Synovus Financial Corp. has added itself to a growing list of banking companies that are trying to boost their share of the affluent market by buying a financial planning firm that already serves the demographic.
The Columbus, Ga., bank holding company last week bought one of Atlanta's biggest financial planning companies, Creative Financial Group Ltd., which has $940 million of assets under supervision.
Synovus, which operates 39 community banks in the South, did not say what it spent to buy Creative Financial. The 30-employee company offers asset management, brokerage, and tax services through three subsidiaries but specializes in financial planning for executives through relationships it sets up with corporations including BellSouth Corp. and the Atlanta power concern Southern Co.
William G. Perkins, president and chief operating officer of Synovus' wealth management unit, said the payoff ultimately will be in cross-selling Synovus' banking products to Creative Financial's clientele - a strategy that he said seems to be working already. The day after the sale, Creative Financial sent Synovus "a couple of million" dollars worth of mortgage business, he said.
"Financial planning is the key to serving both the high end and the middle of the affluent market, but we're not seeing anyone in the industry approach it correctly," said Mr. Perkins, whose unit handles $8.4 billion of assets, not including those managed by Creative Financial.
Though many brokers offer financial planning, they are still commissioned salespeople, Mr. Perkins said. Creative Financial, by contrast, charges a flat fee for creating financial plans that are then implemented through the three subsidiaries. For asset management services, it charges a percentage of assets under management.
Creative Financial will operate as a separate company, though its broker-dealer subsidiary will be merged into the brokerage owned by Synovus, Mr. Perkins said.
Many banking companies, including Bank of America Corp. and FleetBoston Financial Corp., recently announced plans to treat the brokerage business more like financial planning.
"Financial planning has become the major thrust for acquiring and developing new clients," said David Ross Palmer, a principal of the wealth management practice of the consulting firm LoBue Associates Inc., in Northbrook, Ill.
"If you use a financial planning approach, you open up vastly greater areas of client needs" - from insurance and investments to tax and estate planning, Mr. Palmer said.
But he said many banks have fallen into the trap of offering "fee-only" financial planning, in which the adviser puts together a plan for a flat fee. The idea is to give the impression of impartiality, since the bank is not selling any products, but in reality it hurts both the bank - which cannot make much money from financial planning alone - and the customer, Mr. Palmer said.
"The client doesn't want to just be cut loose to go find the products," he said. "If you've done a good job, by the time you present a financial plan they trust you" to implement them.
Mr. Palmer said it is smarter to offer financial planning but charge according to assets under management or through commissions for products sold pursuant to the plan.