Note: Matt and Reese last conducted a one-on-one interview with each other back in June 2017. That interview took place at a Mexican restaurant over margaritas with chips and guacamole. COVID-19 forced this one to take place at their dining room table, over a beautiful bottle of wine.
Matt: Let me start things off with a question for you, Reese…how shocked are you that we’ve been locked up together since March 17th, 2020, and no one has wound up with a fork stuck in their forehead?
Larissa: Ha ha! Well, we’ve had our moments (winks), but overall, I think we’ve managed pretty well. I’ve always worked from home, so my office was already in place. We were able to drop your standing desk in the master bedroom and Luke has his space downstairs for school. We’re lucky in that we each have our own space throughout the day, and we’ve all kept very busy, so each night at dinner, we’re still able to ask each other, “So, what did you do today?” Becoming a schoolteacher this past year was not on my radar, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it! Luke and I have a nice routine of reviewing his daily schoolwork and tackling homework each afternoon…
Matt: You and I are a far cry from being immunologists, but I think what has helped us get through this past year is the fact that, very early on, you and I both agreed that this thing was going to drag on until August 2021 – back in April we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to be home for well over a year…I think a lot of other people continue to get their hopes up that we’re going back to “normal” very soon, and they’ve been disappointed and frustrated. You and I – and Luke – have just stayed the course and tried to keep plugging away under quarantine conditions.
Larissa: Yes, continuing to hope for the best, but being prepared for the worst. The latest vaccine schedule I’ve seen had us pegged for May or June, after the front-line workers, teachers, etc. It’s tough, but all we can do is make the best of it!
Matt: Thank god for alcohol!
Larissa: Yes! Cheers!
Matt: Do you want to talk about our decision to close our office permanently in June?
Larissa: Yes, that was a tough decision, but the right one. We all had been home since March, not really sure what we were going to do with the office…we wanted to keep it and were still thinking you’d go in once in a while just to get a way a bit. But it was a co-working space, with many different companies sharing the floor with us, and every time you went to pick up the mail, you were seeing people walking around with no masks, the business center wasn’t taking temperatures as tenants and guests came in…there really were no protocols in place, or at least, weren’t being enforced.
Matt: I purposely went by at 5am on a Sunday to pick up the mail, assuming I wouldn’t come in contact with anyone, and there was one tenant and two of his non-tenant friends just hanging out at the kitchen table, no masks, drinking coffee…
Larissa: Exactly. We couldn’t control the environment for the safety of ourselves and our employees, and the office center obviously wasn’t controlling the environment or enforcing guidelines, so we handed in the keys in June and decided we’d go find office space when it was safe…
Matt: We’ll go into an environment that we can control…
Matt: Being a project-based consulting firm, our revenues took a hit in the 2nd and 3rd quarters last year, but long-term, I think this Work From Home shock that our industry has gone through woke up a lot of advisors and unearthed many operational inefficiencies that weren’t top of mind – they were always saying, “We’ll fix that someday…” But 2020 really brought those issues to the forefront, so we’ve been receiving a lot of phone calls near the end of last year and into this year of advisors saying, “Top line revenue has continued to grow, but bottom-line profitability doesn’t seem to be increasing…can you help?”
Larissa: We’ve always known the biggest risk to our business was if RIA owners — who really think of themselves as advisors first, and business owners second — continued to focus all of their energy on “Where is my next client coming from?” rather than “how can I make my business run more efficiently and profitably?”
Matt: Yes…and I think the craziness of 2020 accelerated that thinking in many RIA owners’ minds. I think many more advisors are interested in the type of consulting we offer now, more than ever before…
Larissa: On that note…PFI is starting its 6th year in 2021…
Matt: I’ll drink to that!
Larissa: Whoohoo! Cheers! What has gone according to plan, in your mind, and what has surprised you?
Matt: Our work with wirehouse advisors setting up RIAs from scratch has gone exactly as we had thought – we’ve always known that most wirehouse advisors are not entrepreneurial and do not want to own their own business, they’d much rather join an existing firm or leverage a platform. We knew when we launched PFI Advisors that we would work with only one or two large breakaway teams per year, and that has played out exactly according to plan. I think the average size of wirehouse teams we’ve worked with since 2015 has been over $4 billion.
What I hadn’t anticipated was working with advisors in the affiliated channel (LPL, FiNet, Ameriprise, etc.) – these teams are smaller, but don’t need as much help from us because they have basically been running their own business all along, they just need some guidance on RIA technology tools. Ian Weinstein and Aiki Altmets of Regimen Wealth have been some of our absolute favorite clients – we helped them establish their firm out of Ameriprise last summer. I’ve enjoyed working with those type of advisors a great deal.
Another part of our business that I hadn’t even anticipated when we launched in 2015 was our M&A Support Services. Our industry is going gangbusters with M&A activity – so much so, about 75% of our engagements today are M&A-related. Helping a buyer integrate another firm into their business once a transaction is complete has been hugely rewarding, and a lot of fun.
On the flip-side of that, we’ve also started working with RIAs who aspire to be buyers, but they contact us and say, “We are not successful in this M&A competitive landscape – our firm is not built for scale, and Sellers who interview us and many other buyers keep choosing other firms because they feel they’ll grow faster with them than with us…can you help us build out our infrastructure and make us a more compelling buyer?” Those were the types of project I had done at Focus Financial, but hadn’t anticipated doing it at PFI Advisors…that work has been very exciting.
And lastly, we launched our COO Resource service offering in 2018, and it laid dormant for about a year until firms started hiring us on a retainer-basis to work with their operations team to think through business processes, the ideal technology stack, roles and responsibilities among their team members, KPIs, etc. As I mentioned, with the events of 2020 re-prioritizing operational efficiencies for many firms, we are engaged with more COO Resource clients today than ever before.
But I’ve always told people that you, Reese, are the entrepreneur in the family…I’ve understood the work and the value we can bring to RIAs, but I didn’t know what it meant to run a business of our own. As you know, I’ve struggled with some of the business side of things. Thank god you’ve been here to focus on insurance, payroll, finance, etc. What part of building a business has been surprising for you?
Larissa: That we’ve been able to make it work as a husband and wife team. I definitely had my doubts when we first had the idea of going into business together. (Ha!) But, even with your pre-COVID travel schedule, the stresses of Layla’s illness, and the craziness of this pandemic, we’ve managed to trudge through some crazy waters and continue to grow as a team today!
Matt: And no one has wound up with a fork in their forehead!
Larissa: Well…we’ve had a few close calls, but yes, we can honestly say no one has had a fork in their forehead since launching PFI! Ha ha!
Matt: I’ll drink to that!
Larissa: Cheers to that one! I think I’ve also been surprised at how well you’ve embraced the marketing side of the business. You are a self-described “introverted ops guy,” but you’ve done an incredible job of building the PFI brand to where it is today…
Matt: Yes, I’ve really embraced content marketing. It’s a grind, but I think it’s very important. We actually had an employee tell us during his exit interview, “I wanted to be an operations consultant, not a content marketer – you guys are crazy how much time and energy you put into writing articles and white papers…” I then walked him through every one of our current clients, and every single one of them tied back to our content – they read something or were referred to us by someone who had read our material. Even he reached out to us inquiring about a job after he read our COO white paper. It’s not for everyone, I understand, but it’s what we have built this business on. And as you know, Reese, we’re going to be pushing the envelope even further with our digital content in 2021. I truly believe that consulting in 2021 is all about articles, white papers, and putting content online.
Larissa: True, true…what are your goals for 2021?
Matt: Well, it’s going to be tougher now that we just lost an employee, but my #1 goal for 2021 is to delegate more to the team. I’ve been awful at it, and it’s always been challenging for our employees. I am on every single call with every client, and I haven’t allowed our employees to grow. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, we’re trying to “scale the unscalable” – I haven’t figured out how to provide high touch service and do absolutely everything for our clients that we possibly can, but in a scalable fashion. I’m really focusing on myself and my shortcomings in this area this year. It’s what the company needs most.
We recently had Erica Farber, the COO at Balentine, on our podcast, and she talked about the work she has put in with regard to her communication style with employees. She said, “I tend to say things once and expect people to run with it, but people can’t possibly hear things only once.” She said she’s learned to communicate often, to the point of redundancy, with follow up emails and regular check-ins with employees, etc. I’ve realized that oftentimes I don’t even communicate the one time! I try to lead by example and just assume if employees see me acting in a certain way or doing a certain thing, they will automatically follow my lead. And that can be totally unfair. And then I get frustrated when they don’t act in the way I was expecting, but I’ve never communicated what I’m looking for in the first place! So, another major goal of mine for 2021 is improving my communication style.
Larissa: Wait…Wha?!? My husband has communication issues?!?! This is the first I’m hearing of this!
Matt: Zip it – wise guy!
Larissa: Ha ha ha!! Well, if you work on your communication in the workplace, we can only hope it spills over into other areas of your life – for mine and Luke’s sake!
Matt: I’ll try my best!
Larissa: We also have a new service offering we are rolling out this year – that’s a pretty big goal this year!
Matt: Yes, I’d say that’s my third big goal for 2021, but we’re not ready to go public with that one…so we’ll hopefully be announcing that near the end of the first quarter. What about you – what are your goals for this year?
Larissa: My goals for this year are both personal and professional. For Luke – I want to continue to be the best “distance teacher” and support him while he’s continuing his online learning. For the business, I want to support you in your quest of honing your communication skills with the team. This pandemic has, as you mentioned, really unearthed a lot of operational inefficiencies that weren’t top of mind for many companies. With my and your operations backgrounds, we had done a good job of documenting all of PFI’s processes and procedures, but it really stretched our communication efficiency with the team because you were no longer in the office with them. You had to be much more intentional with your communication methods, which has challenged the introvert in you. I’m proud of you for acknowledging it and trying to improve it!
Matt: The famous saying of “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” definitely applies to 2020! I think the RIA industry as a whole has learned a lot through this challenging time, and I know that PFI Advisors will be a better oiled machine on the other side of this. Can we open another bottle?
Larissa: Ha! I thought you’d never ask!