth Whicker have found success through specialization.

Seeking a Specialist

SYM Financial Corp.’s roots go back 60 years—plenty of time to have explored a few business iterations. The firm sold insurance and other products and operated a record-keeping business for 401(k) plans. Then, in the early 1990s, the firm’s principals decided they needed more focus. “You can’t be a jack-of-all trades and try to do everything yourself,” Vice President Seth Whicker says. SYM jettisoned product sales and other commission work, sold the record-keeping business and structured itself as an RIA.

Today the firm, headquartered in Winona Lake, Ind., specializes in wealth and portfolio management and retirement plans and oversees $1.9 billion in assets, Whicker says. It also restructured its ownership around a group of nine employees. Offering equity to key employees is an important part of SYM’s succession strategy, according to Whicker. It just hired a chartered financial analyst for a chief investment officer’s role. 

“You can’t attract talent like that if they don’t think there’s a possibility for ownership down the road,” he says. “Hopefully, if we’ve hired correctly, we already have our succession plan in place.”

Retirement plans—SYM manages about 100—account for $400 million of assets, or a little more than 20 percent of the business. Thomas Ackmann, who oversees this segment at SYM, believes it could grow to 25 percent. Employers are looking for ways to recruit and retain qualified staff, and 401(k) plans are a good place to start. SYM works closely with its clients’ employees to explain their options. 

“We’re going to see that the days of giving somebody a list of 50 funds and saying, ‘Here are your choices, we need this back Friday, good luck to you,’ are coming to an end,” Ackmann says. “We’re probably the only financial advisor that most of our plan participants will ever have.”

On the wealth management side, SYM works with doctors and dentists, a coveted niche. Of the two professions, Whicker sees more long-term possibilities with dentists—their sole proprietor business needs offer financial advisors more opportunities to develop deeper relationships. Doctors have large incomes and are still good clients, he says, but an increasing number are leaving practices and working directly for hospitals, which limits the chances for advisors to manage retirement money.

A doctor starting a practice needs more advice than someone in practice for, say, 15 years. The newbie may have more needs and less income but could be more valuable to an advisor in the long run, according to Whicker, provided the advisor has specialties, such as financial planning, that serve the doctor’s needs. 

Whicker believes there are broader lessons here. “I think if an advisor goes into a relationship thinking, ‘All I’m going to do is manage money,’ you become a commodity. You can’t control the markets. The reality is, if you’re going through a bad year, they’ll ask, ‘What else are you doing for me?’” Good question. 

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