Charles Schwab’s Rockford Independent Branch: A Decade of Building Wealth, Relationships

When this tech-heavy firm sought to connect with clients personally, advisor Mark Gerard took the call. A decade later, his team remains committed to the relationships behind their business.

Bill Osborne, Aaron Urbelis and Mark Gerard are no strangers to forging connections. For the past decade, Rockford’s independent Charles Schwab branch has helped thousands of families in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to achieve financial freedom.

Mark Gerard is mid-sentence when he pauses to pick up a ringing phone. It’s a hard-to-reach client, he explains. Meanwhile, just down the hall, his colleague, Bill Osborne, steps away from his desk to warmly greet a walk-in client. It’s an apt illustration of their firm’s hands-on philosophy and the emphasis Gerard and Osborne place on direct communication with clients.

“An important part of our role is growing and maintaining client relationships,” says Gerard, an independent branch leader and financial consultant with Charles Schwab, a financial services company that provides a wide range of brokerage, banking and financial solutions. “As a franchise owner, Schwab does all of the heavy lifting like the buildout of the branch, supervision and technology, which allows us to have the one-on-one conversations and be the face of the firm.”

Gerard’s journey in financial advising spans almost three decades, through a time period of heavy change for his industry. The Barrington, Ill., native began his career at a startup financial technology firm before he signed on as an independent branch leader with Charles Schwab in 2013. From the beginning, the branch at 801 N. Perryville Road in Rockford has experienced remarkable growth in client assets and enjoyed a reputation for delivering comprehensive financial advice to a range of investors.

There was a time when Charles Schwab clients in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin relied solely on internet or phone-based financial consulting. This changed on Dec. 11, 2013, when Charles Schwab introduced a franchise branch in Rockford.

“Prior to that point, all of the Schwab branches were corporate,” says Gerard. “They had corporate employees and typically a 10- or 15-person branch. But in smaller communities like Rockford, Schwab wanted more of a presence. So, the franchise model came to be.”

The 19th of its kind, the Rockford branch is now one of 93 independent branches throughout the country.

When it comes to investing and wealth management, there are generally two types of firms. One is for people who like to manage investments themselves, make their own trades and take full responsibility for their decisions. In these firms, the advisor is there to execute trades and offer advice. The other kind of investment firm is full-service, so a financial advisor handles everything from constructing investment portfolios to advice on behalf of a client.

“We’re one of the few firms where you can do both in one place,” says Gerard. “If you want to be self-directed, but you want to have a financial plan, we do that. Or, if you want to be self-directed but you want somebody to help construct a portfolio for you, we can help.”

Gerard’s team offers a spectrum of services and tools to help their clients, whatever the need.
This flexibility is key to attracting clients across varying life stages and financial goals. Whether they start as self-directed investors and transition to full-service clients or vice versa, Gerard’s clients find consistent support and achieve a seamless financial journey.

This multi-faceted approach is getting results. In the past decade, client assets at Gerard’s independent branch have grown fiftyfold, he says. This year, Charles Schwab secured the top spot in customer satisfaction in the J.D. Power 2023 U.S. Full-Service Investor Satisfaction Study, outperforming industry standards by 25 points. The study, based on insights from more than 6,000 investors across 20 notable wealth management firms, highlighted Schwab’s excellence in areas like products and services, value for fees, customization of wealth management and efficient problem resolution.

It comes as little surprise to Gerard, who’s spent the past decade involving himself in the community, building relationships and raising awareness among potential clients. He acknowledges the power of referrals and word-of-mouth – something he believes is pivotal in broadening the client base.

With nearly three decades of financial advising expertise, Mark Gerard helps clients to achieve their goals, whether they’re hands-on or hands-off investors.

Gerard finds that referrals let him know he’s done well for his clients and they entrust him with their loved ones and friends. He also emphasizes the value of having a trusted advisor during turbulent times.

The Modern Wealth Survey by Charles Schwab examines how Americans think about saving, spending, investing and wealth. Now in its seventh year, the survey most recently showed that Chicagoans display a mix of optimism and division about personal finances. Roughly 38% consider themselves wealthy. Among those who don’t feel wealthy, about 14% believe they’ll achieve wealth over time. Meanwhile, 73% of Chicagoans feel confident about achieving their financial goals.

Whatever their feelings, it’s not unusual for clients to have jitters about putting their hard-earned wealth into stocks and mutual funds, but Gerard’s experiences have taught him that, once a client has experienced both ups and downs in the market, those jitters subside. Successful wealth management strategies, he says, are designed to withstand the market’s natural fluctuations.

“Getting over that first market cycle is the hardest thing to do,” says Gerard. “People tend to react. They feel like they need to act. A successful plan should be all-weather, all-season. You should rebalance it, but the plan really shouldn’t change.”

As fundamental as the investment advisor is to the experience, Charles Schwab also brings with it an arsenal of technology, which the company has embraced since its inception in 1971. The firm’s commitment to the cutting edge means that clients have a range of user-friendly digital tools for trading and financial planning. Starting out, advisors may suggest tools like the risk questionnaire, which recommends various mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and other investments that might suit a client.

Gerard believes this combination of high-tech tools backed by a familiar advisor empowers individuals to make more-informed decisions.

“We’re always here as a resource, but if someone wants to go through these tools on their own, we offer that,” he says. “They can play through it first before they have a conversation with us. That always makes them more comfortable.”

As the Rockford branch marks its 10th anniversary, Gerard envisions continued growth, both in his team’s commitment to customers and to the branch. Plans are underway to convert a conference room into new offices this winter, in anticipation of new team members.

Gerard’s advice to the next generation – of brokers and clients – echoes his own journey: gain exposure to the financial services industry, engage with professionals and invest early. Seek to learn valuable lessons as you build a successful and fulfilling career.

“It doesn’t matter what you get your college degree in, so long as you get that college degree,” he says. “Get that education and then talk to as many people as you can and do your research. Frankly, as a young adult, invest. What you may discover is when you have smaller amounts of money, you may learn important lessons rather than with big amounts of money. You’re never too young to start.”

Reflecting on the past decade, Gerard finds the most meaningful aspect of running an independent branch has been the building of personal relationships.

“Given the fact that I was in a corporate role before and my clients were financial advisors, the past 10 years have been very meaningful in getting to know people better,” says Gerard. “With thousands of families in this area with whom we work, we see a lot of different scenarios. One of the most impactful things to me, when you’re in a role that is client-facing, is how much you learn about people. It’s made me a better person.”