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When Your Niche Finds You

With real caring and plain old Southern hospitality, Sammie Gatti found a target market she never saw coming.

David J. Drucker, 07/20/2006

"The greatest compliment I've ever been paid is that I'm color blind," says Sammie Gatti, who hesitates to even characterize her African-American women clients as a "specialty."  "It's more a matter of a woman financial advisor dealing with other women who don't have a financial background," says this blond, youthful Southerner operating from a firm called Navigation Financial out of Dallas, TX.  "People assume there's a huge barrier [to working with clients of another race]; it's we who put up that barrier in our own minds."

"OK, then, how did you find this niche?" I asked.  "My first client, who I now refer to as my 'matriarch,' had been the supervisor of a fabrication plant at Texas Instruments for 40 years when I met her in 1996."  "Other ladies who worked with my client would come to her and say, 'we know you're getting advice about retirement.  What should we do with our 401Ks or lump-sum pensions?'  She'd refer them to me.  It all started with one lady, and then there were three, then nine, then 18... it took off like wildfire.  Any woman who likes a service provider can't say enough to other women about the good experiences she's had.'"

Gatti now has over 300 female clients -- and a couple of men.  "One of my male clients asked what I have against men.  I said, 'nothing, but they have to be highly referred to me.'"

Most of Gatti's clients come from Texas Instruments (TI), AT&T and UPS, and one aspect of her niche-building is the benefit plan nuances shared by all employees working for any one of these employers.  "When I started working with TI, the company was offering a couple of early-out packages and my ladies had to make the decision to stay another year or two, or take the early-out offer.  That's another reason my practice grew so fast."

Gatti's first client wasn't looking for an African-American financial advisor; she simply needed another woman to help her with complicated decisions.  "I think what my first client liked so much about me was that I explain things very simply."  In fact, Gatti has systematized the life change most of her clients are making into what she calls the "28 steps of getting someone retired."  They include steps like getting them off the payroll, making sure they understand how their retiree health benefits work, physically doing all the paperwork to facilitate a rollover, etc.

It's not difficult for Gatti to empathize with her clients since she worked with a financial advisor when formerly employed in a commercial real estate career.  "My first experience with a financial planner was not a good one because he talked over my head and wouldn't explain anything.  I felt like a real dummy."  What she learned and applies every day in dealing with her own clients is that planning is about simplifying the process -- not trying to impress the client with how smart you are.  "You can make things as complicated as you want, but all my clients want to know is, 'How much money can I take home each month without running out, and if I have a problem, what do I do?'"

Also attractive to her clients -- and clients, in general -- was her pronouncement that, "If you have chosen me to be your planner, you don't have to talk to anyone on an 800 number; anytime you have any questions or things that need doing, you come to me."  Explains Gatti, "It's easier if I take care of everything in the sequence in which I know it needs to be done.  I say to my clients, 'Just turn it over to Sammie.'"

But Gatti can't both manage her clients' money and her relationships with them, which is why she has help from two degreed planners, both from Baylor University's Financial Services & Planning School, and two other staffers.  "The latter two include one assistant and another person who makes sure my ladies -- most of whom are retirees -- get their pension distributions just like paychecks from going to work.  It's a labor-intensive process, and one we've got to stay on top of."  Gatti's planners are associates, both licensed with Securities America as she is who get a percentage of what Gatti earns."

Is that enough help to both maintain and grow her current client base?  "Having more clients isn't a problem... I'll just become more efficient and put more people on here."

And more clients she'll get as her war stories spread through the community.  "One thing that put me on the map was one of my clients years ago was terminally ill with cancer.  She had been separated from her husband for many years, but never got a divorce.  I found a female attorney to mediate the divorce outside of a courtroom -- since my client was too ill to go to court -- and the client was ultimately able to leave a large lump sum pension to her children and grandchildren rather than leaving it to her husband.  We were on a short fuse because she didn't have much time, but we were able to get it through quickly."

On another occasion, one of Gatti's retirees passed away and Gatti received a call from the woman's funeral director.  "When he told me how much the funeral would cost, I said, 'That's great, but I have a funeral director who will do it for a fourth of that."  The original funeral director lowered his price to that of the competition, which won Gatti points with the client's family.  "We can all be taken advantage of and sometimes it's so nice for someone with experience to come in and help with the financial decision."

As much gratification as she gets from her client base, Gatti thinks about new directions.  "Because I learned so much about the inner workings of Texas Instruments, including the stock options given to its directors and executives, I'm now coaching these employees through their option strategies.  It's been a fun diversion -- another niche."  The common element between both of Gatti's niches -- and what she particularly likes about them -- is that people have to make decisions by a certain time.  They've either got pension plan rollover deadlines or expiring option deadlines.

Every year, Gatti shows her gratitude to her clients by throwing one big blowout of a Christmas lunch party.  "I started with seven ladies in 1996; last year I had to change hotels because we outgrew the first one."  Between clients and their friends, she hosts a crowd of about 400 people.  "It's like a huge family reunion because some of my retirees left TI 20 years ago, they're in their 80s now, and they get to see ladies retiring now who they know."  Gatti has help hosting the party from a famous Texas minister who leads worship at a very large African-American church in Dallas.  "With a voice somewhere between Barry White and Luther Vandross, he's my master of ceremonies."

The Christmas party is a way for Gatti to recognize her clients who never made race an issue but simply trusted her as a person who cared and had the knowledge and know-how they needed.

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