Kerry Grinkmeyer, a retired financial advisor in Birmingham, Ala., doesn't want what happened to his daughter to happen to yours — or anyone, for that matter. In 1988, Grinkmeyer's then-teenage daughter, Shannon, thought she injured herself while training at a summer camp for cross-country runners. The pain was so great that Shannon had to be carried back to camp.
For the next 15 years, the Grinkmeyers went from doctor to doctor to figure out what was causing the pain in her foot. The doctors tried everything, from arch supports to plastic boots, and she was eventually diagnosed with chronic plantar facetious. Surgery helped, but the pain returned. And got worse. After graduating from college and “more medication, a cane and more doctors,” she had surgery again. Eventually a physician told her that the pain was “all in her head,” Grinkmeyer says. Then, in 2002, an MRI revealed that she had a cancerous tumor in her foot that had been there for 12 years. On May 14, 2002, a day after her 29th birthday, she was told she would have to lose her limb, or risk her life. One month later, her leg was amputated at mid-calf.
In Search Of Excellence
Grinkmeyer, a general contractor turned financial advisor, vowed to get something positive out of his family's horrible experience: Root out the best, the truly expert in their fields, wherever they may live and work. And so the free Web site, bestofus.com, was conceived. Although he says it's still in its “test-and-scrub” phase, the site has already listed 30,000 professionals, including doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, accountants — and even financial advisors. In short, Grinkmeyer is trying to help the consumer find service providers whose talents may be difficult to assess — and who are very often referred by word of mouth.
“I don't think Shannon's story is all that unique,” Grinkmeyer says. “Everyone has had experiences with doctors, lawyers, financial planners and accountants who represent themselves as experts when, in fact, their abilities are mediocre at best.” But, of course, there are many true experts out there. The trouble is finding them. “Until now, we've had to depend on recommendations from family and friends, but the quality was limited by their experience. Now with the Internet, everyone can know who the best are. Who knows, it might even force the mediocre to get better and drive the shoddy out of business.”
The selection process is a hodgepodge of procedures that begins with a compilation of recent “best of” lists from media, industry or peer-selection outlets, like this magazine's Outstanding Brokers and Top 50 Advisors, published each May and September, respectively. Consumers are the other source for finding potential professionals for the list. Grinkmeyer's team (his wife and son-in-law) contacts the list of professionals and asks them to prove themselves. “I throw the nomination back at the nominee and ask, ‘How can you distinguish yourself?’” Scientific? Not really. In fact, Grinkmeyer, 61, says it can get downright tricky. Recently, after receiving a nomination for a dentist, Grinkmeyer says he discovered that the candidate was nominated by his wife. “I wrote the dentist and asked him to show me why he is the best. He hasn't responded yet.”
All nominees are judged by their professional reputations and qualifications, including past and ongoing education, affiliations, certifications, associations, industry participation through lectures, teaching and appointments, experience, regulatory and community records and disciplinary history. After Grinkmeyer's team OKs a group of professionals for the list, they seek further nominations from the new additions. “I think the good financial advisors know who the other ones are,” he says.
At first glance, there seems to be nothing special about Grinkmeyer's project. There's no Craigslist-esque novelty to the Web site, and, again, the procedure is hardly scientific; in fact, choosing “the best” can sometimes be subjective. He admits he's already received phone calls and emails telling him that he's overlooked worthy candidates, or that he's granted an unworthy professional “best of” status. But he compares his site to another Internet phenomenon: Wikipedia — a free electronic encyclopedia whose entries are written and edited by the public. “I want the community to shape this Web site and say who belongs in it and who doesn't,” he says. “I am not personally attempting to assess anyone's professional ability. I'm gathering the information that is already out there and putting it into an accessible platform.”
What's in it for Grinkmeyer? Not too much; well, not monetarily anyway. He's doing it more for the satisfaction of being able to help people in search of the best doctor, veterinarian, advisor and so on. The site, for now, doesn't accept ads in order to keep it conflict free. But, Grinkmeyer doesn't rule out the possibility of advertisers in the future, noting, “I'll have to be selective about who can advertise so there is no conflict.” He says companies like Visa and American Express would be ideal.
There is nothing to show as far as revenue generation right now, and Grinkmeyer isn't sure what to expect, either. So far, he's been quite efficient with business expenses. The launch of the Web site has cost him about $20,000. He thanks his son-in-law, who wrote the program that supports the site, for keeping him from paying as much as $65,000 for such a service. Monthly expenses, including server costs, are about $250, but that amount could increase fourfold if the site continues to grow. And, of course, there are unavoidable legal fees, about $300 to $400 per hour each month, to ensure he is abiding by privacy and copyright laws. But his secret weapon is halfway around the world in India, where he outsources all of the Web site's data-entry activity for about $3 per hour, as opposed to the $20- to $30-per-hour rate he was quoted in the U.S.
For financial advisors, this sort of Web site may be an additional medium for attaining new clients. Scott Noyes, an RIA in New Vernon, N.J., says he's received about 20 leads and five clients through a similar Web site. “This a great tool when you're an independent advisor,” he says. Noyes is a member of the Paladin Registry, which does a little more than rate professionals. Paladin, which deals strictly with financial advisors and investors, acts as a matchmaker for the two groups. “Investors can do their own search or we can do the searching for them,” says founder of the Paladin Registry, Jack Waymire. Ethics, competence and business practices (advisors must have fee-based practices) are the top criteria for inclusion on the site. The site, paladinregistry.com, currently lists over 600 advisors.
There are several Web sites available for consumers looking for good, honest service, but Grinkmeyer says a lot of the information available to consumers is scattered and difficult to manage. “I'm just gathering from people's personal experiences. When I needed home remodeling done, I went to the Yellow pages, but I also asked my neighbor how his remodeling went. I ended up hiring my neighbor's guy. Also, there are certifications out there that consumers don't know about that could make some decisions much easier,” he explains. The scenario could easily apply to the financial-advisor world, where Grinkmeyer believes U4 forms are a good resource but says they just scratch the surface and don't necessarily separate the bad from the good. Grinkmeyer says his site goes beyond the basics of NASD's Broker Check feature, which just provides advisors' U4 details and previous employment history. Advisors on his site are listed for their experience and ongoing education in the industry.
Some 380 financial advisors have made the cut so far; Grinkmeyer says; his target is about 14,000 advisors from around the country. Being listed on the site with basic information — name, city and state — is free. Adding an address and email will cost you $100, and a web link will cost an additional $100.
The ideal advisor, he says, is someone with multiple designations, who is advancing his career through continuing education and is active in the community. “Like my doctor, my advisor better be keeping up with the latest information.” Unfortunately, he says, many advisors only go through the motions: “I can't tell you how many times I've attended continuing-education classes for advisors where guys just sign the attendance sheet and leave.”
In his 12-year career as an advisor, which began immediately after his contracting firm went belly-up because of the savings-and-loans industry collapse in the late 1980s, Grinkmeyer gradually built an eight-office advisory practice in Birmingham and Atlanta. John Purse, who began his advisory career at the same time as Grinkmeyer, recalls their initial years together in the Birmingham office. “Kerry would say, ‘Jeeze, these have been a bad couple months. I've got to put my house up for sale.’ And he would. Then, he'd have a few good months and the sign would come down. That “For Sale” sign probably went up and down many times during those first years,” Purse laughs.
The idea of ratings or matching Web sites for advisors may be too new or obscure for firms to be able to calculate their impact. Meanwhile the Securities Industry Association says to be cautious. “The more information that is available to consumers, the better it is for investors. Consumers should understand that no matter where they're getting information, they should know how the information is supplied and where the research comes from. Know your source,” an SIA spokesperson says.
And now, with his goal to eventually list about 200,000 professionals on the Web site, Grinkmeyer says he's got his hands full. The learning curve on this project reminds him of his years as a novice financial advisor. He spends an average of 10 hours a day, seven days a week working on the site. Grinkmeyer hopes his Web site will be a source known for its accuracy and that it will hold professionals to a higher standard of service. “I know Shannon's story is not unique. I get calls from people who say ‘You know, you were lucky. My child was misdiagnosed and died,’” he adds. “I'll be successful if I can make finding the best professionals easy for the public consumer, force professionals to get better [at their work] and force scammers out.”
The Bestofus.com List
A retired financial advisor is building an online referral list for consumers. Here's the list so far.
|PROFESSIONALS||Practitioners in U.S.||Listed on bestofus.com|
|Real Estate Agents||800,000||567|