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Barak Kassar and Kristin Wiederholt

My Life as a Client: Style vs. Substance

What do your accounts really think about you? Here’s the view from one client, Barak Kassar, a 50-year-old co-owner with his wife Kristin Wiederholt of a San Francisco–based marketing communications firm.

Back about 16 years ago, I worked for a company that went public and had an IPO. So my wife and I suddenly had a lot of money. But we weren’t savvy about investing and weren’t sure where to find a financial advisor.   

The bank that took the company public introduced us to a firm. The place sounded awesome at the time, with all these celebrity sports people as clients. I was pretty starstruck. And the office was designed to impress, with lots of framed articles about their famous clients. The lobby in the building was really cool, kind of steam punk. Lots of dark steel and cement.

We met with one of the main guys whose name was on the door and two other people—someone more junior and an account manager who would take care of basic stuff like wire transfers. They waved their arms and talked about the stock market and how they handle other clients. They were selling us, but I wasn’t really paying enough attention. So I went along with it.

We’d meet with them about once a year and in between we’d get statements and other things, like their investment committee’s views. I might as well have been getting notifications from a bank—that’s how impersonal it was.

I came to realize we were just a little slice in their pie. And, they were doing the absolute minimum to keep our assets. I never once felt they tried to understand us. They were only interested in a very narrow part of our life—literally just our investment account. This is how your money’s doing. Nothing else. We never talked about our children, our interests. They had no desire to learn about anything to do with our lives. And, they never tried to educate me. I have an MBA, so it’s not like I didn’t know anything. But I didn’t have a grip on our relationship to money—that’s their job. They’re wealth managers.

About eight years ago, we decided to move to Spain, just to brush off the dust, as my wife said. We had some good friends there and my wife had lived in the country while she was in college. During that time, one of our main clients was acquired and our cash flow started to plummet. And being far away, I didn’t have as much of a pipeline for new business. I started to see that I needed to be a more active manager of our money.

When we moved back to the States six years ago, I asked a good friend with a lot of money—way more than us—how he handled his finances. He told me he used a firm he loved and he’d make an introduction. I met with one of their people and we just connected. I made the switch.

In the first year, they did some very basic work, getting our portfolio allocated the way they thought was best for us. That involved a lot of questions about our goals and needs. But, they also have gone above and beyond the call of duty, like recommending some things that weren’t even in their interest, but were right for us. For example, when we wanted to refinance our house, they suggested getting a shorter-term mortgage, which required taking out money from the account—money they would not be earning a fee on anymore, as a result.

We meet with them about once a quarter, but we don’t see a partner like we did at the other firm. It doesn’t bother me. That partner wasn’t very helpful.

They ask us about our kids, their schools, real estate, our car, our lifestyle, etc. We’ve talked about those things over time and they’re constantly updating our profile. And they have a monthly cocktail party at their office that’s really nice. I’ve only gone once or twice, but I liked it. You get to meet other people at the firm and other clients. We feel we have a bond with them. 

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