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November 2007
Trust Without Reservation
By David Demarest

     The phone rang in Giles Almond’s office one day in the early 1980s. It was Doris, a tax client of his, frantically asking for his professional advice.

     “What do I do? What do I do?” Almond remembers the elderly widow asking repeatedly.

     Almond, then a young certified public accountant at a local Charlotte firm, had given the woman—who had a large sum of money to invest—the name of a broker with whom he was acquainted. Doris took Almond’s advice and contacted the broker.

     Much to his dismay, Almond later learned the broker had invested all of the money in one stock. Soon, the stock plummeted, leaving the widow distressed and Almond feeling utterly embarrassed and upset.

     “I remember almost slamming the phone down,” Almond recalls. “I said to myself, ‘This has got to stop. My clients deserve better.’”

     Almond believes that phone call was the catalyst that drove him to seek a full-fledged career in the financial planning industry. “That was the defining moment that started me on the track to getting my Certified Financial Planner designation,” Almond says.

     Upon achieving his CFP designation, Almond determined to create a new kind of fee-only financial planning firm that would work solely in the interest of clients. Almond envisioned a highly collaborative team environment, where everyone works hard for clients. That vision became Matrix Wealth Advisors, Inc. in 1990.

     From the very beginning, the firm has prided itself on developing personalized financial plans to meet clients’ specific life goals. Now, 17 years later, Almond’s firm, with a staff of six highly educated investment professionals and an office manager, is well known across the country, and one of the top choices for physicians, executives, retirees and other professionals.

    Worth magazine has named Almond as one of the nation’s top advisors in 1994, 1999, 2001 and 2002, while Medical Economics has rated him as a Top 150 advisor for doctors in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006.

 

Lessons Learned

     Almond, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who also completed an investment management educational program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, began his career with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

     At the IRS, he quickly learned how critical it was to have quality financial planning as he sifted through countless poorly planned tax returns. Almond also realized the need for a financial professional who could sit on the client’s side of the table, not just to protect their rights in an audit, but to make sure all financial products purchased met the client’s financial plan.

     While his stint with the IRS was a great experience, it wasn’t enough to satisfy Almond’s drive to create a better financial life for clients.

     “I decided I really wanted to be in a line of work where people liked you,” recalls Almond.

     After leaving the IRS, Almond worked for a couple of local CPA firms as a tax advisor, but the experience soon soured his view of the financial industry as he received pressure to put his tax clients in questionable investments where the client’s interest was not top priority.

     “The firm decided to go down the commission sales route,” Almond says. “I had a fundamental problem with that. I decided that I was just not comfortable with the conflict of interest.”

     Almond wanted to be someone clients could turn to for objective and honest advice. The firm where he had worked for years became less objective than he would have liked. They grew focused on commissions and steering clients toward investments in which they had a stake. Almond understood their stand, but took a hard line stance away from it.

     “I was just turned off by people with a sales commission mentality,” he says. “I guess deep down I had seen other people whose judgment had been swayed by the potential of more financial compensation. The kind of financial planner I am is not someone who pushes clients toward certain financial products in an effort to earn more. That type of so-called planning always bothered me deeply.”

     As a result, when Almond and a business partner assembled their own firm, they dubbed it “Matrix,” the word being symbolic of an architectural design of tightly interconnected components, resulting in a structure of great strength and durability.

     Almond and his partner pledged a different approach to financial planning than other firms for which they had worked. Matrix was built with a foundation around “Planning for Life” and trust.

 

The Matrix Philosophy

     A Matrix client is going to get independent, objective and unbiased financial advice, Almond says, because Matrix operates on a fee-only basis. Being a fee-only firm means that they do not accept compensation of any kind based on the financial products that they recommend.

     “There are no financial incentives tied to our advice,” explains Almond. “We are paid solely by the client. This way, it puts us and the client on the same side of the table with no outside influence.”

     Many people believe a diverse portfolio is all you need to succeed, but Almond believes there’s much more. Planning and intelligent diversification are key components of investing with Matrix, Almond affirms.

     Competent and thorough financial planning continues to serve as the focus of everything Matrix does. The process compares a client’s current situation with his or her goals for the future, identifying what needs to be done to reach them.

     Over the last 17 years, Matrix clients’ investment preferences have changed along with the market, but their beliefs have stayed the same. Matrix clients want to spend their time doing other things in their lives besides managing their financial matters and investments; feel it is important to set and achieve goals in accordance with their values; and remain focused on long-term goals, rather than temporary market fluctuations.

     A comprehensive plan covers most every aspect of a client’s financial life: assets, liabilities, and net worth analysis, cash flow, investments, taxes, estate planning, risk management, financial independence planning—and all significant financial areas that affect the client and his or her family. All the details of a client’s finances will be analyzed in one comprehensive package.

    "We have a policy with the firm," Almond explains. "Every new client will be a planning client. We sit down with all of our clients and develop a financial plan with them. I want to know both what the client wants and needs with his or her portfolioaggressive or conservative growthand the best way to know that is to complete a financial plan."

     The plan constitutes a road map guiding the client and Matrix toward achievement of the client’s financial and lifetime objectives. It is both the foundation and the framework for all financial decisions, Almond says.

 

Challenges of Today’s Investing

     With a stock market that fluctuates daily, Almond says one of the biggest challenges his firm’s associates have faced is keeping their clients even keeled with their eyes focused on their long-term goals, rather than temporary market fluctuations.

     “I think one of the greatest challenges we’ve faced has been managing the ever-changing emotional investment climate,” Almond says. “We try to keep our clients from becoming too euphoric when things are going well and convincing them not to throw in the towel when things aren’t going all that well.”

     Almond remembers one time specifically in the late 1990s when investors were falling all over themselves trying to jump aboard the fast moving dot-com train.

     “We weren’t averse to any particular sector,” Almond explains, “but our policy was to have no one sector be more than 25 percent of a client’s portfolio. A few clients thought they were missing out on a golden opportunity.”

     When the dot-com bubble burst it took a toll on many investors, but Matrix’s stubborn “stick to the long-term financial plan” approach helped keep its clients’ portfolios intact.

     “We hung tough and stuck to our principles,” Almond affirms.

 

The Future

     When talk turns to the future of Matrix, Almond beams.“I believe the future is very bright,” Almond says confidently. “First of all, I believe we are providing the right kind of service that many people in the market are looking for.

     “Our future is also bright based on the outstanding resiliency of the local Charlotte economy and the quality team of investment and planning professionals we have put together.”

     Clients do not want to have to wonder whether their financial planner has ulterior motives for recommending a certain financial product. They want to trust, Almond says.

      “I would like to believe people choose us because they feel they can trust us,” Almond says. “Trust is everything. If trust isn’t in the picture you don’t have a relationship.”

     If surveys conducted by Matrix earlier this year are any indication, a large majority of clients believe the firm is trustworthy and commendable.

     “Eighty-eight percent of our clients listed trust as the primary reason they selected us,” Almond proudly points out. “Seventy-six percent ‘strongly agree’ that they would recommend our services to friends and colleagues. In this survey, our clients are telling us we’re doing something right. It’s certainly gratifying.”

     Almond says about 25 percent of Matrix clients are physicians. Although they didn’t exactly target physicians for their business; it just kind of happened that way, he says.

     “Physicians tend to be very busy and their time is valuable,” Almond says. “They gravitate toward us because they trust us.”

     “We do their comprehensive financial planning which frees them from the burden of dealing with it themselves. This allows them to spend more time with their families and less time worrying about day-to-day investment management.”

     That positive feedback continues to motivate Matrix associates, along with the belief that through intelligent financial planning their clients are able to enjoy more fulfilling, productive and happier lives.

     “When our clients’ kids graduate college now, I feel a certain sense of accomplishment because in some cases we started investing with families when their children were very young,” Almond says. “I believe we may have played a small role in helping that happen.”

     There are even parallels in the way Almond’s firm invests and how he envisions his firm’s future growth.

     “Our firm’s future growth plan is not all that different from our investing strategy,” Almond explains. “Just as we have a specific plan for each client, we have a detailed plan for the firm as well. From there, we execute the plan and stick with the plan. We kind of just sow the seeds and let the harvest happen.

     “We intend to grow, but it will be at a pace that is steady, measured and strategically planned.”

     No matter how large a firm Matrix evolves into, Almond predicts it will always stay true to the roots set in place over a decade ago.

     “Matrix will always be about allowing our clients to essentially live fully more productive lives,” Almond says.    “By working with an advisor who operates on a fee-only, fiduciary basis, our clients can trust us without reservation.”

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