Building a scalable expat financial planning business


Mongolia wouldn’t appeal to many Australian financial planning principals as a rich source of potential new business, but it has caught the attention of Brett Evans who is building a expat financial planning business, the first in Australia.

His planning business, Atlas Wealth Management, focuses primarily on servicing Australian expatriates (expats). As a rapidly expanding frontier market for oil and gas projects, Mongolia is attracting considerable numbers of Australian engineers and other energy specialists – hence Evans’ interest.

“I’ve been watching it for a couple of years now, but it’s now getting to the point where there’s enough people up there, companies like Rio Tinto are spending money, there’s enough businesses there,” he says.

China remains his biggest target market for Australian expat financial planning clients, along with other Asian hubs of Singapore and Thailand. Though the United States and parts of Europe are also key sources of clients for Atlas, with 18 countries now represented among its book of expat clients.

Evans started focusing on this specific client base a few years ago, while he was co-founder and director of Gamma Wealth Management, another self-licensed financial planning business located on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

His idea soon took on a life of its own, prompting him to establish Atlas Wealth Management as a standalone venture, complete with its own Australian Financial Services license and office, which opened in April 2015. Having its own AFS license is particularly important, leaving Atlas with a greater amount of freedom than some that have targeted the expatriate niche in the past.

Located in the Brisbane, Queensland suburb of Southport, the business currently employs two financial planners and two support staff, though Evans intends to take on another full-time planner in the next six months.

His former business partner at Gamma Wealth Management wanted to continue operating as a generalist financial planning operation. Having spotted a niche of client he was interested in targeting, Evans made the transition to become his own AFS license holder.

“It’s exciting, because we’re being very selective in terms of the client base we’re bringing on. We can actually afford to be quite niche…I could probably be even more niche again, but we want to have a diverse client base, and the potential is huge, that’s what excites us the most,” he says.

Socially enabled growth

Evans explains that given the distance between the office of Atlas and its clients, online tools – especially social media – are extremely important within its business model.

“Social media is a very big part of what we do, because there’s no broadsheet way of communicating with expats. If you want to talk to people in Sydney, you could take an advertisement out in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“You can’t do the same thing with expats. LinkedIn is a massive part of that, but even Facebook, Twitter and even Pinterest,” he says. Though Pinterest was initially only considered in order to bookmark the username, articles posted on the site as images proved popular and rapidly attracted some 40 followers.

Evans says around 49 per cent of Atlas’s new clients come from social media: “We couldn’t have done what we’ve done with Atlas even five years ago, let alone 10 years ago, because social media wasn’t as advanced.”

As an example, he refers to an article he posted on LinkedIn recently asking readers to find out whether their superannuation was ‘expat friendly’.

The geographic reach achievable through tools such as this impresses him, and the fact it is measurable.

“Our top location for readers of this was New York, followed by Boston, and the Paris…it’s an incredible the amount of reach you can get through all these different areas.

“We’ve got clients from 17 countries– there’s no way I could travel to that many countries to visit clients, but it never ceases to amaze me where people looking at our profile and reading our articles from,” Evans says.

He believes Atlas “could probably handle more clients per adviser than, say, a traditional adviser, because we’re actually designed that way.”

Why target expatriates?

Evans’ own background as a child expatriate is one major factor that attracted him to this area of advice. As a six month old, he and his family moved to Tucson, Arizona with his father, who was in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Along with some stints back in his Australian home city of Williamtown, near Newcastle, he also lived in Hong Kong with his family between 1987 and 1996, and later married a fellow Australian expatriate.

He also particularly enjoys the variety, the story-telling and being able to relate to the experiences of expatriates. “I love working with these guys, it’s better that than dealing with some clients that almost bore you. It’s great working with people who are just ‘out there’.

“The fact that they’re an expat means that they’re a risk taker, to some degree. So they’re actually better clients to manage, because they understand the GFC, they understand how the world works,” Evans says.

He believes the best thing about managing clients is managing expectations, and being able to have quite high-level conversation with expat clients makes his job much easier

“So when I talk about capital constraints, and capital flows, they get it, and we can have quite a good discussion, and they can see the opportunity, as opposed to saying ‘oh no, I’m retiring in two years, how am I going to afford it? Let’s put everything in term deposits right now’.”

Evans and his team at Atlas are currently concentrating on building a scalable business. This involves putting in place a structure that other planners can slot into relatively easily, “after being schooled up to the expat side, which is a very different business to look after.”

“We want to get to a point where the business is scalable enough, but also robust enough, to be able to support offshore operations, because that brings a whole new set of challenges in terms of structures, tax laws et cetera,” he says.

“But right now we can operate it from here, and tools like Skype and Google hangouts are very useful for us. What we’re doing right now works for us, so we don’t want to change it too much just yet.”

This article originally appeared in a interview with Professional Planner.

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