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Advisor Insights

Advisor Profile: Design With Reach

Ross Gott provides clients with touch points, not data points.

In a world consumed by Big Data, it’s tempting to throw as many numbers at clients as possible. But data isn’t a stand-in for insights, advisor Ross Gott says, and a barrage of it can be overwhelming to clients. Gott, founder of ZeroCelsius Wealth Studio in New London, N.H., fights against data overload. Using a design sensibility, he gives his clients streamlined presentations full of visual flourishes that tease out the essentials for each client. Where other advisors’ websites show menus of services, performance charts, and market commentaries, Gott keeps his simple. He distills his offerings to three essentials: discover, know, and grow. Clients must first discover who they are, they need to know what they want to achieve, and finally they require a plan to make that possible with their money. “A lot of advisors don’t understand that what matters are touch points, not data points,” Gott says.

A career at an ad agency (where he was in the accounting department) taught Gott the power of good design. “If you don’t have a good design, it’s hard to create touch points,” he says. “Otherwise, you’re left with thick financial plans. Those are a wealth counselor’s tools, but they’re not client deliverables.”

Good design empowers clients, Gott believes. Bad design leads to paralysis. It’s an idea borne out by the work of Nobel-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who believes that so-called design architects hold a lot of sway over the behaviors of investors. With good design, financial advisors can lead clients toward better outcomes, but not by bombarding them with data. “Giving clients data upon data is not the same thing as transparency,” Gott says. “But advisors sometimes confuse those.”

A Unique Take on Client Meetings
When a client first considers working with Gott, there’s a three-meeting process to go through. Part pub crawl, part blind date, Gott uses these interactions to learn as much as he can about each person. This isn’t the time to bring out the charts and projections, he argues. In the first meeting, there’s no mention of finances. Instead, he wants to know about people’s musical tastes, childhood memories, and favorite vacation spots. An Army brat who attended 19 schools between kindergarten and high school graduation, getting to know new people is second nature to Gott.

“We’re just getting acquainted,” Gott says. “We are trying to figure out if we are going to be able to impact their lives for good.”

The next meeting is even more in-depth. “It’s a really long meeting, so we’ll break for lunch,” he says. “If it’s in the afternoon, we’ll have cocktails.”

That’s when Gott delves deep into clients’ financial goals and ties them to what he already knows about them. He asks them a series of questions about their lives and their finances. He also uses Morningstar’s risk-tolerance assessment. “We spend a lot of time gathering the facts,” he says. “Here’s where advisors are really good, but also really bad.”

Data gathering should include important information such as how much money a client has and how they’re saving for retirement, Gott says. But for data to be useful and drive the kind of planning that makes a difference in people’s lives, it must delve deeper, he says. He creates three categories—feeling facts, fact facts, and fun facts—and they’re all equally important.

The final meeting is the one that pairs life and finances. But here, too, Gott puts his own spin on it. He sits down with clients in his office, in front of a big-screen TV, and lays out a presentation. “After the first meeting, I friend people on Facebook,” he says. “I download all the photos they have, and we try to link up the financial picture within the context of their lives.”

It’s one thing to lay out a way to save for college, quite another to see your child’s smiling face as the embodiment of that goal. Saving for retirement may lose its urgency if it isn’t accompanied by the image of what you and your spouse might be doing during those years. “That’s why design principles are so important,” Gott says. “It makes their plan sticky.”

Excited by Change
Gott’s first pass at financial advice was overly broad, he now admits. In 1998, he founded Kearsarge Capital Advisors, a tax practice that later morphed into a registered investment advisory firm. His target clients were mass affluent professionals in his quaint New England town and environs. “I was doing my own models and managing all the portfolios myself,” he says. “I was having a really hard time switching from the data to the person.”

He wanted a practice that would give him a greater connection to clients, something that wasn’t possible when there was a spreadsheet between them. In 2009, he hired a branding firm to review his practice. The first thing that became clear was that the name Kearsarge, a nod to the local mountain, didn’t convey what Gott wanted his firm to stand for and the kind of clients he was hoping to attract.

The name ZeroCelsius represents change, in this case the point where water turns to ice. Gott’s target clients are creative professionals with too little time or bandwidth to tackle financial planning, though they recognize that it’s important.

Running a practice like this is time-consuming, and Gott quickly realized he’d have to free up time elsewhere to make it possible. “I wouldn’t be able to do this if I kept managing the investments myself,” he says.

To solve that problem, he turned to Morningstar Managed Portfolios, freeing up time to focus on building deep connections with his clients.

Eye on the Future
Gott’s clients are mostly in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. He calls them members of the “lost years’ club,” a term coined by Lee Eisenberg in his book The Number. They’ve accumulated wealth (at least $250,000 to meet his minimum), but they’ve also squandered opportunities to save well for the future by trying to keep up with their peers with big homes, tony cars, and spending on their children. They need a high-touch service to make the most of their remaining working years.

Some people don’t need a full-service offering, though they need guidance. To that end, Gott offers ZeroCelsius Wealth Quest, an automated investment service on the Betterment platform for clients with less than $250,000 to invest. These clients skew younger, most between their mid-20s and mid-30s, and several are the children of existing clients.“Eventually, we want to get them to graduate to our Wealth Studio service,” Gott says.

And then, he’ll be able to design an even more personalized and simple financial plan.

Ross Gott, founder, ZeroCelsius Wealth Studio.
How he caught our eye: Takes a creative approach to provide impactful financial plans for clients.
Career path: Started his career in accounting at an advertising agency in Houston. He later moved to a CPA firm where he learned taxes. His first foray into financial services was through a tax prep practice. He launched his first registered investment advisory, Kearsarge Capital Advisors, in 1998. He rebranded it to ZeroCelsius Wealth Studio in 2009.
Personal: Gott lives in New London, N.H., where he enjoys hiking, kayaking, photography, his four motorcycles, and traveling to visit his clients. He is the father of two grown children, a daughter who runs an English language school in Buenos Aires and a son who works in real estate.

The author is a freelance contributor to The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.