Monday, November 30, 2020

Jeff Dekko: The New Standard for Financial Services

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The people at Wealth Enhancement Group have a unique way of thinking about the delivery of financial services. They do not consider themselves to be simply the purveyors of financial products. They instead think of themselves as accelerators of people’s values and dreams. That is because advising people about their financial lives is about more than just money. It’s about what that money can do for them – send their children or grandchildren to college; provide for a satisfying retirement; and protect their legacy.

Jeff Dekko, CEO of Wealth Enhancement Group, explained the difference between consulting with an investment broker and a financial planner. “When you look at the classic broker model, the broker says, ‘I’m going to sell you a stock or security.’ They are basically there to broker a transaction between two parties. But a financial planner acts as a fiduciary. The planner says, ‘I’m here to provide you with good advice and put your interests ahead of mine.’ One is selling; one is advising.”

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Wealth Enhancement Group was founded more than 15 years ago on the belief that the best financial planning advice would be delivered not by a single adviser, but by a whole group of professionals equipped with special knowledge to offer guidance in specific financial disciplines. “It’s really almost impossible for one individual to be a financial planner. There are so many subjects to be proficient in. So we’ve created what we call our round table of specialists. They are available to our planners when needed, so that when an adviser identifies an area where a client needs more help, there is always someone on the team they can turn to and can get the right answer.”

Dekko joined Wealth Enhancement Group in 2003. He says his is not a story of how he came in and transformed a flagging company, but of how he joined a firm that was founded on the right ideas – ideas he believes in – and how he has used those ideas to expand the firm’s scope and vision. “I’ve had the privilege of helping the company to grow into a larger organization and, as a result, help more people both inside and outside the company.”

Dekko is a native Minnesotan and career innovator who credits his parents with his entrepreneurial leanings. “At a young age my parents brought me into all sorts of business settings, so I got a chance to learn from both of them.”

Dekko began his career as a brand manager for a distressed division at General Mills, Inc., where as a young leader he learned the value of leveraging technology and acquiring data to innovate solutions. “It was a wonderful training ground. They basically handed me the keys to a $25 million business, which for them was a small venture, but for a guy just out of college was a great first shot inside a large company.”

After successfully representing several of General Mills’ best known brands, Dekko joined Recovery Engineering, Inc., where he helped to develop and market the PUR water filtration system. The company was eventually sold to Procter & Gamble. “That organization offered a lot of opportunity for growth. Just as I had at General Mills, I received great mentorship. CEO Brian Sullivan was an incredible entrepreneur who pushed me and taught me about the grit it takes to be successful. I learned a tremendous amount about the thought around the strategic approach to building a business.”

When Dekko encountered Wealth Enhancement Group, he was struck by the company’s team-based approach to delivering financial services. “I saw better outcomes for clients. There is generally a significant amount of individualism among financial advisers. Huge firms appear really mighty, but each broker or adviser is really just one unto themselves. Here, there is a much more integrated process in which multiple talents are brought to bear. When people collaborate, they come to a better solution for the client than an individual working alone. That fundamentally made sense to me.”

This culture of collaboration also empowers the people within it to grow. “The teaming of specialists to create better client outcomes makes for a more motivating environment for the people who work here. It’s a healthy culture when people see how they can develop and grow. We believe people should have a purpose and a reason why they are motivated to run to work each day, as opposed to running home at the end of the day. Financial services, delivered the right way, can have a huge impact on people’s lives. It is incredibly rewarding to be a part of that.”

Dekko’s leadership and the company’s actions during the Great Recession exemplify what is best about this people-centric company. “I remember driving home one night in late September 2008 listening to the radio. They were talking about how they weren’t sure if Merrill Lynch would be solvent through the weekend. I was thinking to myself, how do I lead this company in the business of giving advice to clients when they are all hearing that major firms are no longer solvent? How can I keep people in a good place, so they can, in turn, deliver good advice to our clients?”

Dekko identified fear as the prevailing emotion that both employees and clients were feeling in the face of the financial crisis. So he assembled the company’s key leaders to create a plan to weather the storm. “We made some adjustments, like closing out some open hiring positions. We asked everyone from the top down to take a pay decrease, but with a bonus opportunity to earn it back. We stood in front of the company and announced that with this plan, no matter how bad it got, we were prepared. They didn’t have to worry about their jobs. In fact, we had a growth plan. We would continue investing in the company and improving our business. That took the fear away and allowed our team to focus on our clients. In the end, it helped us grow in a big way, and everybody made more than the amount by which their salaries had been impacted by cutbacks.”

The strategies developed during that period have since become mainstays of the company’s culture. During that time of uncertainty, they sought to improve the emotional intelligence of team members, helping them to solidly identify their own values and then reflect on those values before making client decisions. “It was driven by the concept that we’re here to give advice to clients from the best possible place we can be. We still use this as part of our on boarding with new employees. We also brought the concept of values into our planning activity. For instance, if a client identifies safety, security and stability as their three top values, then it gives us insight that maybe an aggressive investment strategy is not the right thing for them. Helping clients reflect on values engages the rational side of the brain ahead of the emotional side, and it helps us to guide them in making better decisions.”

Out of those exercises also came a clearly articulated statement of company values – integrity, teamwork, clarity, compassion and drive. “I was loath to write values for our company. I believed they needed to be reflective of all of the people here. So we brought forth the values that reflected the whole company. We wanted to make sure that when people look at the sign on the wall, they see an authentic statement of who we are.”

According to Dekko, two strategic forces are currently influencing the business climate in the financial services industry – an increasing regulatory burden and technological change. As a result, the industry is consolidating. “Firms are burdened by the increasing resources spent on these concerns, as opposed to client service and growth. Our team-based system creates a huge amount of leverage to facilitate both. Our accomplished regulatory group and leading edge technology platform provide an opportunity for us to bring our culture and platform to help other companies offset these challenges and get back to focusing on clients.”

Wealth Enhancement Group successfully acquired a Chicago firm in 2013 and is now in the process of purchasing Connecticut-based HHG & Company. “They are a great fit with our culture and mission. We will increase our assets by $1.3 billion and expand our service offerings with the company’s strong tax group. Our long-term vision is to help more people by building a national firm. There really isn’t a national brand built around financial planning. We want to be that brand.”

The company’s holistic approach to providing financial services takes into consideration individual values and the changing priorities that occur at each of life’s milestones. “We want to help motivate our clients to do great things with their money, defined by their values and goals. Whether someone is investing $5,000 or $5 million, their life savings is their life savings. Our team gives the same value to each one of those people. Our goal is to create great outcomes and lifelong relationships.”

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