The inaugural Future Proof Festival is just weeks away and Brian Hamburger, chief counsel at Hamburger Law Firm and president and CEO of the law firm’s affiliated consultancy business, called MarketCounsel Consulting, is eager to join attendees on the boardwalk at Huntington Beach, California. He’s been checking the latest additions to the agenda, not just out of curiosity, but to see which of his favorite debate counterparts will also be in attendance.
Even a brief conversation with Brian yields stories and insights. His years of experience guiding breakaway financial advisors, merging businesses and assisting in high-stakes acquisitions give him an enviable perspective within the wealth management industry. Yet for all his knowledge, Brian’s welcoming demeanor has a gravity all its own.
Here’s what Brian had to say about the upcoming Future Proof Festival, why “virtual” is a word he’s banishing from his vocabulary (even as he transitioned his firm to being 100% remote) and how the purchase of a boat led to weekends cooking for hungry U.S. Coast Guard crews.
Future Proof: What should we expect to see and hear from you at the inaugural Future Proof Festival?
Brian Hamburger: Is there a karaoke machine?
FP: If that’s what you need, I’m sure we can arrange something for you.
Brian: [laughs] Fair enough. If not, expect me to debate David DeVoe on the topic of mergers and acquisitions—but more pertinent than that will be what happens off the stage.
The stage is the sideshow at a conference like this. You can expect to see me attending sessions and learning from what’s said onstage. But I’m really looking forward to interacting with attendees at the breaks and spending time with friends in the evening.
With the pandemic and the disruptions that we’ve all had to our normal lives, this is the best opportunity to spend meaningful time with people we care about.
I love nothing more than going to a conference where I can be present. It may not be as exciting as David Canter’s guitar or Doug Fritz on his surfboard, but it’s exciting for me.
FP: Let’s talk about connecting with friends. You’ve worked in this industry for a long time and have made a lot of friendships. What is it about a live, in-person event like Future Proof that allows you to connect with others, in a way that doesn’t exist in the virtual world?
Brian: I’ve made a point of getting away from the term “virtual,” because “virtual” sounds fake. Virtual interactions are not fake at all. They can be extraordinarily genuine.
But to me, a well-run, in-person conference is a sacred place. You’ve got this physical forum that provides a place for meaningful interaction—and dare I say—debate and dialogue.
When you’re in a physical forum, it’s so much more comfortable to disagree with another person because you can read body language. Debate comes from a place of respect. People you’re debating can see that you’re not being threatening or trying to insult someone.
Plus, an in-person conference is still the best way for advisors to test their theories. They can float their trial balloons and see if people think they have crazy ideas or interesting ones. That’s a dynamic that only thrives when we’re physically proximate to one another.
FP: On the topic of new ideas, you’ve actually closed your physical office and reallocated those funds to technology and more regular meetings. What calculations went into that decision?
Brian: My initial reaction to the success we had with remote working was just to downsize our physical office space. I thought we would create this small workspace, of sorts, where our operations team could work full-time and other employees could just rotate in and out.
The media was talking about how commercial real estate continued to be viable and that people couldn’t wait to get back to the office.
Then I started listening to my team.
This whole metamorphosis caused by the pandemic not only changed our physical space, but who I am as a business leader. When I talked with actual employees, instead of reading the newspaper, I started really harnessing the learnings of my team.
My role is to determine our destination and the standards we keep in order to get there. But I need to recognize that others may have a better sense of which road is best to take. I need to relinquish some control in order to achieve the best result.
We had better organizational rhythm when employees were working remotely and distributed. Our absenteeism at meetings actually dropped when we were working remotely.
I have the data to prove it. I can see minutes in meetings and on phones. I can see response times for tickets. The data is there. It tells a story about how productive someone is.
FP: You and your team have been to a lot of conferences. Back when you had an office, you started hanging name badges from conference attendees in your cafe. What was that all about?
Brian: Oh man, I loved that tradition. It started by happenstance: we would have people come back from the road and just hang up their name badge in the cafe. We started to display them on wires hanging across the ceiling. There were just hundreds and hundreds of them.
One day I was walking around the cafe with one of our industry partners who was visiting. They looked at the badges and said, “Wow, this looks a little like a college frat house kind of thing.” I responded that we try to keep it casual.
But each of those name badges represents something. Each badge represents one or more nights that people have been away from their family, in the name of representing our brand, growing our firm and contributing to its success. Some of these names aren’t here anymore, but they were still meaningful contributors.
It’s a great reminder. Whenever we go to a meeting or are asked to participate in an event, we’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
FP: Now that you’ve moved to being 100% remote, are you recreating that tradition?
Brian: On our firm’s intranet we have the equivalent of a trophy case. It includes the awards and recognition that we’ve received. It also includes all of the conferences that we’ve presented at. Not as cool as the badges in the cafe, but it’s still a way to recognize the contributions made by our employees.
FP: I understand you make your own contributions as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. What is that organization and what’s your role there?
Brian: The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is a uniformed, civilian arm of the U.S. Coast Guard and we help augment its capabilities. We also promote things like boating safety.
My involvement came from a simple place. I bought a boat and put it in a marina in Jersey City, New Jersey, right across from lower Manhattan. It’s a very busy area, with vessels crossing the river nonstop.
I went out in my boat for the first time and I said, “Holy shit, I don’t know the first thing that I need to know.”
You need to know navigation and protocols. I had young kids at the time and I knew I would be doing us all a disservice by being on the water without knowing more.
With the Auxiliary you get ongoing boating classes and education from veterans. I learned quite a bit.
Over time, I also found a real collegial group of people and a path to happiness and giving back.
One of my specialties is that I’m an Auxiliary chef. It taught me how to cook for crowds. I love it.
Let’s say a station chef wants to take the weekend off. The crew’s still got to eat. So my colleagues and I go over there and cook for the weekend. Or we’ll head out on a ship and help augment the crew if there’s any kind of illness or if they’re short-staffed.
FP: Do you get to make any of your own recipes?
Brian: They have their recipes, but the crew likes it a whole lot more when I come up with my own.
I like to be the one who comes in and spoils them a bit. These guys are out on the water working hard. They’re literally saving lives.
If they get to duck in for a half hour and grab a bite to eat, and I can make it a really enjoyable experience for them, that’s time well spent.
FP: The Future Proof Festival is all about celebrating differences, a cause you’ve also championed. What problems could be solved by the financial services industry, if it did a better job of embracing people’s differences?
Brian: I wish I could give you a quick answer. We’ve been seeking a solution for decades and you can see it everywhere: we’ve got a way of seeing things within the industry that’s way too similar—and not very healthy.
If we could infuse this space with a diversity of backgrounds, of different races, religions, gender. I mean, gender may actually be the easiest one to tackle. I know the statistics on that.
I want to see a real diversity of backgrounds, not just someone being a little bit different.
It’s like boating around New York City. What makes boating so crazy around lower Manhattan is that you’ve got everyone going every which way. It’s not a two lane highway. It makes it interesting. It keeps you on your toes. It’s what allows your mind to get away from static ways of thinking.
We need greater diversity in all respects so that the fabric of what we’re building within this profession is more eclectic and much more interesting. We’ve made some progress. But, man, we have a long way to go.