CHICAGO - UBS wealth management executive Robert Mulholland has a message for professionals in the financial services industry: We are the adults in the room.

Speaking at the SIFMA Private Client Conference on Thursday, Mulholland, who's head of wealth management and investment solutions at UBS, joined a chorus of executives including Merrill Lynch’s John Thiel and Stifel’s Ron Kruszewski in calling for tougher industry standards.

Mulholland remembered how, while working at a firm 30 years ago, the general counsel would chide employees with one saying: “No one’s bottom line is more important than the reputation of the firm.”

That mantra turned into a daily refrain from the general counsel and ultimately a cultural value that its employees shared as they worked for years, he said. Now 30 years later, that adage still holds true for the financial services industry today.

“We are the adults in the room,” Mulholland said. “They are looking to us to lead by example.”

In order to lead by example, financial advisors and other professionals need to ask themselves several questions, Mulholland said: Do we talk about integrity every day? Do we talk about making sure we do the right things? Do we talk about holding our clients’ interests in front of ours?

“If we aren’t having these discussions daily, we’re not part of changing the perception of our industry,” Mulholland said. And taking that kind of action is just as imperative for the wealth management industry’s leaders.

“It cascades down. You cascade the right behaviors or you cascade the wrong behaviors from top to bottom,” Mulholland said.

Leading by example was one of the six steps Mulholland outlined for the financial services industry to take in order to restore client trust. The other steps include:


“Every time that something goes really wrong, the first question is, ‘Who hired that guy or gal?” Mulholland said. “You want to know what the answer is? It was us. We did.”

Firms need to avoid that fallout by asking questions before making those hires, he said. That includes questioning the motivation behind the hire – is it the potential revenue or the integrity that person can add to the firm?


Employees in the financial services industry have seen firms downsized, cuts to compensation and jobs eliminated or moved offshore in the past 10 years.

“Then we turn around and wonder why some of our employees took outsized risk,” Mulholland said. “Perhaps some of the industry’s problems were not caused by greed. Perhaps some of the problems were caused by fear. It was fear of failure or fear of losing your job.”

Firms can combat the risks that its employees will behave similarly by making sure they are motivated by the right incentives and processes, and not by fear or retaliation.

“Leaders define culture, culture defines organizations, and culture is the best predictor of a company’s future or an industry’s future,” Mulholland said.


As the products and services offered by firms have become more complex, it has become even more necessary for firms to have the proper controls in place to make sure that issues do not crop up.

Employees need to know that there are rules, that they are implemented consistently and that there are consequences for not following them. And the monitoring of those rules needs to happen in person, Mulholland said.

“We have to be there with them to actually look them in the eye,” Mulholland said. “Supervision and control is much better face to face, not from behind a desk or a phone or a home office.”


Being open with clients and customers has helped large companies successfully recover from large mistakes in the past, Mulholland said. Take, for example, Johnson & Johnson and the crisis it faced when certain Tylenol packages were contaminated.

The company emphasized transparency and told the truth to its customers. That behavior should serve as an example to the financial services industry, according to Mulholland.

“If we instill a sense of transparency in our employees and they carry it to their clients, we can only help the trust dilemma or the trust deficit that we have,” Mulholland said.


Every time Mulholland goes to a little league game or other event in his community, he always wears his firm’s logo. The members of his community, as a result, have come to associate him with the name of his firm, he said.

“When the folks in our communities see us as good people, caring people…those that will spend their weekends actually helping the community, we regain trust,” Mulholland said.

That extends the work that financial services firms are already doing, Mulholland said, including the efforts to help out when events like Hurricane Sandy, earthquakes or other disasters strike.

“In almost all cases, [they] got a helping hand from the financial services industry,” Mulholland said. “We’ve always stepped up big.”

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