When Stephen Hlibok interviewed for a job as a stockbroke with Merrill Lynch six years ago, he gave the interviewing manager a view of the investment industry that opened a few eyes.
Mr. Hlibok recalls informing the manager that to the deaf, "Wall Street is like the Berlin Wall."
That perception, he added, was locking out potential investors. Mr. Hlibok, who is deaf, said he thought he could break down the barriers and carve a new niche in the industry, establishing investment services for the deaf.
The Ellicott City resident is convinced that his unflattering assessment of Wall Street's indifference to the deaf and his idea to tap the hidden market helped land him the job.
Today, the broker spends his day clattering away at Merrill Lynch's Columbia office on his Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, commonly called a TDD, with his coterie of about 500 clients. Many of them are deaf retirees in the Washington metropolitan area.
And, he isn't alone at Merrill Lynch in trying to interest the deaf in investments. The national investment giant has hired several other deaf financial advisers, many of whom also specialize in serving deaf clients. The firm also has established a Deaf/Hard of Hearing Investor Service, based in New Jersey, which links deaf customers with either a deaf broker or a broker with access to TDDs.
Christopher Sullivan, who helped establish the service at Merrill Lynch, says the availability of deaf financial experts such as Mr. Hlibok is usually a relief to deaf customers.
In the past, he said, many deaf investors brought a relative or friend who could hear and knew sign language to help them communicate with a financial consultant. That could put a damper on client confidentiality needs, noted Mr. Sullivan. Letters were also used but they lacked the immediacy that some investors favor for strategy.
By holding evening investment seminars pitched by deaf advisers using sign language, Merrill Lynch is trying to make deaf customers comfortable with visiting its investor centers.
Mr. Hlibok conducted such a seminar Tuesday night at Merrill Lynch's investor center in Baltimore. He's hopeful such seminars will change the perception among the deaf that learning about investing is tedious and frustrating.
Even with these inroads, Mr. Hlibok, 30, remains convinced that the market potential among the deaf hasn't been fully explored.
For one, he says, there's a distinct lack of demographic material available about the deaf to assist the efforts of brokers looking to cull new deaf clients.
Mr. Hlibok found that neither the Census Bureau nor any organization for the deaf in the United States have conducted in-depth studies on the deaf, such as where they live, their income levels or investment patterns.
No one, he says, is even sure how many deaf people there are in the United States. Some estimates run as high as 20 million.
Another sticking point, the broker has encountered: There's no comprehensive directory listing of TDD numbers.
That has put a crimp on his use of cold-calling to find potential customers -- that is dialing phone numbers selected from telephone books and crisscross directories to pitch investment services. The system, while tedious, often is used by young brokers to stir up new clients.
As a result of such roadblocks, Mr. Hlibok has relied heavily on networking for clients with old-fashioned personal contact.
So far, he's found it a successful way to drum up potential clients and get the word out that learning about investment opportunities isn't the impregnable wall it used to be for the deaf.
"I go to a lot of meetings held by organizations for the deaf; clubs, associations, reunions. For most of the older deaf people, it's second nature to go to these meetings. It's a way to socialize with others who are deaf and communicate in sign," Mr. Hlibok said.
"Before there was closed-captioned TV, many of the clubs would offer entertainment for the deaf, so that was another draw."
One advantage to deaf social functions, he notes, is it's easy to eavesdrop on conversations across a crowded room -- thanks to sign language.
For example, he says, "If I notice someone signing they are considering retirement or a buy-out, I know there's a potential customer."
One of his strongest sources for clients has been through his college alma mater, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
He built his first smattering of clients through fellow alumni and their families. He also used his contacts in several of the major organizations that serve the deaf. A ripple effect began to occur as his clients passed the word to others that their financial adviser was proficient in American Sign Language -- the first language of the deaf.
The advent of low-cost deaf communication technology, such as TDDs, has in one sense been a boon to Mr. Hlibok's efforts. But in another sense, he says, he thinks it may be keeping some of the potential market for deaf clients hidden.
On the bright side, he says, most of his deaf clients own a TDD and some clients have personal computers linked to a phone system. Thanks to the spread of that technology, Mr. Hlibok can transmit information about investment options to clients and execute purchases and sales quickly.
The down side: Low cost availability of communication devices for the deaf has reduced some clubs and organizations' roles as a source for socializing and information. Mr. Hlibok has found this particularly true among the younger deaf.
"The technology has created a Catch-22 situation for me. Once I have a client or a potential client it's very easy now for me to communicate with them and help them manage their investments.
"But the new technology is making it harder for me to make new contacts, so I'm constantly thinking of new ways to reach the deaf."