For This Financial Services Upstart, the Dark Days of 2008 Were Golden

For This Financial Services Upstart, the Dark Days of 2008 Were Golden
Image credit: Elliot Weissbluth
Elliot Weissbluth, founder and CEO of HighTower Advisors

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You don't generally hear that 2008 was a great year for business, but that's exactly what Elliot Weissbluth is saying.

Wall Street was decimated. Confidence in America's financial institutions was shaken to its very core. But while most people saw destruction, Weissbluth saw opportunity.

"A lot more companies are born in periods of crisis than you might imagine," he says. Studying this trend has become something of a personal hobby of his, and the list he provides of corporations that were founded during an economic recession is both long and impressive, including industry leaders like Apple, Microsoft, Hyatt, Disney and IBM.

His favorite example of the way crisis breeds innovation is Fortune magazine, which was founded directly after the 1929 crash. "People lost their jobs because of the decisions that were made behind the closed doors of the financial services firms in downtown Manhattan," he says. While they still wanted to buy and sell stocks, they suddenly wanted to understand the process for themselves. Fortune became a valuable resource.

Related: How Independent Financial Advisors Can Ride the Wave of Interest in Investing

During times of crisis, while people still need the same products and services, they are no longer as tied to or willing to rely on the old institutions that once provided them, Weissbluth says. "If you can put something new and innovative in front of people as their behaviors are changing, you can build a commercial enterprise."

After 2008, individuals still needed financial advisors, but their confidence was shattered when it came to the traditional brokerage firms.

Enter HighTower Advisors. Launched in 2007, the Chicago-based wealth management firm capitalized on investors distrust and frustration with their financial advisors after the crash by building a firm that does not make money by selling financial products, a departure from the traditional model. "We provide a business solution that accommodates how people want to do business, as opposed to how they’ve historically done it," says Weissbluth.

In other words, HighTower's advisors aren't working for commission; they're predominately paid in professional fees (advisors who join also get a piece of the HighTower equity pie). Fifty percent of the company is owned by HighTower's employees, advisors and staff, according to the company.

In a video on HighTower's website, Weissbluth breaks it down in simple terms: while traditional brokers are like butchers, HighTower advisors are dieticians. A butcher has detailed knowledge of types and cuts of meat, which he can recommend with skill and precision. But he will never tell you that buying meat isn't in your best interest, because meat is always what he's selling; that's his business. Meanwhile, a dietician is free to recommend a balanced diet comprised of meat, fish, vegetables and grains -- your health is his  business.

Related: The Great Reinvention: How U.S. Cities Got Their Glow Back

"We don’t take any economic interest in the vendors or service providers or asset managers with whom we do business, which frees us up to offer several solutions for our clients," he says. "Other firms simply can’t say that because part of their economic or strategic model causes them to align themselves with different market participants."

Weissbluth sees traditional firms attempting to ape HighTower's approach, despite the fact that their DNA is fundamentally different from that of HighTower. "They are financially so in bed with these economic entities that it's not realistic." A lot of these companies are public, he says, and are generating a large percentage of their bottom line as a result of alignments and internal margins.

HighTower today caters to high-net-worth and institutional clients. It has 282 employees, including 86 advisors, expects to manage $30 billion in assets in 2014 and boasts a three-year growth rate of 63 percent in revenue, according to the company. 

For all aspiring entrepreneurs out there, operating in the financial services industry or outside it, Weissbluth -- who was told by countless members of the financial services community that an alternative approach to the status quo was infeasible -- has this to say: "No matter how many people tell you that it can't be done, believe in your own passion. We were told by just about every person that we spoke to that what we were proposing to do was impossible. That it would fail. And we've proven them all wrong."

Related: How to Build a Financial Advisor Team

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