Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
TOPEKA — It’s been Advisors Excel’s most successful year yet, said Cody Foster, casting the Kansas wealth management company’s decision to build its own $5 million TV and media studio as a key catalyst for 2022 growth.
“All of it’s really content marketing,” said Foster, co-founder of Advisors Excel. “What you’re trying to do is educate people and help them understand that you can help them with some of the needs they’re going to be facing in retirement.”
Complete with a control room, green room, makeup room, and more, the Topeka studio features a dedicated team that produces and edits commercials, podcasts, TV shows, and radio shows for AE’s network of advisors.
About 150 radio shows are produced per week, along with TV spots for 40-50 advisors on a recurring basis, Foster estimated, noting sets built by award-winning design company Provost Studio, Inc.
While he acknowledged that, for now, many of the videos are produced with TV in mind, Foster recognizes that might change as consumers increasingly shift to using digital content platforms like YouTube.
“We also see as these demographics change, there are new venues — whether that’s YouTube or others like that — that are going to become more and more popular,” he said. “Video content is becoming a bigger deal.”
“It’s still going to be content marketing,” Foster continued. “It’s just that the delivery systems may change. But putting out great content is always going to be important.”
Kitchen table beginnings
When Foster and his Advisors Excel co-founders launched their organization in 2005, the trio spent that January working around Foster’s kitchen table before securing a lease the next month in the basement of a dentist’s office.
From those humble beginnings, Foster and co-founders David Callanan and Derek Thompson have grown Advisors Excel (AE) into a budding giant in the financial and investment services industry — employing nearly 800 people, working with more than 500 independent financial advisors, and managing over $19 billion in assets.
The Topeka-based company provides a broad range of services — including marketing, sales strategy, operational support, business management, and product analysis — to independent financial advisors across the country.
“We’re a behind the scenes brand,” Foster said. “The consumer doesn’t really know we even exist. … It’s just us supporting these independent financial advisors. They own their own business, and they leverage us to get access to the insurance companies and investment companies for their products.”
Typically, AE works with experienced independent advisors who generate about $300,000 to $500,000 in annual revenue, according to Foster.
“Our mission is to help good advisors become great business owners so they can help people have an amazing retirement,” Foster added.
Foster and Callanan — former roommates at Washburn — recognized the need for a network of independent advisors after struggling to manage their own financial advisory practice.
“There were so many things we didn’t really know about how to run the business,” Foster said. “We knew the product and the planning side of being an advisor, but actually running a business was a lot more challenging. I think through the process of struggling that first year as advisors made us think, ‘Gosh, there’s gotta be a better solution out there.’”
Value shines through downturn
Originally, the founding trio planned to form a community of 40 to 50 advisors throughout the country who would gather a couple times each year to share ideas, Foster said.
That plan morphed into the current model as independent advisors latched onto the idea and Advisors Excel began to exceed even the founders’ own expectations.
“Advisors were pretty attracted to the message we had of wanting to bring people together to learn from each other, and we started having a little bit of success that first year,” Foster said. “Our goal was to do $25 million in what we would call premium or assets brought in through advisors, and we ended up doing about $45 million, so almost double what we thought.”
The company continued to exceed expectations the following year and enjoyed what Foster described as “steady growth.”
But as was the case with so many other businesses, the recession of 2008 changed the company’s outlook, Foster said. For Advisors Excel, though, that economic instability led to “explosive” growth.
“When markets go haywire, people get worried and that need for an advisor becomes a lot more important,” Foster said. “We had built a really solid foundation and our business was growing at a great rate already by that time. Then when 2008 hit, it just exploded, because the advisors we were working with just got flooded.”
Foster called 2008 a “transformational year” for AE, as the business nearly tripled its assets under management.
“Your plan always works well when the markets are going straight up,” he said. “It’s when they get a little crazy that the value of an advisor really shines through.”
A hub with spokes
The building that houses the TV and media studio is one of three at what Advisors Excel calls its Gage Center campus, all of which were existing spaces that the company redeveloped. That was an intentional decision, Foster said.
“We talked about going and buying land and building a brand new building, but you had this just vacant — not completely vacant, but pretty dilapidated and rundown — property here that was 80 percent vacant and kind of falling apart,” he said.
The company did maintain its old office building, and also has plans to renovate part of a Topeka strip mall into additional office space by next summer.
An office at the Lenexa City Center is in the works, too, for the organization’s employees in the Kansas City metro.
Foster said he enjoys restoring buildings — despite the tendency for construction challenges and delays — and believes that sacrificing the convenience of having all employees working in a single office is a worthy tradeoff for helping the community.
“Candidly, a brand new building where we’re all in one building would probably be easier and more convenient for us,” he said. “But I think this [building], not just in how it supports our growth, but impacts the community, was probably a wiser investment.”
Community within physical space
The other two buildings at Gage Center — aside from the media studio space, which is also home to a cafe — opened in April 2020, just in time for employees to be sent home to work remotely.
While AE employees did work remotely during the height of COVID-19 public health precautions, Foster said the organization is committed to in-person work moving forward.
“We’re probably a little unique in that we’re investing more in physical office space right now,” he said. “Most people tend to be doing the opposite.”
Advisors Excel chose to buck the trend because Foster and company leadership want to connect employees to a sense of community, he said, filling the void left by decreasing religious participation and less tight-knit neighborhoods.
“I feel like work is probably one of the last places left where we do have community and connection,” Foster said. “ All these places where people traditionally had this community and connection are disappearing. … People feel like they have that online, but that’s just not real connection.”
Employees are only allowed to work from home under certain circumstances, he added, noting he realizes that policy decision means some current and potential employees will opt to work elsewhere at other companies.
“We’re gonna have people who would prefer to work remotely who are gonna leave here,” he said. “I think we’ve decided we’re OK with that. If that’s important to you, that’s fine. It’s just gonna be really important to us to try building some community.”
Reinvesting in Topeka
Whether it’s revitalizing rundown buildings, instilling a sense of connection in the workplace, or volunteering with local organizations — Advisors Excel employees rotate weekly afternoons of service — giving back to the community is of utmost importance, Foster said.
He added that the company focuses on positively impacting all three communities it serves: its employees, its advisors, and the people of Topeka.
“I grew up in western Kansas, but came to school at Washburn in 1995, so I’ve been here 27 years,” Foster said. “Two-thirds of my life I’ve lived in Topeka, so it’s definitely home. We live here in Topeka, so the success of the community is important to us. This is our hometown.”
Foster said he’s proud that AE could provide jobs to people in Topeka, especially as the company’s growth coincided with other large employers downsizing or leaving town.
“I think homegrown companies where the CEOs live in the town and have kind of grown up in the community tend to have a bigger desire to invest back into the community,” he said.
“That’s not always the case,” he continued. “There are examples of other companies that do a great job … but the amount of investment [homegrown companies] make in the community is different than other companies that aren’t rooted here in the community quite as much.”
There’s a sense among city and business leaders that Topeka is up and coming, Foster said, and he hopes the capital city will harness that momentum.
“If you get momentum, take advantage of that,” he said. “Right now in Topeka, now’s the time to be doubling down. We’re building some momentum, but we’re a long way from arriving. But hopefully we can build off some of the success we’ve had over the last three to five years.”
Beyond a Baby Boomer boom
Looking ahead, Foster hopes that Advisors Excel can also build upon its own positive momentum.
In 2021, the company laid out a six-year plan to double in size, which it’s on track to achieve, according to Foster, who said AE has “really strong tailwinds behind us.”
“There’s 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day,” he said. “The most wealth accumulated ever in the history of this country is in the Baby Boomer generation. That is now moving to advisors that we support — it’s kind of what they do.”
Foster and Callanan continue to lead the organization — they bought out Thompson’s shares about 5 years ago so he could pursue a new venture, though the trio has remained friends.
Advisors Excel wants to continue staying connected to its employees as a “thoughtful employer,” Foster said. For example, the company hired a full-time counselor about a year ago who only meets with AE employees.
“There’s been a huge focus on culture, and I think that’s gonna be probably even more of a focus in the years to come,” he said. “I really do think that’s gonna matter.”
Ultimately, every decision is made in pursuit of satisfying the organization’s core values: helping advisors, caring for its employees, and uplifting its community.
“I don’t really see anything slowing us down,” Foster said. “We just gotta make sure we keep running it in a good way.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.