Building a personal brand in the dreaded world of wealth management in Shanghai

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Howard Whiteson is a Senior Wealth Manager of the deVere group and also the founder of the Wealth Without Borders initiative. He’s someone who knows how to build a brand, not just for the company, but for himself. Howard is a wealth manager in the dreaded realm of finance or services, two words guaranteed to make people run in the other direction. Generally speaking, Howard says they don’t really get great PR, because many people are skeptical of their industry as a whole and think it’s greed-ridden and full of immoral advisors, etc. He finds that to be a great pity, because like most industries, majority of people who work within it are honest, upright folk. His aim in building Wealth Without Borders and working with the deVere group is to build a globally recognized brand known for its life-transforming value that it brings to people, its integrity, and also to some degree a bit of humour. He has a background in professional acting, and he believes that while he wants to talk to you about retirement, he wants to do so without putting you to sleep. Basically, honesty, integrity, and a little bit of fun are key ingredients for him.

When it comes to representing and building deVere, a British brand in China, and his new initiative, he began investigating in 2019 ways to fairly represent the brand. On one level, he’s a big believer in partnerships. He also doesn’t believe in sitting in an ivory tower and honing the perfect marketing message, but rather going out to his existing clients, to people he trusts who are intelligent, capable expats in his case and asking them about the challenges they face, the problems, the opportunities, their goals, and then trying, as the phrase goes, to meet them where they are, instead coming up with glorious messaging that meets stony indifference. Being humble and listening to clients in an open fashion is the best place to begin, according to Howard, as well as working with trusted partners. Those two together have been extremely helpful for him.

Howard identified the outset or cynicism that financial planners and wealth managers have met with. One of the best ways to overcome that is to approach people sideways on. He does this through the many different assets he has built, one of which is his own podcast. He’s also writing a book based on his experience of expats. And so, he approaches people on the basis perhaps of interviewing them as a potential guest for his podcast or potentially to supply or help with material for the book. He’s also doing lots of educational work where he’s simply providing value with no expectation of reward-giving, as many people recognize it as the most powerful form of of receiving. We’re deeply programmed to be reciprocal in our nature. 

Howards says those methods have worked really well for him, and one example is through LinkedIn. Rather than saying, “I’m a wealth manager, and I can save you money, etc.,” where he would be met with silence, he will often approach them and say, “I noticed you’re in the automotive industry. There’s a great deal of controversy and excitement about Tesla. Where do you stand with regards to electric vehicles as a manufacturer in China?” From there, he would go into a conversation that is about them and not have an expectation of making a sale, but building a relationship. He says building trust and a good relationship with someone is not necessarily going to result in business, but if he has a strong network of people with whom they all get on, business comes as a result of that, and so he tries to reflect that in his approach. Having said that, at certain times, he can be much more direct if he really feels that there is enough trust. But in the initial stages, the sideways approach works well too.

In terms of leveraging the deVere brand which is a global group with a tremendous amount of power that he doesn’t possess as an individual, one of the responses to 2020 has been a plethora of webinars and seminars delivered by their CEO on an increase in their own marketing materials, which he posts on his LinkedIn, comments, likes, and shares. They use WeChat, which is a combination of WhatsApp, Facebook, ApplePay, and everything else, and he’ll post little excerpts about both deVere and his own branch within the bigger tree. One of the challenges he found is that people could get confused about who he’s actually representing, which is why it’s important that he keeps the flag of independence flying. deVere is an independent advisor, and he is an independent manager within that organization, so it does become congruent.

Lightboard presentations and funnels

Photo from Duke University

As a professional actor, he’s had a look into something called lightboard presentations. They come out of academia, where professors were delivering very abstruse concepts to their students like chemical engineering diagrams. Rather than turning their back on the students and writing on a whiteboard, in between them and a camera is a pane of glass, and it’s lit in such a way that when they write on the glass, it looks as though they’re writing in the air. Howard saw it as a great way to bring his drama skills into the world of numbers. However, he would have had to buy a kit from America for $22,000, which he can’t afford. Being in China, he went on YouTube and learned how to build a lightboard without a budget. Funnily enough, the handyman who mended his babies’ highchair made him his lightboard. Since then, Howard has been able to produce five or six videos, which people can check out if they want. 

He’s now working with another chap called Hollywood Eddie. He can leave you to guess where Eddie’s worked. Eddie is applying Disney production levels to his lightboard. If you start with something that feels very intrinsic to your own nature, whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, whether you’re charismatic or private, as long as it feels like it’s an integral part, you can pretty much YouTube whatever you want to do and add the word “free” or “low budget,” and you’ll probably find ways to start that at very, very low cost, as Howard did. If it works and people like it, you then go back to your customer base, improve it, polish it, and then some business comes from that. After a while, you can afford then to perhaps reinvest and raise the quality of it.

When it comes to building his funnel, which includes deVere, his membership in the British Chamber of Commerce, his Wealth Without Borders, and more, they have a global CRM to ensure that there’s no conflict between people. For his personal brand, he uses MailChimp for his subscriber list, and he’s building up subscribers for his podcast. That’s one way he’s generating leads. He’s also taking people from LinkedIn into MailChimp using what’s called a squeeze page or an opt-in or landing page where he will offer them something of value. For instance, he’ll put together a quiz asking them how they measure up against other executive expats when it comes to creating and protecting their wealth. He’ll incentivize that by offering a free copy of his book or some free consulting for those who will take part. He will usually ask the questions first, and then if they want to receive the results, they’ll have to put in their email to get that. He found that more effective than asking for an email at the beginning, because people are protective of emails. They don’t want to get spammed. Once they’ve seen that the questions are actually quite useful and interesting, they’re more likely to give their email. 

Leveraging one’s network to get clients

Regarding the British Chamber of Commerce, he says they’re very fortunate in China that normal life is being resumed. What he does is the old-fashioned, going out, pressing flesh, talking to people, and meeting them. Nothing quite beats that in the digital world, he’s discovered. They will exchange business cards, and he will tell them about his podcasts or something else that’s going on. If they’d like to be notified of that, they then go on to that subscriber list, and then he will make offers into that subscriber list. In his podcast, it’s often the case that both his guests and himself are looking at ways to grow their businesses. So, they will effectively go through their lists, and Howard would say, “If you want a master of PR and you want someone who can help you to master it for yourself, then there’s no one better than Jim James. Here’s his link.” Those people then who opt in to your page become part of your list and vice versa. He’s very cognizant of the fact that being in a group makes exponential leverage possible in a way that he couldn’t do in the British Chamber of Commerce on a one-to-one basis.

Howard likes to focus on what he does best. What he can’t do very well, he delegates. deVere offers support administratively globally from Europe, and that takes care of a lot of the paperwork. In his office in downtown Shanghai, Howard’s got two people in his team who also help him with ordering lighting from cheap websites in China and making sure they work. He’s also got two assistants in Hong Kong who help him reach out through the Facebook campaigns they run. He also hires freelancers through two websites, Fiver and Upwork. He has various criteria for making sure those people are good and enthusiastic. He will effectively interview them and give them a test, and make sure they get along. He’s got someone who’s actively searching for podcast guests for him. He has a marketing manager who’s based in the Philippines. He has a podcast manager as well, and he pays them all reasonable rates. He says it’s important to reward them, so he gives them bonuses when they achieve results, and he takes very good care of them, because for him, getting good people to work with is very precious.

Lastly, Howard talks about Wealth Without Borders. As he was circling back to the beginning, he went to his clients with four or five different marketing statements. With Wealth Without Borders, they felt really represented by what he did for them, because expats are faced with the challenges of growing their wealth and protecting it. But also, many of them will have lived in different countries. They may be concerned about compliance issues of moving their money around, so Wealth Without Borders was initially used to describe what he does. And then, he realized that wealth is not simply about what he does, but wealth is much more broad. His podcast is called Wealth Without Borders, where he interviews people who offer a wealth of advice of whatever type, partially or wholly, to the expat community. His book is also unsurprisingly entitled Wealth Without Borders, and he’s trademarked it in both the UK and China. He says it just becomes the brand, because it represents the heart of what he does. He’s very interested in helping people gain wealth by aligning their inner selves with their financial goals. He believes that while it’s not unique, it’s very rare. Most of the people in his space, he finds, are very much focused on the product, whereas he’s focused on the meaning. And so, Wealth Without Borders is a meaningful statement that operates on a number of levels for a number of people. With that, hopefully, Howard has enlightened you on financial services, and that it no longer seems as boring or dreary as you once thought. If you are an expat, I hope what he has shared can be of use to you, and if you are interested in learning more about Howard and Wealth Without Borders, you can go to his website


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

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