James C. Perkins is a chameleon. For video segments he's produced for YouTube, Perkins, the founder, CEO and portfolio manager of Thrasher Funds, dons white sunglasses and delivers news tidbits in a hip-hop-and-MTV-influenced staccato style. For an interview with an editor at a conservative trade magazine, he speaks soberly and articulately, using longer words, lengthy and grammatically correct sentences and quickly bringing up a past job as equity analyst at Morgan Stanley.Such nimble and quick adaptation to his audience is key to what Perkins is trying to do at Thrasher Funds, which offers a mutual fund called The GendeX Fund to 20-somethings and 30-somethings who Perkins feels have been largely overlooked by the financial marketplace. He reels them in with language and graphics to which they can relate while encouraging them to practice the traditional investing principles that have been used by their parents' and grandparents' generations.
The cleverly-written website states in part, "We created The GendeX Fund for any investor who does not feel a connection to the traditional investment establishment. Welcome Home." "We get a lot of calls from people who say they don't feel comfortable going to a larger firm, they feel they don't know enough or have enough money," Perkins says. "Sometimes that's the case and sometimes that's not the case." People can start by investing $400 or $100 a month in the GendeX Fund. "We're not the first company that has a low entry point, but we are the first firm that is making it accessible, not only in price but from the look, feel and educational element of our company." In addition to providing explanations and glossaries on the website, Thrasher offers free 30-minute consultations over the phone and in person. He's careful not to insult his audience's intelligence. "We don't make the whole thing Dora the Explorer or Bob the Builder," he says. "If it's called P/E ratio, we'll call it P/E ratio, but we'll take the time to explain what that means." Perkins notes that the marketing messages traditional investment firms use don't speak to young people. "If you watch the Masters tournament on a Sunday afternoon and it cuts to a Fidelity commercial, there's a very good chance that it will have a graying or balding man walking down the beach with his dog and with his pants rolled up; he'll be thinking about his grandchildren's 529 plan and how he's going to get that boat that he and his wife have always wanted," Perkins says. "Then there are the 'retirement red zone -- what are you going to do in three years' commercials that look like they're trying to scare people into investing because they're about to retire." With Perkins' site, he's trying to educate young investors, whom he calls "Next Investors," with pictures of people who look like them. Thrasher puts its videos on YouTube and MySpace; many new investors come through those sites. The firm did a launch party with the fashion website DailyCandy.
The GendeX Fund invests in industries, sectors, and specific companies that are positioned to take advantage of what Perkins calls the "Demographic Convergence Thesis" - his theory that Generation X, Generation Y and Baby Boomers are starting to think, act, and buy more alike. Perkins' portfolio includes Nike, American Apparel, Pfizer, and General Electric.
The inspiration for this new fund came while Perkins, a Gen Xer himself, was working on Wall Street. "I would look around at my fellow analysts and attorney friends -- all of us were getting huge bonuses and no one was doing anything with their money," he recalls. The irony was, the analysts were developing excellent investment insights and handing them to their managing directors, head analysts or portfolio managers. "There was no sense of urgency or even any trend among this demographic of investing. I had to ask myself, if the Wall Street analysts in this demographic are not investing, then what are the kids doing in Manhattan, Kansas? They would have to find their experience in financial services daunting."
Because of changes in the financial markets, twenty-somethings today are making much more money than their parents did, Perkins points out. "The first managing director I worked for at Morgan Stanley had been an analyst at the firm since he was 21, but he still didn't make as much as an analyst does today, even adjusting for interest rates," he says. "Our message is, you don't have to stop having fun, but you can incorporate investing in a reasonable but profound way, by getting started now and trying to develop habits that are beneficial to you in the long run without sacrificing your entire lifestyle."
Perkins' fund doesn't yet offer services via cell phone, but he's working with the fund administrator, Citigroup, to do so. Yet he believes cutting-edge technology is not necessarily key to success with his targeted demographic. "Sometimes people still want pieces of paper," he says. "You have people investing for the first time in their lives, and they want to have something they can touch and feel and know that their experience is tangible, or to talk to someone." He says he does use relevant technologies in a way that's palatable. "We have videos on YouTube that are tutorials and tell kids things as simple as, what is a stock," says Perkins. "The fact that we're already using YouTube and we're a finance firm is very unique. We do our videos in a very fashion and aesthetically driven way, to retain the attention of our viewership. They don't always want to see someone sitting behind a desk in a studio delivering information that could be perceived as boring."A new mutual fund attracts Generation X and Generation Y investors with a simple strategy: communicate with them in a way they can understand and relate to.