Some pithy, funny or sometimes odd statements about investing that appear on the sides of transit buses and billboards in the Twin Cities can be explained by a mutual fund manager’s desire to grow without paying for salespeople or traditional distribution.
“You don’t need to be a millionaire to invest like one” is pithy. “The way to make money with a financial planner is to become one” is funny. “Hug your mother, not the index” is odd, even baffling.
Hugging an index turns out to mean charging full fees to manage what’s really just a disguised clone of a well-known stock index like the S&P 500. You don’t want to be a client of someone who does that.
The people who came up with these advertising lines and many more like them manage the Disciplined Growth Investors Fund and work at the fund’s manager, Disciplined Growth Investors of Minneapolis. They have gone the do-it-yourself route because they concluded that the traditional mutual fund distribution model doesn’t work that well for their investors.
They have a lot in common with other business owners who are sore about paying a lot for distribution, such as food company founders who dread the slotting fees required to get new products on supermarket shelves.
So going direct to the customer is often tried, although because it’s in a conservative (and regulated) industry Disciplined Growth’s approach seems more than just unconventional. It’s certainly worth watching.
That Disciplined Growth even manages a mutual fund is “an accident of history,” said Robert Buss, the firm’s head of client relationships. Minneapolis-based Disciplined Growth got its start in 1997 as an institutional money manager, a kind of business that rarely even has any salespeople. Big pension funds and endowments expect portfolio managers such as founder Fred Martin to personally pitch their own services.
Then a Disciplined Growth client was acquired, and its pension plan was going to be tossed in favor of a 401(k) system. Some employees who had been in the old plan wanted Disciplined Growth to keep managing their savings. There was no good way to do that without a mutual fund.
The DGI Fund is a so-called balanced fund, meaning it invests in both bonds and individual stocks. It launched in 2011, and Martin said his goal remains beating the total return of the S&P 500 stock index even with about 40 percent of the money invested in bonds, although Buss pointed out they have never yet achieved that. Last year the fund’s return trailed the S&P 500’s, 21.8 percent to 14.9 percent.
Early on, Disciplined Growth’s executives had not given much thought to how the fund could be sold. At about the time the fund launched, one firm contacted Disciplined Growth with up to $35 million of client money to put into the DGI Fund. This firm, which Buss declined to name, just needed Buss to put the fund on Fidelity’s mutual fund platform so individual clients could get access to it.
Easily done — except Fidelity wanted nearly four-tenths of a percentage point annual fee.
Fees are usually talked about in terms of basis points, meaning 1/100th of a percent, and Fidelity’s proposed fee of almost 40 basis points seemed like a lot to Buss. The fund was only charging 78 basis points for everything else. Half the fees would go to Fidelity, and for doing what?
You don’t understand, Buss was told. Just tack Fidelity’s fee on top of your own, like everybody else does.
Not everyone in the business does it that way, and genuine index funds are famously low-cost. But a distribution fee on top of other fees was common enough. It’s the clients who pay them, of course.
As they dug more into the industry, the Disciplined Growth partners also wondered why mutual fund companies made a complicated process even worse by offering the same fund with different classes of shares, each with a different fee lineup.
“Our bold idea is let’s ignore that model, because it doesn’t work from the client’s perspective,” Buss said. So the DGI Fund has one share class and with only one fee. It also has no salespeople and can’t be found on Fidelity’s or anybody else’s distribution platform.
But the firm still wanted to grow its fund, so with the help of Twin Cities brand consultant Lance Ness the partners looked closely at the habits of mutual fund investors.
They saw in focus groups how people couldn’t name how many funds they owned, what those funds invested in and what fees were charged. Just talking about investing seemed to make some consumers visibly anxious.
They also saw a kind of investor that would be a good candidate for the fund — provided he or she knew about it. They called this consumer an “intuitive,” not smarter or richer than anybody else but more inclined to think for themselves.
Most advertising campaigns put maybe three ads into a market, but DGI has close to three dozen now on billboards and buses, even barroom coasters. The idea is to catch the eye of this intuitive consumer, then catch it again with different messages.
Nobody is expected to promptly invest their life savings, but any fund that seems to be running sharply against the grain might strike someone as worth checking out. “It’s kind of hard to put your finger on it, but we know that in the end the kind of people we’re looking for will self-select into the fund,” Buss said.
Depending on the results the firm gets from the advertising now rolling, Disciplined Growth executives plan to continue offering even more thoughts on their approach to saving and investing.
“I’m working on another one on procrastination right now,” Martin said, more to his colleagues in the room than to me. He explained that too much buying and selling of stocks and funds usually leads to poor performance, so “procrastination is a vice, except when investing.”
Not sure that attracts more customers, yet it’s a fine little nugget of wisdom.