For a town with a census population of 2,073, Eureka Springs, Ark., has acquired more than its fair share of nicknames over the years: America’s Victorian Village, Stair-Step Town, Wedding Capital of the South, even Little Switzerland of the Ozarks. But spend a few hours talking with Sheryl Garrett, one of this mountain hamlet’s prominent citizens, and you may come away adding another: the New Wall Street.
In the span of a dozen years, Garrett, a soft-spoken 50-year-old transplant to Eureka Springs (she’s from Kansas), has amassed a network of about 325 financial advisers, catering to some 25,000 clients around the country. The “global headquarters” for this operation is Garrett’s modest two-story home, a short walk from Myrtie Mae’s, a popular eatery, where on a recent springlike Monday the founder of the Garrett Planning Network has come to talk about her strategy for upending the $14 trillion financial-services industry. Indeed, between lusty bites of Myrtie’s famed “country recipe” chicken, she begins to sound as if she’s leading a pitchfork rebellion against the Merrills and J.P. Morgans of the world.
Her plan is to stick to a fee-only system, with no commissions that might sway advisers the wrong way, and to operate under a strict fiduciary standard — one that obligates advisers to work in the best interests of their clients. in the process, she claims, financial-planning costs will come way, way down for “the 83 percenters” — the middle-class Main Street investors who, Garrett says, have been shunned by the century-old broker-dealers. And while her mission is not yet finished, one thing is eminently clear by the time she finishes lunch: Garrett doesn’t lack the confidence to pull it off. “I’d like to be the H&R Block of financial advice,” she says.
But if this is the future of portfolio planning for America, it’s going to come as a surprise to anyone accustomed to the old pin-striped-suit model, with brokers at brand-name Wall Street houses reciting their firm’s “strategic outlook” and touting the company’s line of stocks and funds. unlike traditional brokerage houses, Garrett’s network doesn’t instruct its far-flung advisory firms — known in the industry as registered investment advisers, or RIAs — on what investments to pick for clients. It doesn’t have a squad of researchers selecting stocks and studying economic trends. Nor does it demand that “franchisees” commit to having a key industry credential (the certified financial planner accreditation) until five years after they join the network — or even commit to financial planning as a full-time career. one in five Garrett advisers, in fact, is a part-timer. “A good number,” explains Garrett, “are semiretired.”
And yet, to the surprise of many industry watchers, the RIA movement, for lack of a better word, has been winning more than its share of happy converts. already, such non-Wall Street advisory firms control some $1.4 trillion in assets, compared with $5 trillion for traditional brokerages. Since 2004, the number of RIAs has jumped 31 percent, to nearly 21,000, according to research firm Cerulli, even as the big financial firms have shed brokers by the boatload. Some say the shift is just the latest example of how fed up Americans are with the retirement advice they got before the crash of 2008. Others think the RIA model is just, well, more consumer-friendly. either way, Alois Pirker, an industry analyst with Boston research firm Aite Group, thinks the old guard better wake up: “They need to take the competition seriously.”
So who are these scrappy outsiders — and why do their playbooks and rules differ so much from those of big Wall Street firms? The answers, perhaps no surprise, depend on whom you ask. The brokerage houses insist these newer outfits aren’t the game-changers they claim to be. “Any RIA who argues that their way of doing business is best for each and every investor is simply blowing smoke,” scoffs James Wiggins, a managing director for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. The upstarts, though, say all that smoke is coming from a genuine investor brushfire. “You see this mass exodus” from the old-school firms, says Garrett, “because of one reason: trust.” many people, she says, no longer feel comfortable leaving their money to “these black-box entities.” We caught up with her and two other outside-the-box players in what is becoming a rather high-stakes game.