Marketing & Client Acquisition
25 MIN PODCAST
From their footprint in the Deep South, Rhonda and Scott Ferguson have developed a strong niche by focusing on employees at regional outposts of some of the country’s biggest companies. Working out of a small home in downtown Columbus, Mississippi, the two serve as a bridge between those large corporations and their small-town workers.
In this episode, hear how the mother-and-son duo built Financial Concepts, with $775 million in assets under management, using their local roots and hometown authenticity to win clients planning for retirement from big-name organizations. The key, they say, is understanding the benefits packages of those companies better than anyone in town — including the companies themselves.
Knowing the rules better than HR
By studying the benefits packages and employee handbooks so thoroughly, the Fergusons became a de facto arm of local HR departments over the years. “The HR people will call and say, ‘I've got somebody who’s going out on disability. What should they do?’” says Rhonda.
The Fergusons’ approach to winning retirees follows three key steps:
1. Adding value before charging clients
Getting entrenched in these companies and the lives of their workers has been the result of a long-game strategy. While they’re not the advisor of record on these plans, they still help the workers explore the best funds for them based on their goals and objectives. The team doesn’t try to monetize those early interactions, but instead considers it the groundwork for a relationship to take root and grow over the years.
“We’re not charging to help them do that. We’re doing this in the name of goodwill in hopes that, down the road, they’re going to let us help them with the bigger decisions in their lives,” Scott says.
In all, the strategy appeals to the everyday workers who are their bread and butter. In their tight-knit community, many of their clients know each other, Rhonda says. “They’re either related to each other, they work together, they go to church together, they’re friends, they’re neighbors,” she says. “We can't go anywhere without running into a client.”
The Fergusons got into this line of business with a bit of serendipity, and then capitalized on a good opportunity. In the 1980s, a prominent paper mill in the area started bringing in a benefits specialist to help educate its workforce. But there were simply too many workers on multiple shifts, and the Fergusons ended up helping out with the financial education, Rhonda says. “We knew their benefits inside out.”
The practice also made inroads with other large area employers: an engine manufacturer, steel companies and a chemical plant.
2. Building relationships with HR departments
There is no single prescribed method the team uses to establish these relationships. Instead, they use any inroad they can find: from reaching out directly to HR departments, to getting an introduction from existing clients, to holding seminars, both at the companies and elsewhere. They find a lot of the information about the firms’ benefit plans via online searches, and when employees come in for a meeting, the team will take the opportunity to learn even more.
“Once you get that employee handbook, the sky's the limit,” Scott says. “All you’ve got to do is learn it. We read the employee handbook closer than the actual employees.”
The takeaway for other advisors: The process used by the Fergusons can be used almost anywhere.
“Just pick the five or six large employers that you want to be the expert in and learn the benefits backward and forward,” Scott says. He notes that the firm doesn’t sell health insurance or disability insurance, but he knows the issues around those products and how they work. “If you've helped them through the minutiae of all that stuff, they’ll think about you when the big opportunities come up.”
3. Keeping the investment process simple
The one other major tenet to their strategy is a passion for simplicity, Rhonda says. When she started in the industry, she says she was proud of her managerial finance degree, but had the mistaken idea that she knew everything she needed.
“I'd meet with people and show them charts and graphs, and their eyes would glaze over,” she says. “They'd walk out, and I'd never seen them again.”
It took time to realize that her knowledge base that she was proud of was actually table stakes. Clients expected that much. “What they needed to know was that I knew them and their needs.”
And that epiphany gave her the confidence to simplify her approach to the job, including the investments. The team created its own model portfolios: one conservative and one moderate. If they get a more aggressive client, the models can be adapted. “We just keep it really simple,” she says.
Beyond that, they pride themselves on exquisite service. And while other advisors say the same thing, the Fergusons walk the walk, providing an extreme attention to detail for every client.
“Whether you're at the top of the list, or you have a very small account, call us with anything you want help with,” says Scott. “If it's an address change, call me. We'll take care of it. Income changes, call me. We’ll take care of it. Whatever it is, call our office, let us know. We’ll take care of it. You don't have to go online and fill out a form to update your bank. We’ll email you what you need, right away, so you can go in there and DocuSign. It's going to be done.”
Their niche is working, and with the two-generation leadership, they have the makings of a built-in succession plan. Overall, Scott sees it as a winning approach, as he’s thinking of days ahead with $1 billion in assets under management. “That’s what we're aiming for. We did the math earlier this year, based on current trajectory, even with very moderate market growth, in five or six years, we can do that.”