Many advisors would consider a $200,000 client fairly meat and potatoes—not the kind of investor they would dismiss, but not one they would necessarily chase.

Yet Charles Gualano considers these accounts the backbone of his business—predominantly local clients who he has worked with for more than 14 years as an advisor at Trustmark National Bank in Brandon, Miss.

“I just seem to gravitate to these people,” he says. “They might be the average Joe, and might have $200,000 or $300,000. But they don’t know how to invest. They just know how to put it away.”

Born in Ohio, Gualano’s family made their way to Brandon, a suburb of Jackson, when he was four years old. He never left, except for his college years at Mississippi State University 120 miles northeast. And after college, he came back to Brandon and joined Trustmark. (LPL Financial is the third party marketer.)

Returning home, he married a “Brandon, Mississippi girl,” he says, setting down roots and raising three children in town.

Yet Gualano still fashions himself as a bit of an outsider, with a last name that most of his clients, he says, can’t even pronounce and is “definitely not Southern.” (It’s pronounced ga-lano.)  He also believes he’s missing a Southern accent. (To a northerner, it’s there.) What he does have, however, is an inherent understanding of how his local clients view investing—which is with a fair seasoning of suspicion and doubt.

“I don’t know if it’s being in the South or not,” he says. “But my older clients have this constant fear that the economy is not what it used to be. It’s not about fear of having enough money. They always seem to manage down here. It’s about believing in the stock market anymore.”

To counter, Gualano addresses their concerns with jargon-free explanations, along with a willingness to talk to an investor, even if there isn’t an account, yet, to sign.

Along with the steady fear about the market, hesitation about putting their savings into something that’s not FDIC-insured can be prevalent.

Having something tangible in hand that they can grasp is sometimes more preferable than a possibility far off in the future.

Gualano knows he’s usually not competing against other banks and their reps, or even someone offering a lower fee structure than he does.

More often, he knows that what he’s working against is an investor’s own anxieties, or misconceptions based on a trend they’ve heard on the news—coupled with a lack of understanding of how investing could help them over the long-term.

“I’m not going up against other brokers,” he says. “It’s more about convincing them that if they don’t need the money, we should invest it and not leave it in the savings account.”

A Teaching Moment

Gualano views himself as a teacher, and spends significant time crafting ways for his clients to more easily understand the nuances of investing and the market as well.

Educating his clients, he says, is particularly important as some investors are starting at a zero base-level in their understanding of what a mutual fund is, or the details around asset allocation.

He grew up with parents and grandparents who always invested in the market. And now he wants to offer his clients the same educational turn.

Years ago, he came up with an analogy to help them visualize risk in their lives, as well as their concerns around money, by having them picture how gears shift in their car.

To start, he compares a very conservative portfolio to a car that is in first gear. He then explains that investors often need to shift gears up or down based on where they are in their lives—such as being close to retirement, or looking to pay for a child’s education, or even being at a point where they could invest more of their income for the road ahead.

The car shifts because of their situation and needs—not based on how the markets are moving. Clients, he says, quickly caught on and use the analogy themselves, which delights Gualano. Having his clients toss the lessons back at him makes him feel like he’s doing a good job. “That makes sense of things for them,” he says. “Now it’s our ongoing joke.”

To help explain market fluctuations, his analogy really drives it home. To help them understand the rule of buying low and selling high, he asks clients to consider how they would react to a very low offer on their home—$50,000, for example, on a house they bought for $250,000.

He then asks if they’d feel compelled to sell—knowing the answer is: No, of course not.

“You wouldn’t sell it to that guy,” he says emphatically. “And yet you’d still own your home.”

Every Relationship Counts

In many of the communities where Gualano works, banks didn’t used to offer services that are common today, like portfolio management. A savings and loan was the most common institution and offered just as its name described—a place to save your earnings, and apply for a loan when times required.

Today, banks offer a plethora of options, and Trustmark is no different. But explaining these possibilities to the small business owners, construction workers and farmers who Gualano counts as his clients requires a delicate step.

A hard sell does not work. A personal connection does.

Gualano sends birthday and Christmas cards (with pictures of his own family of course), attends funerals, (a sales assistant reads obituaries to ensure they’re not missed), and he’ll drive to a client’s home for a meeting—sometimes to towns so small they don’t have a traffic lights or a restaurant, he says.  There, a lunch meeting might be a hot meal in the back of the general store, as a quiet homemade spread at someone’s home.

One year, when the market had been particularly rocky, Gualano decided not to send his annual Christmas card to his clients—an undertaking he felt he just couldn’t handle as he was concentrating on their portfolios. He remembers being “so bogged down” that the annual greetings just did not get out. Clients noticed, and calls started almost immediately.”

I had more calls on that than around their own investments,” he says.

His strategy to be personally connected to his community of clients seems to be paying off. Today, with 1,400 accounts and about 900 households, his business grows every year, he says. By outsourcing the portfolio management of his clients’ accounts, he spends the majority of his time on these relationships.

And from Gualano’s point of view, that is the most valuable service he can offer to them—and he believes more brokers would benefit from adopting that view as well.

Gualano is adamant that the industry of financial advice is particularly lacking on the advice portion of their promise, and could use a step in a new direction.

He feels the same about investors who come looking to him to handle a few transactions rather than being interested in building a long-term connection. In those cases, he is very comfortable showing a prospect the door—and believes his industry would benefit if more advisors acted that way as well.

To Gualano, the job should be more about long-term investing and guiding clients, and less about worrying which mutual fund to buy or sell.

“Other brokers should stop trying to swing for the fences to pick the right investments,” he says. “We’re missing the relationship. That goes for the guy who comes to my office talking about Apple’s stock and wanting to buy it. I am going to turn that guy away.”

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