I’ve been thinking a lot about design lately. When people think of design they tend to think of clothing, cars or buildings but design impacts virtually everything we do. When a Professor at Carneigie Mellon University, and famous for his early work on artificial intelligence, Herbert Simon remarked, “A Designer is anyone who devises ways to change existing situations into preferred ones.”  Good design defines and assures performance no matter what the product or service. Bad design makes it hard to accomplish results.

There are many examples of good design in organizations. A common example is the design element that Apple Computer puts into all their products. Zappos made it easy to return shoes bought over the internet and Amazon’s design was, buy everything with a click and you’re done. Cirque Du Soleil™ redesigned what a circus was and has captured millions of hearts and imaginations.

25 years ago we started a new design with this firm. It began with a notion that people wanted financial advice, and an open architecture of being able to find and use the best in financial products while building and protecting their financial security. The key element of our design was our decision to be a fee-only firm with no compensation from a third party. There are a lot of advisors who use the term fee-based. They sound the same but fee-only is the only term that assures you that no other form of compensation is being earned to give that advice.

Being fee-only has allowed us MUCH more than just being able to say that we are only being paid by you. Being fee-only also allows us to be open to the entire universe of ideas, not just the ones the firm has approved (possibly based on compensation) for their associates to use. Being fee-only also means that we can design structures to lower the cost of investments in a portfolio, as we have done with our pooled funds. It also allows us to have White Oaks Trust Services, our trust relationship office. This is a clearly unique model in the world of financial advisors.

More importantly, our design as a fee-only firm clearly defines the client as the boss in our relationships. We are here to serve you as our client and not the needs of a large, impersonal organization.

I’ve come to believe that there are more than a few nice people and smart enough advisors out there, but many of them struggle to be their best because the design elements of their firm, in many ways, restricts them. Over the past 25 years, I feel very blessed to have stumbled (oaky maybe with some thought!) into the design that is perfect for the times. We will continue to work on improving our design for the next 25 years.

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