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Office Décor Is More Important Than You Think

By Miriam Rozen January 21, 2014

An excessively outré painting or sculpture in a financial advisor’s office may alienate clients and prospects. But when the artwork, mementoes and knick-knacks that visitors see are so generic that they lose all personality, advisors may be missing an opportunity to distinguish themselves in a good way. That’s why many consider their décor a smart investment in business development.

At Traub Capital Management in Needham, Mass., the walls are adorned with distinctive pastel landscapes and boating images painted by Jodi Traub, wife of owner Heydon Traub. He says clients invariably ask about the pictures, which gives him a chance to talk about his family and inquire about his guest’s. Traub feels that showcasing Jodi’s talent reflects well on him and his firm, which manages $129 million. “She’s a good artist,” he boasts.

Like many other advisors, Traub keeps his Chartered Financial Analyst certificate on the wall, though not his smaller CFP Board certificate. Also like many other other advisors, he proudly displays his sports allegiances: Among his wife’s pastels hangs a Boston Celtics poster.

Some advisors put tremendous thought into the message they want their professional space to convey. Kathleen Rehl, who recently sold her flat-fee practice to consult to other advisors, specializes in financial planning for widows. Her office in Brandon, Fla., has a fountain, lots of plants, a butterfly collection, a batik hanging and a prominently displayed photograph of her late husband. “None of that high-tech, flat-screen stuff,” declares Rehl, who has always aimed to create an environment in direct contrast to the cold, corporate image she feels most large financial institutions project. “Money can be stressful for people,” she says, so she wants her décor to relax clients. With that in mind, she keeps a bowl of chocolates on her entry table.

Others use office art to highlight what clients are there for — to increase their wealth — while keeping the human touch. Karen Keatly of Keatly Wealth Management in Charlotte, N.C., has an oil painting of a longhorn steer (“Texas Pete,” by Veronica Clark) hanging near her desk. It looks more or less like a bull, “which is a symbol for optimism,” says Keatly, whose firm has $45 million under management. “Many clients who come to see us are very confused and pessimistic about the financial markets, because of what happened in the Great Recession,” she adds.

"Texas Pete" by Veronica Clark

In Keatly’s conference room, another graphic strengthens the steer’s message: a historical depiction of U.S. stock prices. “Keeping a chart of past financial market performance on the wall helps people focus on the long term, not just the short term,” she says. “When they see how the stock market has generated almost a 10% compound annual rate of return since 1926, in spite of all the things that have happened in the last century, it helps put our short-term economic problems in perspective.”

On the other side of the AUM spectrum, wirehouse UBS is world-famous for its collection of contemporary art. Many of its 35,000 specimens are displayed in museums, but many also grace its offices, where clients may reflect on what the firm’s website describes as “emerging talents.” For example, the site features a photograph by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm in which a young girl seated on a sidewalk edge has one shoe off and French fries threaded between her toes. A UBS spokesman did not respond by press time to a request for comment, so how the firm’s clients feel about such edgy images remains a matter of speculation.