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Why an Investment Advisor is like a Wagon Master

Like Wagon Train's Major Seth Adams, financial advisors need more than a good map to lead their clients through a challenging and sometimes-hostile terrain.

Kent Grealish, 07/12/2011

While channel surfing the other night, I found a television series I faithfully watched as a kid. "Wagon Train" starred Ward Bond (a classic character actor of Hollywood's Golden Age) as Major Seth Adams, a wagon master leading a band of settlers west to California. I have come to think of Major Adams as the perfect metaphor for the ideal investment advisor.

It was Major Adams' responsibility to guide his clients safely through an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environment to a more promising future. Conceptually, it was a simple job--just head due west from Saint Joe, Mo. Practically, it could be incredibly difficult if not deadly. Pioneers had to understand that this was a long-term undertaking. Short-cuts could turn out to be both illusory and dangerous and even a small lapse in judgment could kill you as the Donner Party discovered to its horror. This was not a job for amateurs.

Preparation and prudent planning were the key elements for a successful journey. You needed more than a good map; you needed an experienced guide who knew the terrain and what to expect. The wagon master had to plan ahead but he also had to deal with uncertainty and needed contingency plans to respond quickly to a variety of possible events. Water holes could dry up and rivers could become impassable. Weather conditions could rapidly change as could the attitudes of the indigenous people. The wagon train required a capable scout who could reconnoiter the trail and help the wagons avoid any trouble that might lie ahead just over the horizon.

Efficiency was critically important. Outfitting a wagon was expensive, and space was at a premium. Major Adams would certainly have advised his people not to buy items they did not absolutely need or were unwilling to carry on such a long journey. In much the same way, investors should be discouraged from wasting money on unnecessary services or burdening themselves with over-complicated investment strategies that bog them down or wear them out.

In the television series you can see how seriously Major Adams considers his responsibilities. He takes, if you will, a fiduciary responsibility for his charges because he knows that their future depends on his good judgment and the decisions he makes. Investment advisors may not be faced with life or death choices, but the outcome of their decisions can still have a life-altering effect on their clients.

Finally, there is the image of Ward Bond as Major Adams. He displays the gravitas of someone who has both character and experience, who can be relied upon to do the right thing and who inspires confidence in others. He provides his clients with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they are working with someone who is both competent and trustworthy. The public does not always picture investment advisors that way. We should work on that.

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