A Top Commonwealth Advisor Weighs In: The Keys to Success Building Your Own Firm

This independent advisor shares how to maximize your productivity and set your firm on a path for long-term success.

By Kenton Shirk, vice president, practice management, Commonwealth Financial Network

In 2004, Kerri Sullivan-Kreiss, CFP®, AIF®, founded her independent advisory firm, SullivanKreiss Financial, after spending 13 years on staff with a publicly traded company. With her transition to independence, she was able to develop a client-centric, concierge service model that aligned with her values. To succeed in her vision for her firm, Sullivan-Kreiss had to focus on developing her practice so that it was equipped to meet the unique needs of every client. Read on for more of Sullivan-Kreiss’s perspective on how to maximize your productivity and set your firm on a path for long-term success.

Set Yourself Apart

For Sullivan-Kreiss, building client relationships is all about focusing on the journey with each person you serve. To develop a quality practice, you have to make each client feel special. That may sound elementary, but it’s important to keep top of mind. As she says, “It’s being there for clients through everyday moments, celebrating life’s major milestones, and helping to provide support, encouragement, and, hopefully, comfort during difficult times.”

A proactive approach. Ideally, SullivanKreiss Financial’s clients shouldn’t get voicemail when they call, and follow-ups to requests and concerns must be speedy and accurate. But a concierge service model is more than that: It means being proactive versus responsive, going above and beyond what’s expected. Sullivan-Kreiss focuses on long-term, comprehensive financial planning; she isn’t interested in “simply being a money manager.” This means setting regular reviews to keep abreast of changes in clients’ lives and meeting every two weeks when developing a plan for a new client.

The end result? Sullivan-Kreiss has built something special: a highly engaged community of long-term clients. For her, that’s what makes being in the advisory business rewarding and fun. And there’s icing on the cake as well: According to Sullivan-Kreiss, “The majority of my firm’s new clients come from referrals from existing clients.”

Invest in Quality Time

As you can see, Sullivan-Kreiss’s business model ties directly to her spending as much time as possible with clients. Notably, like many of her Commonwealth peers, Sullivan-Kreiss spends significantly more time in client meetings than other industry advisors. That’s according to a 2020–2021 study, conducted by Commonwealth in partnership with Cerulli Associates, that found Commonwealth advisors spend, on average, 33 percent more time in client meetings than other advisors from both wirehouse and independent firms.

In fact, having analyzed the data, Commonwealth’s Practice Management team determined that Sullivan-Kreiss ranked in the top decile of productivity among Commonwealth advisors, based on gross revenue, growth rate, and amount of time spent with clients. This statistic speaks to the important work Sullivan-Kreiss undertakes every day with the individuals she serves.

Focus on Productivity

So, how is Sullivan-Kreiss able to spend so much time with clients? There are inherent difficulties in scaling a concierge service model. Still, as she worked through solving them, Sullivan-Kreiss learned that having the right staff and firm partner can help facilitate business scale and efficiency.

The value of dedicated expertise. Sullivan-Kreiss delegates administrative, operational, and certain planning tasks so she can focus on client-facing work. With three full-time staff members (a director of client relations, a financial analyst, and an operations manager), she is clear on their importance to her business model: “My team is phenomenal. What they do behind the scenes enables me to be good at my job and spend as much time as I can with my clients. Their strengths allow the firm to deliver a top-tier concierge service model—the personalized touch we devote to each and every client.”

According to Sullivan-Kreiss, her steady growth has been driven by her team’s balance of competencies. And that growth has brought the firm to an inflection point—she now needs additional staff. To handle the volume of work and keep her productivity high, Sullivan-Kreiss plans to add an investment manager and an additional advisor to the team.

Asked about advice for advisors looking to grow, she states: “One of the most productive things you can do is empower your people and give them room to grow. It’s absolutely key to have the right people on staff, particularly those who have complementary skills sets to yours.”

The importance of collaboration. Sullivan-Kreiss remembers her firm’s early years as flying by in a blur, but she has always recognized the importance of a supportive firm partner. She explains, “In addition to really busting your derriere . . . you have to cultivate the right relationships with the right people. You need to have a partner behind you that’s proactive and responsive.”

Like other independent advisors, Sullivan-Kreiss looks to her firm partner for a wide array of back-office resources and support. Because her work is grounded in financial planning, she appreciates having specialists, such as Commonwealth’s Advanced Planning team, readily available to talk through a complex planning or retirement problem.

As for investment management, Sullivan-Kreiss acknowledges that this role is an ongoing challenge for any independent firm. She prefers custom portfolio management and, with the assistance of her financial analyst, does a great deal of her own investment research. Still, if a client is looking for a specific investment strategy, she wants to be able to rely on her firm partner for specialized knowledge. She receives that support from Commonwealth’s Investment Management and Research team.

Ultimately, Sullivan-Kreiss says that your firm partner must be able to provide a “phenomenal level of support” that’s tailored to your needs.

An Exciting Journey to Independence

Making the decision to go independent can seem daunting, but for Sullivan-Kreiss, it helped her achieve the firm culture she’d always dreamed of. By putting her clients’ best interests first and making values-based decisions, she’s been able to grow her business and support her clients in achieving their financial goals. For advisors considering transitioning to independence, with the right approach to client service and growing responsibly, the possibilities can be endless.

This post originally appeared on The Independent Advisor, a blog authored by subject-matter experts at Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser.

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