The Top Forty Advisors Under Forty
Each Financial advisor Who has made it to On Wall Street's Top 40 Under 40 list this year rose to the top of the industry by forging a unique path. And they all work with a unique set of clients and strategies. But one thing they all do have in common: each advisor on this list credits their team and/or support staff for helping them to get to where they are today.
This year's list has an unusual team focus. Erik Bjerke, the number one advisor this year, shares the spotlight with fellow team members Steven Prediletto, who holds the number two slot; Chad Pigg, at number three; and Bradley Cull, number five. "[It's about] giving more to clients, giving more to each other, giving more to the firm," Bjerke says of the group's mentality that has brought them success. Read on to find out what other winning strategies have helped land these advisors' on this list.
Erik Bjerke, 39
Merrill Lynch / Atlanta
$12.81 billion in assets
When Erik Bjerke reports his total assets under management, he reads it off digit by digit, and it sounds like he could be giving you his phone number.
His definition of success has changed greatly in the 17 years following his college graduation and completion of Merrill Lynch's training program. In the past decade of his career as an advisor, his sense of accomplishment has become less about how big that number is and more about the many people who reap the benefits of his work with institutional clients.
"I definitely jumped out of college thinking much differently," Bjerke says. Initially, he just focused on income, production, assets and other targets. "Early in my career, I was fortunate to get the sense that it's not about yourself and it's not about going after the opportunity yourself."
As his career progressed, his priorities and practice underwent a significant change owed in large part to a newfound belief in God and religion, which he discovered through the encouragement of his wife.
"I developed more of a relationship and faith in God and really came to view what we do quite differently," Bjerke explains. "We touch over three million participants though all of the folks that we deal with and companies that we deal with."
In fact, Bjerke credits his religious journey with the realization that he can have a huge impact on so many individuals by running what he believes is a "highly ethical [business]."
While Bjerke says that he was "immature" and "self-centered" growing up, his operative word now is "giving." His current set of beliefs have made him more interested in philanthropic goals and how that connects with estate planning. That means giving to others before himself, especially when it comes to his team, the Global Corporate Institutional Advisory Services Group, a large network of Merrill advisors throughout the country that has its hub in Atlanta.
To that end, he has thrown his book of business in with 12 other senior equity partners to pool their management and drive the collective spirit. According to Bjerke, the structure of his team's practice is somewhat comparable to that of a law firm.
"[It's about] giving more to clients, giving more to each other, giving more to the firm," Bjerke says. "If you give more of yourself constantly, more than you pay back, it's only an amount of time before you'll achieve success whatever that means for you."
He learned that lesson early in his career. Back before the "Do Not Call" Registry existed, and before he was dealing with Fortune 500 companies, Bjerke picked up a lead out of the local paper from an ad, "House Boats for Sale." Despite the jaunty title, the situation with that business owner client was very complex and forced Bjerke to rely on others.
"Having the sense to work and partner with more senior folks at the time and do things together instead of trying to everything myself or having over confidence really helped out," Bjerke says.
Steven Prediletto, 36
Merrill Lynch / Atlanta
$3.63 billion in assets
Steven Prediletto says he was first impressed by the financial advisory industry from observing his aunt, also an advisor, when he would spend his summers visiting New York while he was growing up in the 1980s.
"Looking back, she's a pioneer for being in the business 25 years ago as a successful female. I never realized it when I was growing up, but now I do." Prediletto says. "She was an inspiration, smart, personable, funny, and I just thought it would be a cool career."
That led Prediletto to intern at several firms while he was in college, from Paine Webber to Prudential and finally Merrill Lynch in Florida. It was that final stint that led to a job offer the day after he graduated. That position led to a fateful business trip to Atlanta that inspired Prediletto to move. It was on that trip that Prediletto met a fellow Merrill Lynch advisor who told him: ""Move your business here. It's boom town,'" he remembers. "It took me a couple of minutes to say okay." He joined that team as a junior advisor, and then 2002 brought a game-changing event: that advisor and another advisor outside of the team landed one of the largest home improvement retailers in the country as a client. They joined forces to form a team, which today includes 13 equity partners.
Those equity partners also include Erik Bjerke, who is number one on this year's list; Chad Pigg, who lands the number three slot; and Bradley Cull, who is number six. This is Prediletto's second time on On Wall Street's Top 40 list. The team has more than $100 billion under management mostly from the large mega cap companies it serves. The team is also building a small mid cap-focused team.
For Prediletto, who focuses on CEOs and CFOs, that means that every day is different. It could include conference calls with C-suite executives at a major beverage company to talk about their individual stock plans, planning with an executive to unwind his or her stock position over an extended period of time or doing a presentation on stock option analysis. The team emphasizes providing the same level of service from the CEO to the janitor of a company, Prediletto says.
And working closely with those corporations often leads to developing strong relationships with individual clients and their families. Prediletto currently works with about 80 families. "We start from a consultative standpoint with an individual, a family, and you build that trust over time, and those are really strong relationships," he says. "We don't lose a lot of clients around here."
The team retains clients by assigning two senior partners to each relationship, as well as a lead banker for all of their banking needs, an investment analyst who keeps them abreast of the latest research, a portfolio manager and an estate and insurance specialist and a client associate who directs their inquiries to the right team member. "It's just being proactive and persistent, defining client or prospect needs early on, and really doing everything it takes to make that person feel loved and cared about, that someone is looking out for their best interest," Prediletto says.
Chad Pigg, 36
Merrill Lynch / Atlanta
$3.28 billion in assets
Chad Pigg likes to make it sound easy.
Whether he's talking about Merrill Lynch's 2008 merger with Bank of America or pulling in new accounts, Pigg hesitates to call it a challenge. "Is it a challenge to go after new business? It is," Pigg says, "But when you take out the challenging component and you find where warm opportunities exist, and you can leverage existing relationships, it's a great service model and it betters our chances of winning business."
That philosophy, and his ability to utilize his existing resources, has served Pigg well since he left his position as a senior accountant at KPMG six years ago to join Merrill Lynch. Starting out as a sole practitioner, he scored his first big account by focusing on what he knewtargeting small CPA practices. "I understood their level of education and experience and technical lingo," Pigg explains. "That made me a good fit for those initial conversations. So I was able to capture beginning success taking that approach."
His practice mushroomed out from there as he became increasingly interested in the corporate side of the house, such as who is managing the 401(k) plan, what the company was doing in terms of cash management and would they be interested in a deferred compensation plan. He continued adding on clients and services until he found himself on a team at Merrill Lynch's Buckhead office in Atlanta, responsible for entire corporations as well as the individual clients that come out of those relationships.
"To me it just made more sense to approach these opportunities from a corporate perspective, which would automatically and inherently feed into individual wealth opportunities downstream," he says.
Now part of a team of 300 corporate and institutional-focused advisors, Pigg focuses on offering retirement benefits services, defined contributions, equity awards, such as stock options, restricted stocks and investment consulting. He makes decisions about what to offer companies based on the company's goals, investment policy and risk tolerance, and brings his knowledge as a former accountant the table. "Having a very good understanding of financial statements, the balance sheet, income statements, cash flows, so on and so forth as well as auditing background afforded me the opportunity to understand how processes within the company worked form the internal controls and management perspective," Pigg says.
Pigg's goal is to streamline and simplify the advisory process to reduce the burden on a company's internal administration. Pigg jumped into the role in 2008 as the downturn left many companies short staffed. "Today I feel like this is not even a job," he says. "I'm so passionate about what I do that I wake up every day very excited to face another day with the profession."
Thomas Hutson-Wiley, 38
Merrill Lynch / San Francisco
$3.25 billion in assets
This year has been good to Thomas Hutson-Wiley, who ranked number one on On Wall Street's Top 40 list in 2011 and makes the list for the fifth time.
In the past 12 months, Hutson-Wiley has seen his assets under management jump almost $1 billion from $2.33 billion last year. He attributes that spike in growth in part to the success of his entrepreneur, venture capital and private equity general partner clients. And he also credits his team's hard work since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008 that is now starting to pay off.
That comes as some of Hutson-Wiley's clients have reaped the benefits of a number of successful technology initial public offerings that he says have done "incredibly well" while not inviting the same publicity or scrutiny as Facebook. And it also comes as Hutson-Wiley's team has worked hard to stay out in front of clients when the markets were tough so that they would remember the team when the environment turned around.
"It's our loyalty to our clients and their loyalty to us that really put us in the position to achieve some pretty spectacular growth this year," Hutson-Wiley says. "We're up about 112% on the year, and there's not a lot of businesses in financial services or anywhere that can kind of boast that kind of growth over the last 12 months." Hutson-Wiley's team includes five partners who equally share a business covering about 1,000 total clients. The team has a total of 17 professionals, including client associates and a newly-added derivatives professional. Their practice spans the globe from San Francisco to Seattle, Boston, Paris and Hong Kong.
Serving the team's specific client niche poses unique challenges, Hutson-Wiley says, particularly because it is so transactional. The team specializes in esoteric trades that might include different currencies, countries, or the exchange of one asset for another. It also might include large trades with a lot of public disclosure around them, such as a founder of a business who is trying to achieve liquidity.
And those transactions also have a lot of emotion around them, Hutson-Wiley says, particularly for equity ownership in a 12- to 14-year-old business where an investor was there from day one.
Some of those investments can represent up to 99% of the investor's net worth. That emotion can mean that an investor can change their mind on a trade just five minutes before it is scheduled to go through. But Hutson-Wiley says his team does not dissuade those decisions.
"We don't mind people being passionate about what they're doing. We want to help them just make the right decision, and that changes," Hutson-Wiley says. "And if it changes, it's like, 'Okay, let's cancel that trade, let's not put that through and just talk about what you're trying to achieve here, what your goals are.'"
Bradley Cull, 34
Merrill Lynch / Atlanta
$2.93 billion in assets
The story of how Bradley Cull got his start in the financial services industry sounds like the plot from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, except with a happy ending.
Cull was waiting tables at a country club in North Carolina one summer, paying his way through college in Florida, when one patron caught his eye. They were a "good looking family," Cull recalls, with "nice kids," and it "just seemed like a young guy that was making a good living."
The man turned out to be James Wallace, a very large producer from Merrill Lynch's Atlanta office. Seizing the opportunity, Cull scored an introduction to Wallace and discovered the two had some shared interests. He landed a second meeting, and eventually a job right out of college working at the Merrill Lynch call center in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2003.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't have a clue what he did at Merrill Lynch," Cull admits. "I just knew that he was successful and after sitting down and talking to him, I got a better idea. And what he told me was, 'I didn't come from a lot of money, but I'm used to being around a lot of money.'"
He continued to follow up with Wallace, and 18 months later when the team was expanding, Wallace asked Cull if he would like to join. Cull answered, "Absolutely," and twelve months later he was an advisor on Wallace's team in the Buckhead office in Atlanta.
Wallace's eye for talent paid off. At the age of 33, Cull ranks in at number six on this list and has carved out a sizeable niche on the Global Corporate and Institutional Advisor Service team primarily focusing on Fortune 1000 companies.
In his role, Cull works to administer a number of employee benefit programs from 401(k)s to investments and deferred compensation plans. He's comfortable talking modern and post-modern portfolio theory and says his first focus is finding the right asset allocation by blending active and passive management. A calculated blend of investments, including using managed futures or certain hedge strategies, helps keeps clients on course. "Over time, especially with experience, I've found that most investors make decisions based off emotion and one of the primary drivers of decision-making has been when deviation of the portfolio is to the downside," Cull explains. "So in order to mitigate deviation to the downside you incorporate some lowly correlated or alternative type investments."
One of the portfolio management skills that Cull has found most valuable, however, is his ability to listen. "I'm able to use that to my advantage obviously in getting to know them and picking up hot points or sensitive points to their life," he says. "And I can apply those to how I develop a strategy for them." Moreover, Cull is an equity partner who has thrown in his book of business with 12 others on his team, which makes his position a challenge and "selfless," as Cull describes it, given that he must mentor and develop other advisors and associates, help oversee the office, and balance that with client work. But it's also the place he directs the most gratitude. "The team environment that I have been involved in for the last eight years is really the primary catalyst for my success," Cull says.
Peter Princi, 36
Morgan Stanley / Boston
$2.21 billion in assets
Peter Princi's path to his advisory career included a short stint in professional baseball. Princi worked for the New York Mets for two years after competing in the sport throughout college. "As a pitcher, if you give up a hit in the ninth inning, you can't dwell on a bad pitch," Princi says. "And in the investment world, you're going to get some wrong ideas that make it into your portfolios, and what you can't do is get emotional about it. You have to know when to change things." Princi also spent his college years preparing to become a financial advisor, getting an internship with legacy Smith Barney advisors in Cape Cod, Mass., during the off-season. Today, his clients include business executives, business owners, real estate owners and even some professional athletes, particularly in baseball.
This marks Princi's fourth year on On Wall Street's Top 40 list, while his assets under management are up from $1.52 billion last year. He credits that growth to the relationships with clients that he has spent 13 years building, and which often lead to new referrals.
Princi does not have any equal partners on his team, meaning that the business is roughly 95% his. He takes the lead for the seven-member team as portfolio manager, while he also draws support from a junior partner, analysts and assistants. The team structure means that Princi does not have the distractions that come with multiple partners. "I like to come in here and focus on research, managing money and talking to clients daily," he says.
Princi recalls the difficulties of starting out as a 24-year-old with a limited network, and says that building his business with the first $100 million in assets was probably the most difficult. He made up for his lack of experience by becoming an expert in stock options and incentives, and then worked aggressively to get out in front of executives in the Boston area. "I would know their stock better than they did, and really help analyze it from an outside perspective," Princi says.
It is those same research skills gives Princi an edge with clients. That means being better read than his rivals and having an opinion on everything that will affect a client's portfolio, from China to Europe to interest rates or the fiscal cliff. For now, his team is de-emphasizing corporate bonds while expecting that any dips in equities could reap big rewards in U.S. stocks. The team has also shifted its geographic focus in the last two years as countries like Greece started making headlines. Now, their stock portfolio is 95% U.S. and 5% international. "You need to be flexible in this business. You need to be nimble, and although you can study the capital markets dating back 80 or 90 years, the beautiful thing about this job is it's a challenge every single day," Princi says. "The markets change. You're thrown different curveballs every single day."
Gregory Hersch, 34
UBS / New York
$2.06 billion in assets
Gregory Hersch, who takes a position on On Wall Street's Top 40 list for the third year in a row, credits his success as a financial advisor in part to his ability to seeing the big picture when opportunities arise.
Hersch leveraged that skill while working with founders of a private company who were given stock from a public company that was acquiring that business. While banks typically do not like to lend against restricted stock, Hersch saw the potential opportunity that working with those clients could bring the firm's investment bank in the future. He then worked tirelessly convince senior leadership to provide those clients with liquidity. That included coordinating different parts of the firm, including its credit and mortgage groups, to also get on board with that goal.
"I am very good at seeing the bigger picture and not getting caught up in the near-term noise," Hersch says. "That allows me to avoid running into a lot of the land mines that I think advisors do in the business."
One thing Hersch says he tells all young advisors who solicit his advice on how to improve: become a better listener. "If you don't listen well in this business, you're going to make mistakes," Hersch says. "If there's one thing that you can do to immediately improve the trajectory of your business, it's just to work on listening." Hersch works with 40 family clients, each with a net worth of $20 million or more. And he is the lead financial advisor on his five-person team.
Hersch's investment strategy focuses on alternative investments. When the crisis hit in 2008, he says, some of those alternative investment strategies lost significantly less than the broader indices, while others actually made money. In the past few years, clients have wanted to balance those investments with other strategies that emphasize liquidity. That has led to diversified portfolios including preferred stocks, mortgage-backed securities, high yield and floating rate funds. Hersch strives to differentiate his wealth management practice by presenting unique investment strategies to current and prospective clients.
"These are some of the most sought after families in the country," Hersch says. "They get shown a lot of products, so I have to work doubly hard to source investment opportunities within alternatives that are both unique and are going to perform." After 12 years in the business, Hersch says that taking on new clients comes down to whether they have a mutual understanding. "My clients come to me wealthy," he says. "My job is to keep them wealthy. So much like a doctor; first, do no harm."
Kevin Scott, 39
Merrill Lynch / Los Angeles
$1.70 billion in assets
As he makes his third appearance on this list of young, trendy investing experts, Kevin Scott's management philosophy sounds refreshingly old-fashioned.
While many advisors drop lines about post-modern portfolio theory, derivatives, managed money and hedge funds, Scott espouses Warren Buffet, Phil Fisher and Benjamin Graham's 1949 book The Intelligent Investor about determining fair stock valuations. The bread and butter of his business is betting on companies' ability to grow.
"We don't think of stocks as much as we try to think about buying businesses," Scott says. "I never thought about it that way, but I think maybe I do have an old-fashioned outlook for my being 39-years young."
Blame it on his partner and father, 45-year industry veteran Bill Scott, who is the manager of the Los Angeles-based family practice office. Kevin joined his father after working in a technology sales position following college.
"We're individual stock guys and maybe that is somewhat informed by my dad," Kevin Scott says. "He started when managed money didn't exist, mutual funds didn't exist."
Of course the father-son team now incorporates mutual funds as well as a number of other products such as bonds and real estate investment trusts to help build out their client's portfolios. Like many advisors, Scott and his father have leaned more on fixed income since 2008 (although, true to their roots, they supplement those positions with dividend income from stocks).
"[Fixed income] serves as a diversifier and hopefully a safe part of the portfolio such that if the markets do really correct dramatically like they did in 2008, there should be a part of the portfolio that's a safe harbor," Scott explains. "We have gravitated a little bit more toward a role of high quality dividends or companies that pay a healthy 3% to 4% dividends as a way to replace some of that income."
Scott sees himself wearing two hats. The first is his investing acumen. While the second is more personal; his ability to show empathy as well as his listening skills and ability to relate with clients .
"You need to be an empathetic, good listener, good question-asker and almost like an investigator to really, really understand what your client's concerns are and what their worries are," Scott says.
One reason that the duo has been so successful at that is their ability to parlay their father-son dynamic. Scott admits that he was initially cautious about going into business with his father. But the two now pool everything together and the relationship has evolved into a family perspective approach that is a strong advantage for dealing with multi-generational families.
"Our clients are multi-generational and we're a multi-generational team," Scott says. "So during meetings it's been very successful. Maybe I'm able to see the world a little bit better through the kids' eyes and my father sees the world a little better though the parents' eyes."
Having strong relationships with a manageable number of clients, coupled with the help of their two client associates, will help the business last through whatever market innovations the future holds, Scott predicts.
"Sustaining that skill set will provide some resiliency to our practice as technology in this industry and markets evolve," Scott says.
Daniel Rothenberg, 31
UBS / Los Angeles
$1.56 billion in assets
Daniel Rothenberg's entry into the advisory industry was all about relationships. He teamed up with a family friend who he knew growing up, and leveraged his connections from a college internship to seal his big first retirement plan client.
And those relationships have continued. Rothenberg, who has made this list three times, has worked with his partner, Roger Stephens, for more than six years. Their team also includes four support staff members. And that first retirement plan client he landed has been with them for five years.
Rothenberg's team specializes in 401(k) plans, endowments, retirement plans for nonprofits and individuals. That focus allows him to delve into the "nerdy" economics he has loved studying since college. The team uses the investment analysis they do for both retirement plans and endowments to better assess other investments such as mutual funds for their individual clients, he says.
Clients, Rothenberg says, will be demanding more specialized advice. "People will want to be dealing with specialists, more so than generalists," Rothenberg says. That means he is often in the office before 6 a.m. to handle trades and stays well after market close either in the office or attending meetings. And Rothenberg says he still employs the lessons he learned from the financial crisis to his work with clients today.
"It taught me very quickly that this is really a very client-focused business and a very client service-oriented business," Rothenberg says, "and then when people and clients need things done or have questions or issues, that we drop everything to get that done as quickly as possible." When it comes to investing now, Rothenberg's team has been conservative because of the uncertain U.S. political climate. They now favor municipal bonds.
When approached by aspiring advisors, he tells them they need a team. "You really have to hustle and put everything you have into it and do your best to try to find somebody that has a good business that you're interested in that you could complement."
Greg Cash, 36
Merrill Lynch / Charlotte, N.C.
Targeting only a handful of the ultra-wealthy, building close relationships with multi-generational clients, and dedicating himself to his team, Greg Cash reflects many of the fundamental themes of advisors who make this list.
Cash got involved in the business during college after interning at wealth management firms over the summer. He went on to join Merrill Lynch once he graduated, began by cold calling prospects, and after four years as a solo practitioner, hopped on with the team of Charles L. Wickham Jr. and his son R. Mitchell Wickham. They are now the Wickham Cash Group and practice with Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Private Banking and Investment Group, which deals only with clients who have a net worth of $10 million or more.
The team, which has grown since its founding more than 50 years ago by Charles Wickham to 12 total members, including the three partners as well as two analysts, six client associates and an on-team banker, has been the linchpin of Cash's success. "It's not all about me and without them I would not be at all wherever you are ranking me on this list," he says.
But, what really turned him on to the business was the human interaction with clients, a crucial component in his practice now given the Wickham Cash Group's history of dealing with a select few multi-generational families and entrepreneurs. "It's thinking about their entire financial picture," Cash says. "It's helping them with all aspects of financial lives like banking, helping them think about estate planning and where they want it to beeducating and regulating and reminding them." Before making any moves with a client's money, Cash and his team spend "hours and hours and hours" up front with them. "We learn about how they created their wealth, their tax situation, what their cash flow needs are, what their philanthropic desires are, everything we can about them," Cash says. He still does not say that he himself has made it in terms of his career. "In our business you can't stand still," he says. "If you ever feel like you've made it, you're probably not going to be where you will want to be five years from that point in your mind."