The job market was slim pickings when Erinn Ford received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington back in the early 1990s. Fortunately, her father — who was involved in the formation of the first REIT in the state of Washington, and subsequently founded a broker/dealer — had an opening for a receptionist. When his daughter expressed interest in the job, she was told she would need Series 7 and Series 24 designations to qualify, credentials not listed on the job posting and certainly not required of any receptionist in the broker/dealer business.
“They definitely were making it tough on their daughter,” Ford says.
During her pursuit of the Series 7 and 24 designations, Ford walked into a classroom filled with men in blue suits. Ford, by contrast was still in college mode, donned in a powder-pink Champion sportswear outfit. Within minutes, one of the men passed her a note that read: “You are never going to make it in here.”
Today, Ford is CEO of KMS Financial Services, a Seattle-based independent advisory and brokerage firm supporting 350 financial advisers, and the invidious note from the naysaying man in the blue business suit is framed on the wall of Ford’s home office.
VOICES FROM THE PAST
The KMS opportunity came via a ringing phone. On the other end was Dick Lampen and Adam Malamed of Ladenburg Thalmann Financial Services, the organization’s CEO and COO, respectively. They were also contacts from Ford’s days at Pacific West Financial Group and at Cetera Advisors, where she had risen to the rank of president. Lampen and Malamed would typically touch base with Ford once a year to stay connected. But this call, placed in early 2018, was different. The executives alerted Ford to a leadership opportunity at KMS, one of 10 subsidiaries of Miami-based Ladenburg Thalmann. They wanted her to consider the offer.
“I was very encouraged to hear there was an opportunity at KMS,” Ford recalls, and she did not have to think long or hard about whether the move made sense, given what she already knew about KMS, its location in her native Seattle, and her close and trusted relationships with Lampen and Malamed.
“It was an easy decision,” she remembers. “KMS is based in a region of the country that I know well, the firm was just the right size for me to swiftly get a handle on its people and operations, and its parent company, Ladenburg Thalmann, really gives us all the support we need to become more of an industry leader in our own right.”
Ford’s move to KMS brought her professional life full circle, in a sense, both in terms of size and geography.
“When I went from being at Pacific West for 22 years to a large network firm like Cetera, that was a big change for me and it took me awhile to adapt,” Ford admits. “The first year was very hard for me.”
It was during that trying period that Ford recalls a Cetera executive approached her to remind her of the professional opportunity at hand. “If you open yourself to change and embrace it, you’ve got a real chance here to thrive and achieve your full potential,” he said. Ford calls that conversation a “turning point,” when she stopped feeling as though she was a victim of change.
“I really saw a noticeable lift and growth in my career trajectory,” she notes. “Once I started to adapt, Cetera really stretched my wings. I learned a ton. My time at Cetera did make me a better leader.”
The offer to join KMS as president brought her back to a smaller-scale firm, and one more geographically focused on the very region from which she hails. Though the footprint is relatively small, the potential is not, in Ford’s estimation.
“You look out our window and we see the sphere of Amazon,” she notes, in addition to other corporate titans such as Microsoft and Starbucks. “It’s a very progressive part of the nation.”
At Cetera, Ford devoted the lion’s share of her time to figuring out how advisers could increase their client engagement and boosting the revenue being generated by their practice. She is now doing the same at KMS.
“My life has always been directly tied to financial advisers and their success, so I have committed my life to helping them unlock their greatest potential,” she says.
Along the way she built a reputation for leading by influence.
“When you lead by influence, it is really a test in collaborating and locking arms with others to share your optimism about their future and bringing them along with you,” she explains. “It is much more powerful when they are coming along with you because they have chosen to.”
That style of influence-by-embrace should not be mistaken as an entirely velvet-glove approach to people. With some measure of pride, Ford recalls a former employee who described her as the toughest person she had ever worked for, but also caring and focused on the employee’s strengths rather than her weaknesses.
Ford says it is part of a skill set learned from observing her mother work with staff members at Pacific West. From her father, Ford says she learned to always be a “real person” and keep herself approachable.
“My father would treat the local homeless person with the same respect and care as he did the CEO of Charles Schwab,” she says. “It was about being authentic and always having a service-to-others mentality.”
PREDATORS WILL GO HUNGRY
In this era of rapid consolidation among private wealth organizations, a 350-adviser firm would appear to be an inviting target for large, aggressive players seeking to shore up their western flank or expand an already-national footprint. Yet, KMS finds itself protected from such extraneous threats because of the backing of parent organization Ladenburg Thalmann, with its deep pockets and a contingent of advisers 4,500 strong.
“What that does is insulate us from a larger powerhouse with ambitions of acquiring us,” says Ford.
The luxuries of that breathing space and array of corporate resources allows Ford to concentrate on her ambitions to further develop KMS’s status as a regional powerhouse — though she says the firm will not let a time zone stand between it and opportunities for expanding its own footprint into other U.S. regions.
“We really have been that regional powerhouse, but we are definitely open to what I will call the right-fit adviser for KMS,” she says, “even if it’s on the East Coast.”
As of now, 84 percent of the firm’s 350 advisers are based in the Pacific time zone, and the majority of those in the states of Oregon and Washington — the latter, in particular, a region rich in business success and personal wealth.
WHY DON’T YOU STAY AWHILE?
The team of advisers at KMS average 22 years of industry experience and an 11-year tenure at the firm, a longevity that Ford largely attributes to the organization’s “boutique culture.”
“We are fast becoming the destination for selective financial advisers who care about building a legacy of long-term growth and stability,” she says.
Ford acknowledges that attracting young advisers to the financial advisory business is an industrywide challenge, in part because, historically, the business had tall barriers to entry. KMS is in the process of forging recruiting relationships with the roughly 200 financial planning degree programs at colleges and universities nationwide, in hopes of attracting the best in breed to the firm. The recruitment groundwork is also being set by ensuring KMS has created the proper environment in both the front and back office that provides allure to their young recruits.
She heralds the strength of the firm’s network model, which allows KMS to simultaneously sustain its boutique culture while leveraging the operational efficiencies and resources delivered by its parent, Ladenburg Thalmann.
“I see it as the best of both worlds — deep relationships in the front office combined with the resources and technology of a parent company.”
The technology available to KMS clients has evolved over time, Ford says, becoming a more seamless experience as the Ladenburg Thalmann technology stack becomes something more akin to Amazon-style ease of use.
“That will take us a little bit to get there,” she says, “but we are definitely on our way.”
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter
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