Morgan Stanley adviser Michael Warr's team already boasts impressive stats: 20 members and $1.1 billion in assets.

But the Alabama-based group's leaders, three advisers in their 30s and 40s, say they've got plenty of room to grow.

"I think the next mark might be $3 billion," says adviser Scott McClanahan, 36.

Warr, McClanahan and fellow team member Alistair Harding-Smith, 40, say specialization has been a key ingredient in the group's success.

"The common mistakes of growth have been not allowing experts to help out with a business. For instance, your typical adviser is trying to do the investment side, he's trying to meet the clients, trying to get new clients. We try to adhere to a strict client service model to not only be efficient but effective in the client meetings that you are having," Warr, 43, says.

Morgan Stanley advisers Michael Warr, Scott McClanahan and Alistair Harding-Smith say that developing clear areas of expertise has been a critical ingredient in their success. Clients "need to see the expertise," says McClanahan. From left to right: Harding-Smith, McClanahan, Warr and financial adviser Rex Zeanah.
Clients increasingly want to know they're "in the hands of experts who can handle the complexities in that world," says Morgan Stanley adviser Alistair Harding-Smith.

The team's origins stretch back about a decade. Warr, a graduate of the University of Alabama, started his career at Merrill Lynch in 1999. He served as a manager at the wirehouse, and early in his career had an opportunity to visit other branches. Warr observed that some of the best performing teams had advisers focusing on particular specializations, he says.

He later partnered with McClanahan, a fellow graduate of the University of Alabama and who had joined Merrill in 2003 after a stint playing baseball in the minor leagues. Harding-Smith, a native Londoner, joined the team after having worked at Barclays as a portfolio manager. He met his wife, who is from Tuscaloosa, in the U.K.

The group, which joined Morgan Stanley in 2008, has added two senior advisers who had been solo practitioners as well as several junior members; the youngest team member is 30, and the oldest is 71.

(Bloomberg News)
(Bloomberg News)

But Harding-Smith emphasizes that it's not the number of team members, but how they are deployed that counts most.

"Each relationship manager has a specialist area for each client, because it's important that the client know that you are working with me," he says. "Michael is working with households with $5 million and up. Then we have people on the team who are working with the children of those families who are maybe just starting out. That's something that you can't do if you say, hey we're a team that only deals with clients with $5 million or more."

Harding-Smith says that as the business and investing environment becomes more complex – he points to the fiduciary rule as an example – clients increasingly want to know they're "in the hands of experts who can handle the complexities in that world."

There are two CFPs and two CFAs on the team, which now operates out of several locations, including Montgomery and Birmingham.

Warr, who also serves as a branch manager at Morgan Stanley, says they try to keep their client base within a reasonable driving distance, but adds that new digital tools are making it easier to work remotely with clients and enable them to scale their practice in new ways.

"So where Alistair would have to get into a car and drive to Mobile or Huntsville or wherever, now we hope the technology is getting to the point where it can be done via Skype or whatever," he says.

McClanahan adds that the team's approach as well as their chemistry still opens new horizons.

"Years ago, we'd go into a meeting and [clients] would say this is a hard decision because everyone sounds the same. Now we go into a meeting and people say this is a lot easier decision because you sound different than everyone else," he says.

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