Two years ago, Scott T. Kelly, owner of Kelly Jewelers in Fashion Place mall, was spending nearly as much time hassling with his own and his employees' taxes, pensions, investments and benefits programs as he was showing diamond engagement rings to happy couples.
As a small-business man, Kelly had the same responsibilities as a much larger employer but no accounting department on which to fob them off. Nor could he afford a stable of outside consultants to take on the paperwork.Then, acting on an invitation from a customer, Kelly went to talk to the folks at American Express Financial Advisors at Union Park Center, Ft. Union Blvd. at 7000 South. Today, Amex is handling Kelly's SEPP (Self Employed Pension Program), taxes and tax planning and provides his employees with an employee benefit statement.
Kelly was skeptical at first, he recalls.
"I thought, "Hey, this is American Express - it's going to cost a mint.' But, actually, I have saved money and cut in half the amount of time I have to spend dealing with that side of the business.
"Also, it has really tied my employees to me because it makes them feel they are part owners in the business. I've had a couple of other companies try to hire my people away and one of the biggest reasons they stayed is the investments and benefit plan administered by American Express."
Kathy Jones-Price, a financial adviser with American Express Financial Advisors (AEFA) chuckles when she hears how pleased Kelly is with having "discovered" what Amex is offering small business operators like him. With some 400 Utah businesses, professional groups and individuals under her wing, she's heard it before.
"People think we just manage money, but it's a lot more than that," said Jones-Price. "We can be their advocate and help them with questions on Medicare, estate planning or such things as long-term care expenses. It's a lot more than just watching their (investment) account."
AEFA is trying to rewrite the role it plays in its customers lives. You will never get a "cold call" from an Amex adviser, nor will you get broker calls touting the latest hot stock - Amex advisers get no commissions for buying or selling securities.
Instead, AEFA has launched an innovative program in which advisers' pay is partly based on the results of a "satisfaction survey" of their clients. The goal, said Phil Evans, division vice president of the Salt Lake AEFA office, is to encourage long-term relationships between advisers and clients rather than simply tracking short-term sales generated from trading securities.
"In the past, like most firms, we have primarily rewarded our financial advisers for bringing in new business," said Evans. "Now, we are also rewarding our people for keeping those assets in the company. The result is we now retain 95 percent of our clients, an outstanding retention rate."
Jones-Price said the system allows her to sit down with clients and determine their long-term goals, not just their daily problems.
"I look at it this way: the change in the way our compensation is calculated rewards those who give good client service."
It must be working. The local AEFA office now has more than 16,000 accounts (in some 10,000 client groups) totaling $180 million, served by 50 advisers and a total staff of 100.
Barry Murphy, vice president of client services in AEFA's home office in Minneapolis, said Salt Lake City is one of the company's experimental sites for the new program in which client satisfaction is used to determine a portion of each adviser's pay package.
"This is a test program and Salt Lake is on the cutting edge," said Murphy. "For the first time, commissions are linked to something other than sales."
This is a radical cultural shift away from the usual way that investment brokers do business, said Murphy. He said the new program has three facets:
1. CLIENT SERVICE - Measures how good advisers are at retaining clients and helping their assets grow. This means that the more money their clients make, the more money the advisers earn. Day-to-day sales decline in importance in favor of lengthening the time frame for determining success and defining it from the client's, not the adviser's, perspective.
2. FINANCIAL PLANNING - Rewards advisers for entering into a formal planning relationship with clients. This means that instead of simply selling a mutual fund or insurance policy or individual stock, advisers now have incentives to enter into a long-term relationship with clients, to understand their personal goals, such as early retirement, a second home, college for the kids or expanding their business.
"We find that clients are happier when they have a sense of control over their future - not just doing transactions," said Murphy.
3. CLIENT SATISFACTION SURVEY - AEFA formally surveys its clients so that the company knows what those clients think of their particular adviser. It also surveys how groups of clients feel about groups of advisers - Seattle vs. Salt Lake City, for example. So far, so good for the local contingent, said Murphy.
"The Salt Lake group of advisers is more focused on increasing their clients' satisfaction than any part of the United States and that's a fact," he said.
Murphy emphasized that he does not want to leave the impression that sales are no longer important to American Express under the new program. "Sales and growth of sales are still the mainstays of our business, but in the past they would have been the only things. Now they are just part of the mix."
He also stressed that sales commissions are based only on buying - new money invested - not selling of existing assets, thus eliminating the temptation of advisers to "stir" accounts simply to generate commissions.
There is nothing altruistic about the new program. "This is very much in the self-interest of the company," said Murphy. "The happier our clients are, the more they will invest with us. If you just move money in and out, that's no good for us. We're not a transaction fee company and that is the fundamental difference" between AEFA and traditional securities brokerages.
American Express has had a presence in Salt Lake City for more than 50 years, but the major growth of the local AEFA has occurred in the past 10 years.
The 100-year-old company that was formerly known as IDS Financial Services was acquired by American Express 11 years ago and continued to operate under the IDS name, as an Amex subsidiary, until Jan. 1 of this year when all of the offices adopted the AEFA name.
However, the Salt Lake office was a test site for the new name, American Express Financial Advisors, and has been using that name for the past three years.