A fragmented industry gets under one tent

September 12, 2009 — 5:11 PM UTC by Brooke Southall


“Are you going to IMPACT this year?” I hear it over and over again from executives, advisors marketers, recruiters, attorneys, compliance experts, technology people and other reporters. Schwab IMPACT 2009 is not all hype. The attraction is that the conference reliably draws a big audience and it gets everybody under one tent. A virtual community, briefly, feels like a real one. What’s different this year is how many people are cutting back on travel and choosing to make IMPACT their one big industry outing. It adds a sense of urgency to people wanting to make the most of it.

What perennially stokes IMPACT is how it embodies one of the all-time webs of interdependent partners. Schwab is a major corporation that depends upon RIAs to bring it the customers who drive about half its profits. How many companies can you say that about – that they depend so heavily on an army of mom and pops that could take their customers away at any moment? Wirehouses have a similar dynamic but their brokers are employees.

At IMPACT all of us participants are the beneficiaries of Schwab showing its appreciation to this conglomeration of thousands of small business owners. Schwab throws a good party. RIAs return the favor by showing up and keeping their accounts in place.

RIAs don’t hold all the cards. They depend on Schwab’s high level of service to run their practices. They also seem to revel in having a big stalwart to counterbalance their own fragmentation. Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services has some of that paternal presence. But they don’t throw a party and invite the industry. [TD Ameritrade Institutional puts on a good conference for RIAs on a lesser scale in the winter.]

Though IMPACT events are similar from year to year, Schwab makes some efforts to evolve and change to keep it fresh. Here are some things that I would want to know headed in to Schwab’s conference.

1.) Schwab is embracing Twitter. Honestly, I didn’t quite get it when I heard about it. One of its outside spokesmen, John McInerney got back to me with this explanation: “It’s really simple: To create a thread so that users on Twitter can follow IMPACT 2009, simply end or begin all of your tweets from IMPACT with the “hash tag” #IMPACT09. Users can click on it and they can find what others had to say about related topics. You don’t have to scroll through user names. Flip through Twitter and you’ll find oodles of them.”

This hash-tagging will be an interesting experiment. I just wrote an article based on an InvestmentNews survey that showed that only about 19% of advisors use Twitter. Maybe IMPACT can drive it to 20%.

2.) The Twitter nation could be quite large: Schwab says it had 1,300 advisors booked several days ago. There’s also a whole world of Schwab employees, exhibitors and other non-advisors that will also be in attendance. Schwab has not provided those attendance figures. At least 2,000 people who will comprise the potential Schwab Twitter nation.

3.) Jim McCool, head of the Schwab custody unit for RIAs, will be speaking at the first general session on Monday. Normally, I wouldn’t normally consider this noteworthy but when I scoured the Schwab agenda, I didn’t see any speaking time assigned to its executives. I found out more by contacting the company. This speech slot was famously filled by David S. Pottruck and John Philip Coghlan in years past. If Schwab has a major initiative to report it happens here. Sometimes Schwab breaks some tough news or reports on progress with regard to previous friction. Advisors I speak to hope that McCool covers the tough issues in the tradition of his predecessors.

4.) Walt Bettinger, CEO of The Charles Schwab Corp, will be on stage Tuesday for the presentation of the lunchtime IMPACT awards. Again, it wasn’t on the agenda and I thought I’d pass it on. It seems unlikely he’ll handle any heavy topics at an awards ceremony.

5.) Charles “Chuck” Schwab, chairman of his eponymous corporation, is not attending the conference this year.

6.) Schwab will be showing off its new website for RIAs, Schwab Advisor Center, in a splashy way. This sounds pretty boring but this is actually a pretty big deal. It’s the company’s first revamp of its web site in more than a decade. I interviewed beta users who were highly impressed. Nevin Freeman, who developed RIABiz for me, did a two-hour demo and wrote about it. Nevin went in skeptical. He came away impressed that Advisor Center’s developers made a quantum improvement. The site does things like recall your searching habits to make it easier each time you log on. It does things like fill the page in “liquid” fashion.

7.) Schwab is heavily leveraging IMPACT this year to recruit wirehouse brokers. There are 47 brokers coming who represent 28 wirehouse teams, about a threefold jump from prior years. And they’re not just coming from local environs. They’ll be showing up from across the U.S. How will you recognize them? They’re not likely to have a company name on their badge.

8.) I will be reporting from the conference and throwing in the occasional Twitter update from @RIABiz and #IMPACT09. I will be writing about IMPACT for both my own site, RIABiz.com and for Registered Rep magazine. RR’s editor, David Geracioti, was unable to attend and asked me to fill in. I’ll be looking for what’s new in the industry and trying to monitor the dynamics of the relationship between Schwab and its RIAs.

9.) Tyler Mathisen of CNBC will be reporting live from IMPACT throughout Monday.

10.) There are no big-time speakers at IMPACT this year. I don’t think Schwab’s conference organizers will be offended if I say that Newt Gingrich and Robert Reich don’t rise to the level of the Bill Clinton and other heavy hitters of yesteryear.

Editor’s note: If this list should be 12, 15 or 20 items, let me know [Brooke@RIABiz.com and I’ll add on. Or just add a comment below.

Mentioned in this article:

TD Ameritrade
Asset Custodian
Top Executive: Tom Nally

Share your thoughts and opinions with the author or other readers.


Bill Winterberg said:

September 13, 2009 — 3:41 PM UTC


Also to be mentioned is the onslaught of announcements from vendors exhibiting at IMPACT 2009. They take this opportunity to showcase new software releases and technology developments to create buzz about the company and generate new business from attendees.



Brooke Southall said:

September 13, 2009 — 5:05 PM UTC

In reporting this story, I had people mention that the conference has become more “salesy” over the years. Personally, I have been approached by a number of people with new products and new technologies. Many of them seem to be legitimate advancements. The advancements also seem to be accelerating with the need. There are more advisors with more needs and able to pay more. This seems mostly healthy to have a vibrant sales atmosphere. Schwab doesn’t claim that this is a retreat.

FYI...Schwab posts all kinds of stats for potential exhibiors of on its IMPACT web site. You can see just how long the avg. RIA peruses the exhibit hall.

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