The Internet has changed how we pay our bills and apply for loans. What has not evolved as much is the relationship between wealthy individuals and their financial advisers, who manage their clients’ holdings, take an annual cut of overall assets, and periodically offer updates in person or over the phone.
Bill Harris has a plan to bring this kind of personal wealth management into the Internet Age. A longtime Silicon Valley veteran and a former chief executive officer of Intuit (INTU), Harris has quietly worked for two years on a startup called Personal Capital, raising $27 million in financing. Harris hopes to create a new kind of financial-services firm catering to moderately wealthy individuals whose net worth—from a couple hundred thousand dollars to a couple million—is not quite fat enough to attract the high-priced investment advisers at Morgan Stanley (MS) or Goldman Sachs (GS). “We want to bring personalized, high-end wealth management services to a part of the market that is fundamentally underserved,” Harris says.
At the center of Harris’s plans is a free site, personalcapital.com, that will help people track their finances and improve their portfolios. When the company formally launches in September, visitors will register their various bank accounts, investment accounts, 401(k)s, mortgages, and credit cards. They’ll get assessments of their exposure to risk and their allocations in various asset classes and geographies. They’ll also be able to measure the fees on their mutual funds and judge whether the performance justifies the price. Some of this mirrors what’s available on other sites such as Wikinvest and Sigfig.com, and with personal financial management software such as Mint.com.
Personal Capital wants to go further. It plans to match customers who seek hands-on help with one of its registered investment professionals. That is the part of the business that Harris calls “a pretty big swing for the fence,” and it’s competing with portfolio advisory services from the likes of Charles Schwab (SCHW) and Fidelity and with thousands of independent broker-dealers around the country. The startup currently employs eight wealth advisers in a call center in San Francisco and plans to add to that staff as the volume of customers grows. Each client is assigned an adviser who designs a personalized investment strategy and is available to talk via phone, e-mail, video chat, or instant messenger. The company will charge an annual fee of 0.75 percent to 0.95 percent of the invested assets as commission, undercutting the average for the wealth management industry of 1.5 percent to 2 percent. “We’ve tried to combine real-time data tools that allow you to understand and take control of your financial decisions with the ability to have a personal adviser, to whom you can delegate,” Harris says.
The company will face plenty of challenges. It’s launching into a gyrating stock market and a faltering economic recovery. Jim Bruene, editor of the Online Banking Report, is skeptical of the company’s plans but thinks the market environment might help. “There’s a lot of volatility, and people are looking for advisers,” he says. “On the other hand, will they go to a brand-new Internet company, or will they go back to a name they have heard about for the last 100 years?”
Then there are the more profound questions facing Personal Capital, such as: Why would anyone trust a financial adviser whom they’ve never met with some of the most important decisions they’ll ever face? Mitch Tuchman, CEO of a portfolio management software maker called MarketRiders, says Harris is wading into a field that tends to revolve around trust and relationships. “If I want to manage your money properly, I need to know a lot about you,” he says. “Do you have a mortgage? Does your wife work? I need to be in your life to give you good advice.”
Harris believes he can establish these kinds of relationships and notes that many of the independent broker-dealers that dominate this sector of the market end up violating their clients’ trust by funneling their assets into proprietary mutual funds, on which they earn a separate commission. Personal Capital will select primarily individual securities from around the world and says it will tailor strategies for each client. Harris also argues, not surprisingly, that the time is perfect for Personal Capital. “In the boom time, everyone thought they were a genius and could do it themselves. Few people think that today,” he says. “The question is, do people still need a handshake” with a financial professional? “I firmly believe they don’t.”