Carolyn Decker – Lake Street Advisors
Whether you’ve scrimped and saved or spent without worry, meeting with a financial advisor for the first time can be an intimidating experience, where even the savviest of minds feels lost amidst the lexicon of asset bases, dividends and deferral options.
Never is this feeling keener than with one query especially: How does this person I’m working with—this presumed expert with whom I’m entrusting my future—actually get paid?
If the advisor in question is Carolyn Decker, the answer will be short, simple and more than a little refreshing.
“We are a fee-only company, which means we’re never paid for selling products,” says Decker, a partner at Lake Street Advisors in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “It’s not just a goal to act in the client’s best interest. It’s our responsibility.”
Simply put, the fees you see are what you get, down to the penny and plain as the paper they’re written on. It’s an approach that’s helped Lake Street chart an impressive 8-10 percent annual growth, all while nurturing a culture—and national clientele—where “trust and transparency supersede all else,” Decker says.
Moving without changing
It’s not uncommon for first-time clients, particularly those familiar with Portsmouth’s history-hewn streets, to note the firm’s somewhat curious name (there is no Lake Street). Rather than lament another retelling, though, Decker sees it as an opportunity to tout the company’s boutique roots.
Founded in nearby Wolfeboro, the postcard hamlet nestled along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, Lake Street Advisors took its name from the narrow road jutting out from Wolfeboro Bay. This was back in 2003, a full four years before the global financial crisis, when wealth management was still seen in straightforward terms: If you had the means, someone was there to show you the ends.
Despite steady growth, Decker and her colleagues knew taking the next step would require both increased space and a deeper employee pool.
“One of the great things about Portsmouth is it has a really dynamic workforce with a high level of education,” she says. “It’s a place we knew we could expand without abandoning our sense of independence.”
It’s that independence, Decker insists, that is paramount to her company’s approach. Unlike many industry heavyweights, where individual advisors are often beholden to higher corporate calculi (and, in some cases, other interests altogether), Lake Street’s counsel is as transparent as it is well-versed.
During the 2008 downturn, while much of the sector scrambled to restructure, outfits like Lake Street—small, but uncommonly nimble—were better suited to diversifying on the fly.
“It’s akin to endowments at a university,” Decker explains. “When you have broad exposure to multiple asset classes, during a recession or downturn, you have other assets to fill in and provide some protection.”
Lake Street’s current suite of services includes everything from the basic (household management and bill payments) to the sophisticated (tax strategy, wealth transfer and family governance), with all manner of fiduciary fixins in between (including managing equities, fixed income and alternative investments).
As the client’s needs evolve, so too does the relationship, guided all the while by a single principle: to work in the client’s best interest.
“There are a lot of good people in the brokerage world, but at the end of the day, their paycheck is based on what they can sell,” Decker explains. “Really, it comes down to the rule of ‘do no harm’. If you’re truly looking out for your client, that shouldn’t be an issue.”
Nearly 10 years on from the steepest economic dip since the Great Depression, Decker says her company is stronger and healthier than ever. Still, for all the splendid vistas (and in Portsmouth, there are plenty), it may be the view inside its walls that sets Lake Street apart.
A simpler model
For all their polarizing traits, lawyers are nothing if not straightforward in how they structure their fees: You, the client, are paying for access to my brain, at a rate of X dollars per hour.
Will it be cheap? Not unless you live with them. So long as you can do routine multiplication, however, the numbers aren’t that hard to grasp.
The financial world, for better or worse, isn’t always that simple—and that, Decker says, is a big reason why so many remain leery of hiring a new investment manager.
“Any investor, or anyone receiving expert advice in any aspect of life, should be able to understand how their advisor is getting paid,” Decker says. “Is this a sales pitch, or are you giving me sound advice? I think that’s a concern a lot of people have a hard time getting over—and rightly so.”
Of course, part of putting minds at ease lies in the basics: making an earnest effort to get to know the client, understanding their goals and, yes, even assuaging their fears.
In terms of customer service, Lake Street seems to have the biggest boxes emphatically checked. And as for depth of knowledge?
“A lot of competitors say they offer holistic wealth management, but their primary emphasis is really on the investment side, where financial planning and tax strategy are a distant second,” Decker notes. “To us, if we’re talking about achieving goals in the most efficient manner, all of these things go hand in hand.”
A niche with a twist
Whatever your opinions of the U.S. tax code or the economic system writ large, it’s impossible to deny that global wealth—and therefore personal wealth—has grown.
But while one’s net worth might broaden over time, their menu of wealth-management options won’t necessarily follow suit.
For Lake Street, eschewing a turnstile approach in lieu of deeper client relationships remains a matter of principal. But there’s a practical consideration at play as well: The higher your net worth (Decker describes the clientele as “ultra-high” in this regard), the more attention—and time—you should demand.
“Inertia is a pretty powerful force, which means a lot of people tend to stay with underperforming advisors for too long,” says Lake Street business analyst Jeremy Walla. “Once our clients understand what we can accomplish with our more holistic approach, I think that only fosters and deepens the relationship and builds trust. We pride ourselves on being proactive advisors, rather than reactive.”
If Lake Street’s clientele occupies something of a niche market, that’s largely because the challenges they face are, well, niche. Business-succession planning, philanthropic endeavors, estate transfers, educating subsequent generations on sound wealth-management—all complex needs requiring nuanced, big-picture perspectives.
Lake Street’s services might not be for everybody. To those who find the means and message align, though, you can be assured that you’ll always be treated like the only one in the room.
“We look at every client we have as a true partner,” Decker says. “The services and expertise we provide might be a business, but the relationship—that’s personal.”
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