Virtual Realities

Searcy Financial Services had key employees working remotely and conducted face-to-screen client meetings from multiple locations.  Then the company founder decided to move away.

Takeaways:  Clients are receptive to virtual meetings so long as they can get in touch with you.  You might see your staff more often virtually working from home than you did when you worked in adjacent offices.

If you go to the Searcy Financial Services website, and click on “our team,” you see a misleading photograph.  It shows a group of professionals together in the same location, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the company’s home office location in Overland Park, KS.  The group includes, at the center, company founder Mike Searcy, who doesn’t actually live in Overland Park or, for that matter, Kansas; he resides just outside Naples, FL.

Searcy’s daughter, partner and company vice president Jessica Maldonado, standing to the far right of the picture, manages the staff and handles many of the client meeting duties, but she, too, doesn’t live in Overland Park; she resides in Phoenix.  Another company principal, director of marketing Cali Gillespie, is not pictured; she currently resides in Omaha, Nebraska, having moved there from her previous remote location in Manhattan, KS.

Somehow, this geographic dispersal isn’t a problem, first because many of Searcy Financial’s clients also happen to live remotely from Overland Park.  And second, because the firm is tightly connected by videoconferencing, which tends to make a person’s physical location irrelevant.  “It’s kind of like the Jetsons,” says Searcy.  “Instead of picking up the phone and calling a team member or walking down the hall, I can get them on the video screen from my home office in Naples, so we’re working face-to-face.  When a client wants to meet with us from North Dakota or Arizona,” he continues, “we send them an invitation on Oovoo or, they click on the button and they can see our home office team in our conference room, and me wherever I am and Jessica wherever she is.”

Keeping remote staff

There’s been a lot of talk about how advisors, in the future, will be holding client meetings via videoconference, and also about how advisory firms will have employees in remote locations connected via video technology.  But Searcy Financial is one of the very few firms that is living that future.

How did it happen?  “I guess it really got going when Jessica came to meet with us one day,” Searcy recalls, “and she said, guys, I would like to move to Phoenix.  We were in shock,” he says.  “She does so many important things for us; we immediately wondered how we were ever going to replace her.

“So,” Searcy continues, “ she said: I’ll give you two options.  First, I can hire somebody, and train them, and then move to Phoenix and I’ll get a job, and you won’t have to worry about me.  Or second, you can give me a chance to work remotely from Phoenix and see how it goes.  If it works, I can stay with the firm.”

Searcy was skeptical, but Maldonado was as irreplaceable as a team member can be, and his daughter besides, so he decided to give it a try.  “And I have to tell you,” he says, “we were absolutely shocked and amazed at how smoothly it went.  I actually see Jessica now more often than I did when her office was two doors down the hall.”

Then, a year later, Gillespie came into Searcy’s office, shut the door and immediately burst into tears.  “She’s a rock star,” Searcy explains.  “She runs my calendar and answers the company email inquiries in addition to handling our marketing duties.  She told me that her husband had an opportunity to set up an audiology practice in Manhattan, KS, and she told me, this is the best job I’ve ever had.  I love this job, it has been more than I ever expected, but I’m going to be moving with Sam.”

Searcy had trouble identifying the reason why Gillespie was crying.  “I said to her, why don’t you just do what Jessica did?  She said, how would I greet clients if I can’t sit at the front desk?  I said, if I have to, I’ll sit out there.  Why don’t we give it a try?  We got her the desk and chairs and computer and everything she needed, and we haven’t missed a lick,” says Searcy.  “At that point, we were two for two.  The videoconferencing opened the door to keeping a spectacular employee, and then to keeping another spectacular employee.”

All this got Searcy to thinking about his own situation.  “I’ve always wanted the opportunity to live among the palm trees,” he says, “but I never thought it would be possible.  I’ve got a business in Overland Park.  I figured I’ll probably live and die here.

“But,” he adds, “we financial advisors are so often telling our clients to live the dream.  How many of us are doing it ourselves?” he asks.  “I realized, if Jessica and  Cali can do this, I ought to be able to do it too.”

Remote client meetings

The company now routinely meets with out-of-state clients remotely, and local clients are fine with seeing Searcy on screen instead of in person.  “Before I moved, I checked in with some of our top clients, and said, I’m thinking about doing this.  How do you feel about it?  They said, hey, we don’t care,” he says.  “As long as I can get hold of you when I need you, that’s all I care about.”

Now, sometimes the Overland Park clients don’t come to the office for meetings.  “If they have a sick kid, we can conference in the spouse who’s at home,” says Searcy.  “We’ve had situations where the client would say, hey, could we do a quick videoconference?  The wife is at home, the husband is at the office, some of our people are in the conference room, Jessica is in Phoenix and I’m here in Naples.

“One of my doctor clients in North Dakota,” Searcy continues, “said to me: you come up here on a regular basis.  Can’t we just do a videoconference so it’s much more convenient for everybody?  I was thinking: Yes!  Great!  It’s happening!”

Of course, Searcy is thinking about the possibilities beyond just palm trees and keeping valuable employees.  “I think there are a lot of people here in Naples who are transplanted from the Midwest,” he says, “who would like to work with an advisor who has Midwestern values, is plain old vanilla and not apologetic about it.  My hope,” he adds, “is that there is a real business opportunity down here.”

In case these clients want to meet the old-fashioned way, Searcy has reserved a Regis office on the second floor of a bank building, which has a nice conference room.  But if the Florida clients want the entire team in the meeting, they’ll need to meet virtually—and Searcy expects people to be more open to that as they realize how much more convenient it is than driving to a location out of their busy schedule.  “They’re going to know that I mostly work from my home,” he says.

Beyond that, Searcy is imagining the possibility of hiring the best people his team can find wherever they happen to be, and creating a firm that’s even more virtual than what they have now.  “We’re thinking, we could have virtual associates and virtual partners,” says Searcy.  “And meanwhile,” he says, “I’m sitting by the pool, living the dream and still working full-time.”

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