Time was when the outlook was gloomy for a broker who wanted to become an independent financial advisor. The broker typically left the wirehouse, set up his own shop, and worked with the support of an independent broker-dealer, gradually switching his business from commissions to fees. Meanwhile eking out a living. If he was lucky.
No more. Today many brokers are in the catbird seat. Indeed, an article in the July 17, 2008, issue of Business Week, suggests that "wealth managers" are the bright spot at places like Citi and Merrill Lynch because they haul in trillions of dollars in assets and "that's a priceless cross-selling platform for other businesses, including currency trading, mergers and acquisitions and in-house alternative investments."
But some of the best brokers no longer want to be a "priceless cross-selling platform." They want to be independent. They want to get the best possible deal for clients by choosing from a wide range of products. They don't want to pump house products and "cross-sell" other house products.
One way brokers are escaping is by forming teams while still at the wirehouses to provide the base for a ready-made independent business. Perhaps a dozen people get together, each with a different specialty such as investing, research, people skills or technology, to serve the ultra-high-net worth client. They work together as a private wealth management team within the brokerage to test work ethics and shared values. Then they "lift out" their established business.
For instance, Constellation Wealth Advisors LLC, opened its doors on Vanderbilt Avenue in Manhattan in April 2007. A year later, the firm managed two offices, one on each coast, with 40 families in each and a total of $3.5 billion in assets under management.
Paul Tramontano, the team leader and chief executive officer of Constellation, formed the team at Citi Smith Barney in 1999. He told On Wall Street in August 2003 that he'd come to realize that his business had become "too complex for one person to handle." His clients demanded more time, and "although I had a large support staff, I felt I needed to add professionals with strengths complementary to my own." Tramontano, an accountant by training, recruited other professionals to pool their capabilities and "create a full-service family office practice" within Citi Smith Barney.
One bonus of their streamlined efficiency was that the team was able to cut down their client base so they could spend more time on each one. "There were times prior to forming the team where I had as many as 1,000 clients," Tramontano said. "I had to slim the number down. I couldn't meet everyone's needs because I didn't have enough time to spend with them."
Another plus: Team members didn't have to spend time prospecting. The team's philosophy was to spend all its time taking care of existing clients. "We believed that if we did that successfully, we'd get more referrals than we'd know what to do with. So far, it's worked out," Tramontano told On Wall Street in 2003.
Tramontano, 46, and Sam Katzman, one of his original partners, set up Constellation in 2007. "We had our support team in place," Tramontano said. Eight employees from Citi joined the firm. In April 2008, another team left Citi in California and set up the firm's Menlo Park office. Constellation now has 26 employees, ten of them professionals. The minimum account size is $10 million.
In a similar venture, BBR Partners was set up in February 2000 by three young men-none of them yet 30-each with a Wharton degree and shared tenure at Goldman Sachs where one specialized in private client services, one in investment banking and one in asset management. BBR had $3.6 billion in assets at year's end 2007.
What distinguishes these firms from the ones they left? "Big firms have become manufacturing companies," Tramontano says. "They manufacture financial products and try to sell them." Similarly, BBR's Evan Roth said he and his partners felt very conflicted in their old Wall Street jobs because Goldman sold products. BBR decided immediately that it would not do that.
Of course, teams aren't new. An article in the March 1, 2001, issue of Registered Rep noted the trend toward teams and warned of their pitfalls. The author, Tom Nelson, reported that the failure rate of teams is high, partly because of poor leadership, unrealistic expectations and differing values and outlooks among team members. For example, a senior advisor might view a team as a way to slow down and coast toward retirement by relying on the work and energy of underlings.
So forming a team won't solve every problem. But still, top brokers often migrate to them.
Why do wirehouses permit and support these teams when the danger is high that a successful one will leave with both key employees and a bucketful of assets? The wirehouses were initially ambivalent about the teams when they began to form in the late 1990s. It didn't take management long to discover that a motivated and hard-driving group operating in an entrepreneurial manner, drawing in more assets and giving better service, was a good path to more profits. Some teams were allowed to use whichever products they chose for clients rather than being shackled to in-house brokerage items, which in the past have been notable for their high fees and low performance.
Perhaps a more relevant question is: Why didn't the wirehouses see the obvious? Their business model is broken. They can no longer offer a competitive package for ultra-high-net-worth families. More than ten years ago-perhaps 15-Bob Veres, publisher of Inside Information, an industry newsletter, began wearing his dinosaur T-shirt to industry conferences. The shirt had pictures of various dinosaurs such as the T. rex. Each dinosaur was labeled with the name of one of the big wirehouses: PaineWebber, Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney.
The issue seems clear cut to me: Banks and brokers view their clients with contempt-as markets to be milked. I've listened to private bankers talk about grabbing more "wallet share." Could the secret of the success of independent financial advisors be simply that they try to get the best possible deal for their clients rather than for themselves? "The best and the brightest are going to continue to filter out of big firms," Tramontano says.
Constellation's mission statement is, "To be all things to some people." I like that. I've listened to advisors squabble over the years about which services they should offer and how to keep the business under control. I even remember a time in the 1990s when advisors were dropping financial planning services to do investments only because financial planning was too time-consuming. There probably aren't many people of that mindset left after the tech bubble burst.
Tramontano says that he enjoys serving clients. Sure. That's easy to say. Who wouldn't say that? But the proof is in whether the advisor gets the best deals for his clients or for himself. In the financial planning future, you will be able to sell product or you will be able to sell advice. You can't sell both. Constellation and BBR, among many other firms, have chosen to sell advice to get the best possible deals for clients.
When one of the Constellation team members is concerned about something-say, terrorism-he might look for possible solutions and share them with clients. For example, an article in The Wall Street Journal on April 25, 2006, tells us about Tramontano's business travel kit: bottled water, a small towel and a flashlight. He suggests clients carry this kit too. "A wet towel and a torch will guide somebody from a smoke-filled room in a terrorist attack," he told the Journal.
Constellation also works with Juval Aviv, a former Israeli commando and secret service agent who now heads Interfor Inc., an international corporate intelligence and investigation company. Aviv warns clients about security risks and how to avoid them.
Perhaps it's not surprising that the big firms haven't yet seen the handwriting on the wall. National publications, like Business Week, don't seem to see it either. In the July 2008 article on teams, the magazine reported on the competition among banks and brokerages to recruit these asset-gathering powerhouse teams, reporting that "UBS poached a five-person team managing $1.3 billion in client assets from JP Morgan" while Citigroup's Smith Barney picked up a team from UBS, and Credit Suisse "lifted out" two teams from Smith Barney and one from Goldman Sachs.
The story adds that these teams are almost pure gravy for the brokerage because "it's all on cruise control with portfolio strategies largely preresearched by and prefabricated by the bank."
Well, that's what Business Week suggests. "Globally, the wealth of high-net-worth individuals (defined as having net assets of at least $1 million, excluding primary residences) jumped 9.4% last year, to just under $41 trillion," the story says. Unfortunately for the banks and brokers, there will be fewer and fewer of these high-net-worth individuals willing to give them the gravy.
Mary Rowland can be reached at email@example.com. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years, a half dozen of them as a weekly columnist for the Sunday New York Times. She wrote a column called "Practice Points" for Bloomberg Wealth Manager for six years. She speaks regularly about money and values. Her six books include two written for financial advisors: Best Practices, and In Search of the Perfect Model.