Everyone's heard the maxim, "Dress for success." But the truth is that the image you present to clients - through the clothes you wear, the car you drive or even the furnishings in your office suite - requires a highly tuned sensitivity.

For advisors in particular, image can be a balancing act. If your surroundings are shabby, clients may be skeptical about your ability to build wealth. But too much sparkle (in the parking lot or on your fingers) could raise suspicions about your financial habits - and perhaps the source of your fees.

"People do judge," says Kevin Cusack of TriCor Financial Services in Las Vegas. "If we are spending a lot of money, they are thinking, 'So that's where my fees are going.'"

Financial Planning asked several planners to tell us how they walk the line between looking sharp and avoiding ostentation. Here's what they told us.

 

URBAN AND CAR-FREE

Prospective clients frequently quiz planners about the kinds of cars they drive, as a kind of a litmus test. But Philadelphia-based Christopher Dylan Morello has an easy answer: I don't.

"I live in the city. I rent cars when I need them," says Morello, a financial planner with myCIO Wealth Partners, which has $5.4 billion in assets under management. "Most times, to see clients, I take trains," Morello says. In fact, with many of his clients residing in New York, Amtrak often provides the best transportation option.

Back in Philadelphia, however, Morello thinks a great deal about the impression he's making on his clients. His office is in Philadelphia's pricier Center City neighborhood, where he believes the urban setting leaves a positive impression on clients who hail from smaller cities in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

And Morello says he adjusts his attire based on his clients and the current dynamics of his relationship with them. When he meets a prospect for the first time, whether in his office or theirs, he usually wears a suit. But for a second or third meeting at a client's home, for instance, he will wear a less formal look.

"You don't need to knock 'em dead with your fashion sense. You just want to convey a professional attitude," he says.

 

AIMING FOR CASUAL

In Las Vegas, Cusack says, casual style rules. "It's very difficult to get me into a long pair of pants," he says.

Cusack works from a virtual office and has found its flexibility useful and his clients unfazed by it, even complimenting his approach. His ride, too, is low key and low cost: He drives an older model, relatively low-end SUV.

All that modesty matches the lifestyles and attitudes of his clients, who have about $800,000 in assets on average. Cusack believes they prefer his lack of opulence. "I have people say, 'I'm glad you are not driving an expensive car.'"

As for the shorts, he adds: "Never has anyone made a comment about what I was wearing. That's one of the things about Vegas. People would think you were a CPA or something if you wore a tie around here."

 

CONSERVATIVE ELEGANCE

When Orange County, Calif., planner Junette McCarthy began a recent project to redecorate her conference room, she thought seriously about the visual impressions the space made on prospective and existing clients.

Years earlier, McCarthy - a partner and owner in Ferree & McCarthy in Santa Ana, Calif., which has $100 million in assets under management - had chosen a mahogany-and-cream wall scheme for the rest of the office, explicitly because she thought it would appeal to clients, particularly elderly ones. McCarthy hired a decorator for the conference room renovation who affirmed her instincts, particularly the expensive-looking design scheme and decor.

With her own attire, as well as that of her employees, McCarthy also seeks to maintain a formal, understated, but definitively well-heeled look. "We are fairly conservative. We don't wear jeans; instead we wear either business suits or slacks and a nice silk blouse," she says.

Even occasional casual days can have unintended consequences. A few times, in between cleaning service visits, she wore jeans to the office so she could do some dusting and vacuuming. On two of those occasions, one of her best and wealthiest clients happened "to pop in," McCarthy recalls.

On his next visit, that client brought McCarthy a feather duster as a gift. "It was just embarrassing," she says. Although the client did it in jest, McCarthy swore off denim and dusting in the office forever.

 

DIALING BACK THE DECOR

In some regions, such as Seattle, it's hard to go wrong with jeans and fleece jackets - so Barbara Potter makes a point of steering away from appearing too rich. She's specifically scaled down her office decor.

Potter serves as an executive vice president and a managing director for Laird Norton Tyee Trust, which has $4 billion in assets under management. About 10 years ago, she removed several Oriental rugs after hearing clients complain about splashy offices at other service providers. Those clients wondered aloud if their fee-paying supported luxurious furnishings in their lawyers' offices, Potter recalls. She got the message and pulled the rugs.

Her office attire is mostly suits, but she schedules casual dress days and even allows for the occasional "jeans Friday." Her justification: "This is Seattle. It's a pretty relaxed environment."

 

DRESS CODE MAKEOVER

Andrew Hunt of Guide Rock Capital Management in Omaha, Neb., tested a sharper dress code - and liked what he saw. When he launched the firm three years ago, Hunt and his staff sported "fairly casual attire," he says, which in Omaha means polo shirts and trousers. But earlier this year, Hunt and his employees decided to try out a suit-and-tie dictum. The results were a surprise.

"I got multiple comments from prospective and existing clients," says Hunt, whose firm has $12 million in assets under management. "They really liked it. They would be explicit, like, 'Hey, you look sharp today.'" Hunt has kept the revised dress code in place.

He describes Guide Rock's workplace as "fairly swanky in downtown Omaha, with excellent views and a well-manicured lawn. And the car he drives apparently makes an impact too. When one prospective client asked Hunt what kind of car he drove, the 2000 Volvo was the right answer - Hunt says the man reacted positively, referred to the vehicle as "a pretty conservative car" and signed up as a client.

 

DOWN-HOME OFFICE

In the sprawling suburbs north of Dallas, proximity and not flash helped determined the offices for Earl Jefferson's LegacyTexas Wealth Advisors, which opened its doors six years ago and has $160 million in assets under management.

"I don't need to be on the 43rd floor of a high-rise building," says Jefferson, who chose a plain-vanilla brick building in Plano on a nondescript suburban stretch of a main road. He chose the suite, Jefferson says, primarily because it gave him a five-mile commute from home.

But Jefferson says he uses other cues to establish "subtle points of credibility" with prospects beyond his education and professional credits. He drives a Lexus, and says he chooses garments that are "clean and professional," and reasonably fashionable - although there's a limit to that.

"If you go too far, it sends the wrong message," he says. "I like to wear something that, when I see it in pictures 10 or 20 years from now, I won't cringe."

 

 

Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.