About 10 years ago, Fielding Miller was a rising star at Interstate/ Johnson Lane. "I have visions of being a million-dollar producer, and I will be one," Miller told Registered Representative as one of its 1988 Rookies of the Year.
Then Miller made a risky decision to refocus his business. He wanted to bring money management consulting to North Carolina retirement plans. But consulting was a new concept to these large companies, Miller says, and Interstate/Johnson Lane wasn't in that kind of business.
Miller found a soul mate in David Perkins, a first-year broker in his Raleigh, N.C., branch. "We had a shared vision to do something bigger than us," Perkins says. They became partners in 1989.
"We had to learn what clients were looking for and create it ourselves," Miller says. "We felt we could add value to these clients by adding extra service for the same price they paid someone else just to invest their money."
The partners now handle 1 billion in assets with the help of 20 staffers. They have gone well beyond retirement plan consulting, diversifying into consulting with nonprofit groups, high-net-worth individuals and professional athletes. In mid-1997, their group became one of Interstate/Johnson Lane's CapTrust Financial Advisors affiliates.
The two were willing to go through three lean years to build an operation that could provide the level of service they envisioned. "We were buying computers, audio business cards and staff before we could afford it," Perkins says. "We probably had the lowest net-net payout in the business." And each of them was averaging 100-hour workweeks.
Business took a giant leap in 1994. "The market got spanked that year and, as a result, investors who weren't getting good service elsewhere got mad," Miller says. "We had been providing a lot of add-on service, so we started getting a lot of new accounts this way." From their work with retirement plans, the partners got referrals to handle the individual accounts of top executives.
Customization has been the key to the team's success. "Our motto is, 'The answer is always yes,'" Perkins says. The partners offer to handle every aspect of running a retirement plan, from providing employee communications to doing third-party administrator searches.
To follow through on the promise of customization, Miller and Perkins gradually added staff that includes a person to service 401(k) plans and one to service retirement plans, a marketing director and two analysts to produce performance reports.
When referrals began opening new markets, they hired four junior brokers to bring in the business. Two focus on the separate niches of nonprofit groups and high-net-worth individuals. Miller and Perkins turned over qualified plan prospecting to a third junior rep and opened a market with professional athletes when a former pro football player joined as a fourth junior broker.
Miller and Perkins meet personally with all clients, but separately. "The junior guys find prospects and pick which one of us would be best to bring in," Miller says. They find they appeal to different audiences. "Fielding is more the country club guy," Perkins says. "I'm more the country guy who's done it on his own."
At CapTrust, the partners added a manager to handle all staff supervision and branch administration. That has allowed them to concentrate on meeting with clients and prospects. "We delegate everything but what we're paid to do," Miller says. "The hardest part is letting go of daily supervision. We meet Monday mornings with the manager, and then we bite our tongues and go back into our offices. You have to delegate away your opinion."