Things get complicated when you suddenly become a billionaire. Instead of worrying about whether your checks will bounce, you have to figure out what to do with all your money, how to shield it from taxes, how to plan your estate - and, of course, how much to give to charity.
Nobody knows these dilemmas better than those who have struck it rich on the Internet. Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape Communications and two other runaway technology hits, Silicon Graphics Inc. and Healtheon, decided to do something about it.
In May 1999 he opened MyCFO, a company that offers online account aggregation and personalized financial advice to people who are not accustomed to having money to burn.
If Horatio Alger had written his rags-to-riches tales in the Internet age, he might have conceived of MyCFO.
Mr. Clark, who spent 39 years as a Stanford University professor before earning his fortune, raised $45 million for the Mountain View, Calif., company from Barksdale Group (whose founder, James Barksdale, was one of Mr. Clark's partners at Netscape), Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and private investors.
The money was used to hire more than 300 accounting, asset management, estate planning, and tax planning professionals.
Then he started inviting his super-rich Silicon Valley friends to become clients. MyCFO has signed up 275 customers, most of whom have put more than $10 million each under its care.
The company's second client, and one of its most prominent, is Cisco Systems founder John Chambers, whom MyCFO says has put billions under its aegis.
Chase Bailey, another client and friend-of-Jim, was the 20th employee of Mr. Clark's first company, Silicon Graphics, the computer technology firm that launched the careers of many Internet entrepreneurs.
Mr. Bailey, 53, founded Efficient Networks Inc., a manufacturer of high-speed Internet connectors. When it went public in July 1999, he netted more than $100 million. Shortly after that he retired from Cisco, where he had worked since 1996.
"I've never been a financial management expert, and I don't know what the heck I'm doing," he said. "I suddenly found myself in need of someone to help me manage my money, and that's why I started looking."
He turned to Mr. Clark, who recommended MyCFO. After interviewing several firms, Mr. Bailey, who lives in Incline Village, Nev., near Lake Tahoe, said he found MyCFO "the most impressive."
Mr. Bailey said it is "really cool" to go online to see his bills, but he also likes meeting with a MyCFO adviser in person every couple of months.
Art Shaw, president and chief executive officer of MyCFO, said Mr. Clark had envisioned a "holistic solution" to the instant millionaires' needs. Instead of relying on an army of specialists who give conflicting recommendations and do not talk to one another, MyCFO assigns a dedicated "client service director" to each client, he said.
These directors review, assess, and monitor all aspects of a client's wealth, including investments, insurance, tax, philanthropy, trusts, and wills.
The client and adviser conduct business over the Internet and face to face at MyCFO's five branch offices - four in California and one in Atlanta, another emerging technology hot spot.
"Right now we are very focused on California," said Mr. Shaw, who joined the company from Charles Schwab & Co., where he was senior vice president for electronic brokerage. "A disproportionate amount of wealth is being created there."
Half to three-fourths of MyCFO's clients made their windfall through technology or Internet firms. Needless to say, its clients are highly sought-after by financial planners and money managers. J.P. Morgan & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have recently opened offices in Silicon Valley. Schwab just acquired U.S. Trust to better target the very wealthy.
MyCFO, which has 319 employees, does not set a minimum investment amount, but it tends to attract clients who need to pull together diverse and complex accounts in one place.
Customers with bare-bones needs (by MyCFO's standards) pay about $25,000 a year. For people with about $150 million of net worth who require tax accounting, estate and trust, philanthropy, and investment services, the fees can run to about $75,000. A client with even more assets could pay upwards of $175,000.
Because the company does not sell financial products, it can offer an "unbiased" view of a client's portfolio, Mr. Shaw said. Advisers review a client's accounts and investments across all institutions, he said. They then analyze the assets and holdings, assess new investment opportunities, and direct or monitor the administration of the client's assets and expenses.
As its name implies, MyCFO's main service is providing an overall picture of a client's finances, much like a chief financial officer does for a company. Mr. Shaw said that Mr. Clark formulated the approach as an antidote to "Clark's Law:" the idea that a person's wealth increases faster than his or her ability to oversee it.
Rich Hogan, the company's managing director of investment advisory services, said MyCFO brings together wealth management experts from different areas and coordinates their activities to bring about the best outcome for clients.
Most of its clients have between 10 to 60 financial relationships, he said. "It's impossible to get a grasp" of their total portfolio "without a single view, which requires technology and very smart advisory people," Mr. Hogan said. "We are creating something that has not existed in the past in the way we approach the client's total picture."
Peggy M. Ruhlin, a principal with Budros & Ruhlin, a financial advisory firm in Columbus, Ohio, said MyCFO is not unique. Ms. Ruhlin, who is often included on the top-adviser lists of national magazines, said her company has offered a similar approach to wealth management since 1979.
"One of the problems with MyCFO is they think they invented this, and they're the only game in town," she said.
The difference, though, is scale. Budros & Ruhlin clients have considerably less wealth under management than MyCFO - from under $1 million to about $50 million each.
James P. Punishill, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, recently surveyed 50 institutions that offer wealth advisory services for clients with more than $1 million of assets. MyCFO, which has been developing its software for two years, seems to be ahead of some other institutions in their Internet development, he said. "Many private banks are not coming to grips yet with the Internet as an important channel."
Also working in MyCFO's favor is the fact that the newly rich tend not to be locked into traditional financial services relationships. Because of its association with Mr. Clark and other high-profile entrepreneurs, the company offers techno-visionaries a certain amount of star power and the cozy feeling of an insider's club.
Jennifer Bailey, senior vice president of online services, said people who have acquired wealth in the technology business are "much more hands-on and knowledgeable" than other millionaires "in many aspects of the different alternatives available from financial services."
Because these clients have high expectations about what they should be able to do on the Internet, MyCFO developed a proprietary Web-based expense-management and accounting application, after failing to find a suitable system on the market, she said.
By yearend the firm expects to offer another proprietary application that would let clients see and manage all of their assets, from bonds, hedge funds, and equities to nonliquid assets, like planes, boats, cars, and art, Ms. Bailey said.
Mr. Bailey (no relation to Ms. Bailey) said he is looking forward to the system enhancement, which would let him add his wine collection, worth more than $2.5 million, and his art collection, also worth several million, to his online portfolio.
Traditionally, the super-rich have either relied on a "family office" staffed with full-time employees or turned to advisory services offered by large financial institutions.
"Sometimes you hire five or 10 or 20 or 40 people," Mr. Shaw said. "Most people find that extremely problematic. By the time you hire five or 10 people, you've spent a lot of money, but you rarely get the best people across the board."
MyCFO offers access to "the best estate planners and investment people and tax people," he said. "It's very hard to do that hiring yourself, even with huge wealth."
Mr. Hogan said scale makes a difference in service quality and access to attractive investment products. Since MyCFO's clients have a combined aggregate net worth of more than $50 billion, they represent a "big pool of influential capital," he said. "With size and influence comes opportunity."
Creg Ostler, a principal at Private Wealth Management in Mesa, Ariz., which manages money for about 50 clients who have $2 million to $60 million each, said MyCFO is raising the bar for firms like his.
"From what I can tell, what they are attempting to do on that scale is unique," he said. "From what I understand, they are hiring whole tax practices out of accounting firms. That's quite a large undertaking."
Robert Sterling, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, said MyCFO is hoping to draw customers who are disenchanted with traditional financial institutions. "Everybody and his mother is trying to get Silicon Valley money. MyCFO is trying to build a first-class Web solution."
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