Bill Costarides' first-floor office in Mobile, Ala., isn't a run-of-the-mill brokerage. Past the receptionist's desk, there's an area that resembles a living room. Complete with a couch, big-screen TV and refreshments, it could be called a client lounge or den, but Costarides calls it simply "old-fashioned hospitality."
"We have a little area with a sofa and chairs, where we offer clients a Coke or coffee, and they can watch different news channels," Costarides says. He got the idea for the lounge 20 years ago as a wirehouse broker, and was quick to implement it when he and two other brokers set up their independent Raymond James Financial Services office in June 1997. "At Merrill Lynch, we used to have the old ticker tape running. Older clients would come in and chat, have coffee, and watch the ticker tape."
These days, clients watch CNBC instead. Even so, few come in just to watch market news, but having an open door and a homelike office environment is part of Costarides' business philosophy. "We want the client to feel comfortable, to feel welcomed," he says. "It's just old-fashioned--the way business should be."
Costarides' client lounge is just one part of creating a warm feel. A believer in personal service, he refuses to install voice mail or answering machines, and won't send clients e-mail messages. He encourages brokers in his office to sacrifice convenience and make personal contact with clients either by speaking directly on the phone or in person.
"We're not dinosaurs," Costarides says, emphatically. "This isn't about not wanting to use the technology. It's about communicating with the client in a personal way. ... Every time you do something that reduces the personal relationship, it's one more nail in your coffin."
Costarides' old-fashioned notions have contributed to his team's cutting-edge success. His brokerage team, now with five small branch offices along the Gulf Coast in Alabama and Mississippi, is ranked No. 1 in the Raymond James network. Costarides runs his offices as partnerships with the main office. The main office has three brokers, four support staff and four in-house specialists, including a broker with a law degree who handles financial planning, trusts and estate planning; a 401(k) specialist; an insurance expert; and an annuity specialist. Costarides began recruiting the niche players from day one, looking for people who shared his philosophy and who were willing to pool their efforts for a shared clientele.
"The reason we like to operate as a partnership is because we don't have the paranoia that goes on at a wirehouse. There's no 'Is this your account or my account?'" Costarides says. "The experts can service the accounts without fear of who is going to get paid. We all work for the clients' best interest and we all get paid from a pool."
Currently, there are associates, junior partners and senior partners depending on levels of experience, Costarides says. "It's our hope and goal that everyone reaches senior partner status."
Clients have responded to the personal service and convenience of having a centralized team of professionals.
"It was getting more difficult to give that at a wirehouse," Costarides says. "The experts [clients needed] would be in Atlanta, or at regional offices, or even in New York. In our case, the experts are located right here in our branch office, so our clients have ready access to them. ... We thought that would make us extremely competitive."
Costarides ran a successful ad campaign playing up just that strength. Its slogan: "When was the last time your financial adviser, insurance agent and CPA all had lunch together to talk about your financial needs?" With his team, that happens frequently. Costarides' typical clients are in their late 50s or 60s seeking advice on retirement, estate planning or insurance. Clients are given the choice of paying through fee-based or traditional commission accounts. Costarides' role is that of senior partner and senior portfolio manager. He also oversees the corporate holding company that runs the branch offices.
True to form, he says he has no intention of trying to compete with new-fangled online trading firms, and feels that it's a mistake for Merrill Lynch and other wirehouses to get sucked into the discount business and away from the service model.
"Clients want more service and more advice, and they're willing to pay for it," Costarides says. "They can take §50,000 or whatever they're comfortable with and go trade it at E*Trade. But I tell them, 'Give me your 401(k), your trusts, your children's education funds, your long-term retirement plans and let me help you with your insurance needs.' I don't think anyone's going to have their serious long-term money with E*Trade or Ameritrade. I just don't see it."