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Advisor Spotlight: Monument Wealth Management shows that A-plus office space isn't just for ad agencies and law firms

The former Merrill brokers moved to a bedroom community but kept the urban chic

Monday, March 21, 2011 – 2:34 PM by Elizabeth MacBride
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Monument Wealth Management designed its office around its 200-square-foot Planning Room, where partners use custom-made glass panels to offer clients a free, detailed look at their finances.

In a client-facing business, the office location and design are two of the most important decisions a firm can make. Monument Wealth Management, a breakaway team of four former Merrill Lynch brokers, recently move its offices and found a way to incorporate its work flow into the space itself. They invited me to take a look at their new space – this Q&A developed out of that conversation with David Armstrong (who also answered followup questions by e-mail), Tim Lee and Tim MicKey. Fourth partner Dean Catino dropped in and out, and later helped me work on my putting technique down the office’s long hallway.

Monument put its new office right across the street from its old one in Old Town Alexandria, a mixed urban area of new buildings, apartments, stores, with some 17th, 18th and 19th century architecture sprinkled through.

Old Town Alexandria is no slouch when it comes to high-income residents, but it’s not in the same league as, say, Washington, D.C. Another obvious location for Monument’s new office would have been Tysons Corner, the unofficial downtown of the tony southern suburbs of the nation’s capital. Tysons is home to many of the growing RIA-world companies that RIABiz has covered, including Edelman Financial Group, Spire Investment Partners and Cassady & Co.. Ameriprise Financial has its local office in a Tysons building that also houses Tiffany & Co.

No Tiffany’s in sight around Alexandria: The LEED-certified building where Monument Wealth Management installed its new office is right next door to Table Talk, a diner-style breakfast institution, and across from Whole Foods store that is known to upper-middle class workers at the nearby Patent & Trade Office as Whole Lunch for the wealth of free samples. Office space in the area rents for $25-$30 a square foot.

A lot of RIAs settle for fairly mundane office space. Why did you decide to spring for something more?

Armstrong: When people ask us why we started MWM, we tell them it was because we believe in being different. We never set out to create a “better vanilla” than everyone else. We were all simply too inspired by what we do. We serve clients every single day. Without them, we simply would not exist.

Because we are always in constant pursuit of the bold and unconventional, we knew the office needed to portray that image and philosophy or it was nothing more than words. If we had mundane offices or space where an advisor had a nice corner office decked out better than the rest of the space, it may send a message to clients that is inconsistent with why we started MWM in the first place.

When did you move in? And why Alexandria – you said a year ago that you were open to other possibilities.

Armstrong: We had looked for a year. We looked at a lot of beautiful places, that were not the right price or the right location.

MicKey: Traffic is a big issue here. And it was central to where we all lived.

Armstrong: We had no interest in going back go DC. It was all the energy we were burning … everything getting into the city. It just drove us nuts. Our clients didn’t want to go there, either.

We run a pretty robust intern program, which meant we needed to be near public transportation. Tysons doesn’t have that. And those hot lanes and the metro construction out there are a mess.

In September, we closed up on a Friday and started the mad race of getting everything across the street.

You told me that you put a lot of time and effort into making your office incorporate the way you worked. Tell me a little more about that.

Armstrong: The first step is meeting in the conference room. We have a 15-slide power point about how Monument is different. One of the slides shows all the goldfish swimming in one direction … and one going the other way. We’re that fish.

The next step is to schedule a meeting in the Planning Room. We go through a process of information gathering in seven categories. There are two partners in the room, one taking notes while the other one is writing on the glass panels.

It’s a beautiful space (see photo). When did you see its potential?

We designed the whole office around it. It’s the heart of what we do.

And the glass panels – what do you use them for?

Tim Lee: Each of the seven panels is one area of clients’ lives. The seven are:

Professional Relationships
Legacy Goals
How they like to communicate
Trust and Estate
Goals at retirement

We interview the clients, asking for information, and write each piece of information on the panel where it belongs. They’re going to tell you all the things you don’t need to know, but at the end you have a complete picture of their financial lives.

They tell us: You’ve thought about my life in ways that I never have.

Then, we send them a Monument Blueprint that incorporates all the information they gave us. Even if they decide not to use us, they still have that piece of paper.

When do you start charging?

Armstrong: In the first two steps, there is no commitment. If they want us to prepare a financial plan after the second step, there’s a cost for that. The Monument Blueprint is delivered along with an engagement letter that outlines the scope of the planning engagement and the total cost. It gives prospective clients time to discuss the decision and get back to us – we think it removes the sales pressure.

Our plans really depend on the complexity of the client and have ranged from $2,500 to $15,000.

MicKey: The fourth step, if they want to become a long-term client, is drawing up a strategic asset allocation.

Armstrong: The fifth step is the signing party.

How is this process working?

Armstrong: Three clients have gone through the process and become paying clients.

Anything else different about the office?

Armstrong: All of the partners offices are exactly the same size. We did that purposefully.

How is the practice doing?

Armstrong: We still have about $250 million in AUM. A better measure is that revenue is up 25%. We’re seeing a lot of growth on the financial planning.

For the original breakaway story about Monument Wealth Management, see: Two years later, a Merrill Lynch breakaway team has no regrets.

The story was revised to correct the name of the restaurant in Alexandria.

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