How does David Earls, a financial adviser at Workers' Credit Union in Fitchburg, Mass., run a thriving business in his ailing blue-collar town?
"The first misconception is that blue-collar people have no money," he said. "The second is that they're not interested in investments, and the third is that they aren't smart enough to invest. I just hope other advisers keep having those misconceptions!"
Though Earls also works with younger people for whom Fitchburg is a bedroom community, his client base is 55- to 65-year-old blue-collar workers from what's left of the town's manufacturing industry — primarily paper, plastics and consumer goods. Most of these clients have $200,000 to $300,000 in assets, so they are far from poor. "They've been saving their entire lives in order to retire comfortably," Earls said.
Targeting this demographic has let Earls maintain an impressive, $600,000-plus production level, though he has no account minimums and no fee business to provide a reliable revenue stream.
The adviser credits his success to his dogged work ethic. "Don't be afraid to call people you think aren't happy," he said. "Your existing clients are your best source of new business, and they're waiting to hear from you. A lot of this business comes down to how many people you talk to."
For example, he cited a client who is retired, with the children moved out and his wife ill with an aneurysm. Though she is fine so long as her husband can care for her, the client is concerned because he has Alzheimer's disease in his family. "The client was worried about what would happen if he had to go into a nursing home," Earls said. "So we're protecting their assets with annuity contracts, and I set them up with long-term-care insurance so that, if something happens to him, she still gets uninterrupted income."
The client came to Earls nine years ago when he was in his late 60s, with about $350,000 in savings. The client now has about $175,000 divided among variable annuities and mutual funds, and he is paying about $3,500 per year for the LTC insurance. It is expensive but worth it, Earls said. "My dad ended up in a nursing home, so I know the costs." The couple are guaranteed an income for life, they have growth assets, and they are covered if one of them falls seriously ill.
Another client took a severance package after a competitor bought the supermarket he managed. In his early 60s, the client walked away with $300,000 in retirement savings plus two years of salary continuation. Earls recommended that he use the salary to buy annuities he would need in the future. The client and his wife could make do comfortably on the $300,000 bucket in the meantime. When that runs out, they will have the annuities paid for by the severance package.
Earls identifies with his blue-collar clients: He grew up in Fitchburg and has experienced the cruelty the economy can practice. Until he became an adviser 16 years ago, Earls, who will be 58 in December, had worked his way up at a local toy company to be chief financial officer. Like many other companies in the area, it eventually succumbed to competition from Asian imports.
As the company's CFO, Earls had been an attractive prospect for local brokers, but they did not make a good impression on him. The company would buy a financial product, but "when you called later to ask a question about it, they wouldn't return your call unless they thought they could make a sale," he recalled. When he decided to become an adviser himself, he said, he realized that, if he could provide a higher "level of service, one that others were unwilling to provide, people would want to buy from me."
Earls met an adviser at Phoenix Life Insurance in Boston who impressed him with her commitment to clients. On her recommendation, he joined the company in 1994.
At first Earls worried that he would not be able to sustain a business in Fitchburg. "It was a concern, but one thing I do understand is that you need to be active and make yourself known," he said. "If you meet with two people with $250,000, that's the same revenue as meeting one with $500,000. Working in this community means more activity, but if mine is high enough, I can do what's necessary to sell."
Earls, who later became the credit union's first adviser — there are now two — continued to prospect outside the credit union after he joined. In fact, he was able to bring $15 million with him from Phoenix, which helped keep food on the table while the Workers' Credit Union program, providing investment products through CUSO Financial Services, was in start-up. Seminars, particularly about estate planning, also feed the flow of business. "Those bring in a lot of people, and we typically see some nice referrals beyond attendees," Earls said.
He also must work hard to keep referrals coming from inside the credit union, since tellers tend to last only nine months. He visits his three branches and holds competitions for other customer service reps. What works best? "Anything that provides a food prize!" he said. "But what really works best is walking up to people and saying, 'Thank you.' "
Clearly, in a town like Fitchburg, treating everyone you meet as if they're worth a million can get you a long way.