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Maintaining the Magic

Financial Advisor

By Scott A. MacKillop | August 4, 2014

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What a fine French restaurant can teach us about serving clients.

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Forty-two years ago I had the best meal of my life in a restaurant called Taillevent. I had just graduated from college and was traveling through Europe looking for adventure before starting law school in the fall. Along the way, I linked up with my father in Paris and he suggested that we have dinner here, one of the top restaurants in a city full of excellent eateries.

The truth is, I don’t remember what I ate that night and I couldn’t name a single one of the many wines we sampled. But I vividly remember the feeling of eating at Taillevent. The beauty of the room, the atmosphere, the service and the presentation of the food all combined to create a magical evening, shared with my father.

He was so taken by the experience that he asked for a menu as a souvenir of our wonderful night in Paris. He framed it and hung it in his dining room where it remained until his death. I have kept the menu ever since. It reminds me of a special time with a special man.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Paris for the first time since my visit there so long ago. Before embarking, I made a reservation to have dinner at Taillevent with my wife. I took pictures of the keepsake menu so I could show them to the staff at the restaurant and share my story.

At first, I was excited about my return. This was the stage upon which one of my most cherished memories was played out, and I had a chance to share it all with my wife.

Then the doubts set in. How could I expect to go back decades later and have an experience that even remotely lived up to my hopes and expectations? Wasn’t I just setting myself and my wife up for disappointment? What if the staff brushed aside my menu pictures and were uninterested in my story? Was I endangering my cherished memory?

When we arrived, we paused outside to take pictures of its unassuming facade. Almost immediately a man in a suit emerged from the restaurant and offered to take pictures of us together. My wife, who has a knack for getting quickly to the point, told the man of my previous visit and had me show him my menu pictures.

The man, who we later discovered was Taillevent’s “Directeur,” Jean-Marie Ancher, considered my pictures pensively. Then, with a wave of his hand, he escorted us inside and asked us to wait in the restaurant’s beautifully appointed reception area. He said that he had something to show us and then briskly disappeared through an ornate wooden doorway.

When he reappeared he was holding a menu from the night my father and I visited—the same menu I had framed in my house. “But tonight,” he said, “you shall have a new menu and it shall be signed by the chef himself.”

Within moments, my wife and I found ourselves in a spotless kitchen that was vibrating with activity. Our host, M. Ancher, introduced us to chef Alain Solivérès and was soon snapping pictures of the two of us flanking the world-renowned chef. Chef Solivérès wrote a cordial note on our new menu, signed it with a flourish and went back to work.

M. Ancher seemed to sense the significance I attached to my pilgrimage and the risks it held for me. As he guided us to our table, he graciously assured me that the evening would be even better than my previous experience. “The food is even better now and we have learned more about how to present it. Plus, you are here with your lovely wife and your father is here too.”

M. Ancher’s assurances proved accurate. The food and the wine were every bit as wonderful as I remembered them. The room, the atmosphere, the service and the presentation were still magical. But now the experience was enhanced by my memories and the genuine interest I felt from M. Ancher and his staff in making this a memorable evening for me and my wife.

I marveled at how my two experiences, separated by so many years, could be so consistently spectacular. The restaurant had gone through an ownership change following the founder’s death in 2008, the chef was different and even M. Ancher, who had worked for 40 years at the restaurant, had not been there on my first visit. Yet the Taillevent mystique was undiminished.

I wondered what lessons I could take from this experience that might be relevant to my professional life. Could any of it be translated into the world of investment management? Were there any universal themes that transcended the world of haute cuisine and applied to our work managing assets for our clients? It seemed to me that there were.

Lesson No. 1

How you achieve a result is as important as the result itself. M. Ancher and his staff put as much effort into creating a magnificent dining experience as chef Solivérès does in preparing world-class cuisine. Taillevent blends the two for the enjoyment of its patrons.

In our business, it is easy to focus too much on performance. As asset managers, we produce two things for our clients—an investment return and the experience that goes along with achieving that return. If clients can’t tolerate the feeling that comes with being invested in our portfolios, they won’t remain clients long enough to get the benefit of our good performance.

Lesson No. 2

Consistency is at the heart of excellence. I have had two meals at Taillevent separated by 42 years and they were the two best meals of my life. It has been ranked among the best restaurants in the world for decades. The staff labors lovingly over every meal they serve and care about the experience of every patron who walks through their door.

In our world, consistency is important, too. Our mission is to manage each client’s wealth over the course of his or her lifetime and help clients meet all their financial goals along the way. Being spectacularly right sometimes but spectacularly wrong at others does not build the level of trust necessary to fulfill that role. Clients walk when they lose faith in the process.

Lesson No. 3

Experience does not ensure success, but the two definitely travel in the same circles. On my first visit, Taillevent had been creating outstanding dining experiences for 26 years. By the time I returned, the staff had been working on a craft the restaurant had been perfecting for 68 years. They have mastered the concept of savoir faire—the ability to do the right thing with confidence in any situation.

People are increasingly attracted to the exciting story of the day or the hot, new trend. Our attention is drawn to shiny things, loud noises and intriguing sound bites. In developing investment solutions for our clients, we should not forget that experience is the cornerstone of sound decision-making. It may be harder to sell than sizzle, but it is better for our clients.

Lesson No. 4

There is power and beauty in a big idea executed with an attention to detail. Years ago, someone dreamed of what the best possible dining experience would look, taste and feel like. They considered every element. Then they set about making every aspect of that dream a reality in a way that has produced pure joy for the patrons of Taillevent for decades.

We serve as stewards of our clients’ long-term financial security. This is an enormous responsibility. It would be presumptuous to suggest that any of us have mastered every element of this important role to the extent that Taillevent has in its area of endeavor. But if we aspire greatly, there is no limit to what we might accomplish.

Merci beaucoup, Taillevent! 

Scott MacKillop is president of Frontier Asset Management LLC, a firm that provides portfolio management services to financial advisors and their clients.