CBJ Q&A: Kalvin Grabau Keele, Managing Partner, Northwestern Mutual

By Adam Moore

Kalvin Grabau Keele
Managing Partner  |  Northwestern Mutual
Age: 36
Hometown: Ankeny
Education: Iowa State University, bachelor’s in finance; The American College for ChFC and CLU certifications
Family: Wife, Paige, a daughter and two sons
Interests: Hanging out with the kids, getting involved with church (St. Luke’s) and going to sporting events

Kalvin Grabau Keele has taken the unconventional route to the top of Northwestern Mutual’s Eastern Iowa territory, which employs more than 230 and stretches all the way from Marshalltown to the Quad Cities, up to the Minnesota border and down to Missouri. The Iowa State University alum started his studies in computer science, inspired by his father, a tech entrepreneur. He did a short internship with Northwestern Mutual in Des Moines in 2005 before leaving to study in Australia for six months; upon returning, he joined the company full-time, and rose to lead the firm’s team in West Des Moines.

I spoke with Mr. Grabau Keele in late February, just as he was getting settled into a new apartment in Cedar Rapids, and just before the coronavirus exploded as a national issue. The following is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.

How long have you been in town, and what’s your initial impression of the region?

Since Feb. 1, although I was appointed as managing partner back in October. So I just did some day visits and started serving people, but I didn’t really have a place to stay until my apartment came available in February.

I can tell you that I had a perception and I had an expectation of how I was going to be received coming in. And the people – not just within Northwestern Mutual, but also outside of Northwestern Mutual – have been overwhelmingly welcoming. The hospitality of the Corridor has just been five stars. To be welcomed as a business leader in the community, but also just as a resident, I’ve been impressed by just how much people are willing to help and provide advice.

What excites you about the Eastern Iowa market?

It’s just a massive territory – there is a lot of opportunity in these cities. Waterloo is growing, Cedar Falls is a campus town. Cedar Rapids, based on the reports I get, continues to have investments being made into it, and people are continuing to move into it and make it grow. Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty are vibrant, growing communities, and then you have the Quad Cities. So when you think about the opportunity to get to build on the success this firm has already had, it becomes really exciting to think about how much more we could do together. One of my other beliefs is that we’re stronger together. If we can bring the eastern side of the state together, we can make an even bigger impact on the people we serve.

The Corridor is a competitive market for wealth management and financial services. Where do you see Northwestern Mutual fitting into the mix?

I would say that the opportunity to serve clients is really unquantifiable, to where there are a lot of great companies out there doing a lot of really good things for clients. Sometimes it’s hard to say how we would compete, because I don’t know intimately the specialities of other firms, but I know a lot of the other firms here in town have great advisors, right? But when I think about where we could fill in some of the gaps or add value, it’s going to be in that holistic financial planning – helping people build wealth but also distribute wealth, and making sure that people are educated. Do they understand tax law changes, state law changes? How do you make the money work for you, and how does that cascade into the next generation?

Planning for longer lifespans is one of the big challenges of retirement planning today. Are you seeing retirees take more interest in annuity-type products?

It’s interesting that you say that, because we run customized financial plans that are goals-based and needs-based. And in some of the plans that we run, it does illuminate that we need to have more guaranteed income for the client based on what they want in their scenario. If that is illuminated, that’s what kind of drives us down the path of should we talk to them about a guaranteed stream of income, which would come from an annuity product.

But then also sometimes the financial plans that we run, the guaranteed income stream isn’t necessary. Maybe that’s because of Social Security or pension plans or other assets that produce income, to where those dollars should stay in a market-based position, versus an annuity. So we would be well-positioned to help inform and educate the client on which option is going to be best for them.

The recent coronavirus activity is starting to worry people, and the markets dropped sharply yesterday. What are you telling clients?

A lot of times we tell them to take a deep breath and we go back to their plan. We remind them that they’re still earning income, we have their risk protected, we have a plan for their goals, and if you don’t need the money for the foreseeable or immediate future, then let’s make sure we have a plan you feel confident and comfortable with for those long-term dollars.

But if there are dollars that we would need the next one to two years, then let’s make an adjustment to the asset allocation strategy you’re currently in. But at the end of the day, we remind them that you’re going to be OK. You have a team that’s working along with you, and you have a plan that’s going to keep moving you closer to your goals.

With the transfer of wealth from the baby boomers to millennials, are you seeing the younger generation take more of an interest in planning their financial futures?

Well, as you know, there’s about 10,000 baby boomers right that are now reaching age 65 every single day in America, at least for the next few years. A lot of those baby boomers are talking to their millennial children about the importance of saving money. And when the millennials are surveyed, they rank retirement planning as a higher priority for financial security.

And to us, the millennial demographic is really the aspiring affluent, and we are very interested in working and growing with them. As a lot of our financial advisors are in that millennial demographic. They’re going to be able to age with and grow with some of these clients that they could be helping now for 20 or 30 years.

And I think the older that you get, I think the more you start to value those candid conversations, and the ability to air ideas out together. So I think that trusted relationship with a financial advisor becomes even more important as we get older.

The CBJ has reported quite a bit on the tight labor market, and finding new financial advisors is no easy feat. Where are you finding the talent you need?

Most of the talent we’re finding now is within Iowa. There have been some relocations that have come in from out of state – one of our advisors came in from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, another came in from northern California – but I would say the general majority of advisors are from the state of Iowa.

You have an Iowa Hawkeyes pennant here in your office, waiting to be hung up. Is that going below the Cyclones pennant you have on the wall?

Somebody else asked, “Hey, when are you going to hang up the Hawkeye pennant?” And I said, “Baby steps!” At least I have it in here, and it’s framed.  •