Morning Star Advisor: On the Virtual Road Again

On the Virtual Road Again

You've heard of the virtual office, but are you ready for Ted Gregory's virtual mobile office?

David J. Drucker, 11/16/2006

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Ted Gregory, who with his wife, Kate, owns Gregory Advisors of Huntington Beach, Calif., actually has more than one office. In fact, for a firm with just two or three employees at any given time, Gregory has an astonishing number of offices scattered around, as far away from his home as Washington state to the north and Texas to the east. The catch, of course, is that these aren't static offices; they're locations he visits regularly with his mobile office. You see, Gregory's office outside of Huntington Beach is a truck-camper combo.

While Gregory was recovering from serious health problems in the early 1990s, his doctor told him to get rid of stress in his life, including toxic relationships with certain people (some of them clients). "Do only what you love to do," said the doctor.

Interestingly, advisors get this same advice from industry coaches all the time and may or may not follow it. But when your doctor gives you the advice, you tend to take it more seriously. At least, Gregory did. And somewhere in the process of mentally reconfiguring his work life, he decided that any solution he came up with would have to include his wife and daughter. Hence, the mobile office was born.

Gregory has law enforcement folks as clients. He sought one out to talk about RV accidents. "I asked him, 'What's the safest RV configuration I could possibly have?' He said, 'We have the lowest incidence of accidents resulting in death when the vehicle is diesel powered and has a dual rear wheel assembly.'"

Gregory learned that diesel fuel burns rather than explodes; diesel-powered vehicles motor better through slow mountain curves; and with a rear flat on a dual rear wheel vehicle, there is no urgency to change the tire, exposing oneself to a roadside accident. The highway patrolman also told Gregory to choose the right color--either white or neon green--colors much less likely to be found on RVs in accidents.

"So we bought a white camper-style RV that attaches to the bed of our diesel-powered dual rear wheel truck," says Gregory. One wall of the RV slides out to make plenty of space inside for his family.

What could drive an advisor to take such radical steps and how is it working for Gregory?

Gregory completed his first financial plan in 1979. "Everyone in my family--my parents, aunts, uncles, everyone--had financial advisors. So, naturally, I grew up thinking everyone had a financial or business advisor."

Under this family influence, Gregory went on to get his real estate and insurance licenses and found a mentor with whom he started sharing cases. In the mid-1980s, he and a partner started a small broker-dealer called Quest Capital before Gregory walked away from that partnership to find something new.

That something was achieving a higher advisory status as an RIA in 1993. Much of the thinking that went into that and subsequent business decisions came while Gregory was battling his aforementioned health problems. "In the hospital, I thought a lot about what would happen to my clients if I could no longer serve them." They would be raw meat to the piranhas in this industry, he realized.

Deciding he needed to make further changes, Gregory developed a plan to do more than just earn commissions from sales of insurance or fees from doing tax returns. "I needed to create a business with a market value so another advisor could come in and take over and be compensated if something happened to me." Gregory decided the way to do that would be to convert largely to fees as well as to modify his services.

"I had done taxes for 18 years, so I had no problem charging for my time." Gregory now employs a combination of percentage-of-assets-under-management fees, flat fees for planning engagements, and hourly fees for tax returns and other work. "I want to be flexible going forward. Should a client want to be charged on the basis of an annual retainer fee, I can do that easily."

Part of Gregory's business model changes took the form of outsourcing investment management. "I felt early on that I just couldn't add value in the investment area, so I outsource all my money management."

To managers available through his broker-dealer?

"No, broker-dealers aren't always in control of their destiny. Too many have become buyout targets. So I've developed primary relationships with SEI and Assetmark for outsourced money management."

Outsourcing money management leaves Gregory free to focus on helping clients clarify their values, set their goals, and just plain dream. "Our typical clients--what we call the family steward, or day-to-day manager of their family's financial affairs, and our widows--often don't give themselves permission to dream. So our practice focuses on helping them identify what's important to them in life and then developing goals measurable by time and money. The financial plan we do for them is then designed to empower the client to do those things he's dreamed of doing."

With his new business model and a newly incorporated practice as of 2002, Gregory was performing his highest possible level of service to clients, including a mandatory financial plan for each and every client. Turning from business to his own life, he started listening to friends who told him, "Grab this time with your daughter; she'll be gone before you know it."

"So I did the same kinds of exercises we do with clients," he says "and discovered that time with family was very important to me."

Thus did these mental meanderings lead to the mobile office. Twenty percent of his clients live outside of Huntington Beach. "I had spent lots of time flying around the country to visit clients, so in 2003, I created my mobile office and began outfitting it with the necessary technology."

Inside the RV is Gregory's Microsoft Exchange Server with all the appropriate security add-ons, CAT5 cabling, a roll-out shelf for his HP printer/scanner/fax machine, and a satellite dish on the reinforced camper roof for Internet access. Of course, let's not forget his surround sound system, flat panel TV that folds up into a hideaway place, and custom cabinets.

Gregory's now been conducting business from his mobile office for three years, over which time he and his family have spent approximately 160 days on the road. "We've visited clients in San Diego, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Washington state."

"Much to our surprise when we started meeting clients on the road, they began to look at our visits not just as a business meeting, but a personal visit. In every case, we'd spend more than just a day, and usually engage in activities the client had planned, such as Jeep touring in the Rockies or just accompanying them to their hometown church on a Sunday."

In between clients, the Gregorys often visit National Parks, exercising the freedom that comes naturally with their chosen form of office.

And how about their daughter. How does she take time from school to accompany mom and dad on their cross-country jaunts? "Most of our travel occurs during her non-school time. But on several occasions when our travels did interfere with school, her school posted her assignments on the Internet and we accessed them from our mobile office. During long drives down some of those endless Southwestern highways, she'd do her homework in the camper's dinette area where she'd have computer access and good lighting."

Gregory is now 67 and intends to work in some capacity until age 85. With his low-stress, highly personal--and highly mobile--business model, he might just achieve that goal.