Marketing & Client Acquisition
29 MIN PODCAST
Jonathan Freeman and Brian McCarver of Stonebridge Financial Group began their careers when cold-calling and a focus on commissions dominated financial services. When they first met 20 years ago, they agreed that the industry’s future lied instead in emphasizing teams and personalized client services —important common ground between two founders with otherwise opposite personalities.
Founded in 2013, their firm now has 19 people in two offices in central Pennsylvania, managing $1.3 billion in assets. About a third of the practice focuses on corporate retirement plan consulting, with the remainder in wealth management and financial planning.
We split this interview into two parts. In this episode, Freeman and McCarver talk about why team management is the bedrock of their growth, how they’ve leveraged centers of influence (COIs) to create a robust client referral pipeline, and why spending resources on marketing helps fuel organic and sustainable growth.
Find part two of our conversation, when Freeman and McCarver discuss their corporate retirement plan business and how that business helps to fuel the growth of the advisory firm’s wealth management clientele.
One plus one equals three
Both men came out of the wirehouse world in the late ‘90s, but otherwise differ in personalities and the parts of the business they want to work in. “I think probably the most interesting aspect of our business is that John and I are literally like yin and yang,” McCarver says. “We have complete opposite skill sets and personalities.”
That difference only heightened the importance they placed on encouraging teamwork and valuing diverse voices, and it influenced their hiring practices. For example, their first two key hires were made outside of wealth management — an unconventional move.
“One was a gentleman who worked for a payroll company, so he was very accustomed to group benefits and things like that. And he gravitated very well to the 401(k) plan side of the business,” Freeman says. “Another one was someone who was working in analytics for a company that originates municipal bonds, and he ended up becoming our portfolio analyst.”
Those hires became “force multipliers” who allowed Freeman and McCarver to spend more time working with clients. “We, individually, couldn’t have [achieved this level of growth],” McCarver says. “We’ve done this because one plus one equals three.”
With cold-calling an unappealing (and arguably inefficient) way to drum up new business, Stonebridge leaned heavily into building and leveraging a centers of influence network to help expand the firm’s client roster. “CPAs, attorneys, HR consultants, payroll providers — they’re all very valuable sources of introductions,” Freeman says. “If we're getting introductions, then we're immediately beginning with the people coming to us with the intent to hire us.”
Building relationships through these introductions resulted in an extraordinarily high closing rate on prospective clients, Freeman adds. “It’s almost not even like a sales process anymore.”
About three years ago, McCarver said they decided to more formally boost the firm’s marketing and branding effort. “We actually hired an outside third-party marketing person who really, really ramped up our presence online, and presentation, and just the quality of how we were delivering information to clients in the marketplace,” he says.
When COVID-19 shuttered economies and sent stock markets spiraling, Freeman says just sending information quickly to clients was invaluable. “It's real simple: The more frequently clients hear from you, the more likely they are to stay,” Freeman says. “The happier they are, the more likely they are to refer you. So it is super, super important.”
Be a coach … but also be coachable
Freeman and McCarver worked with Pareto Systems and Vistage, two third-party executive coaching programs, for ideas and advice on managing the firm’s growth. “It was money well spent,” Freeman says. “Maybe we would have made those decisions ourselves eventually. But I think that having someone else holding us accountable … did push us in the right direction quite a bit faster than we would have otherwise.”
Coaching helped them incorporate a team-building approach to human resources management. They encourage senior associates to “increase the quality of their books” by passing down smaller clients to more junior associates, for example, Freeman says. “We think it's very important that the newer or younger advisors are handed business,” he adds. “The practice itself originates a lot of new business, and we want to make sure that that trickles down and really enables people to be successful.”
Without that sales pressure, associates are able to fully engage with marketing efforts and community involvement initiatives, giving them opportunities to build relationships that lead to both the growth of their own careers and the firm itself. “Nearly everybody who starts with us, our hope is that they spend their careers here,” Freeman says.