If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Right? But if it does need fixing -- and some heartfelt TLC -- call on Kenneth M. Ross.
He's a healer, whether helping a hobbled financial services branch in Pennsylvania or an HIV/AIDS-decimated village on the Indian Ocean in Africa.
Little more than three years ago, Smith Barney's Pittsburgh office, lacking leadership and languishing in lackluster production, was known as a place to flee. Then came Ross. Now it's the place to be! Appointed branch manager in 2003, the Philadelphia native hired away top managers and advisors from the competition and boosted annualized production some $14 million. Today this vital branch in the Steel City is 90 advisors strong.
"When I got here, it was half-empty. There was a negative vibe. It was a broken office in need of love and attention," recalls the amiable manager with a serious bent, 41.
Just two years after that, Ross came to the aid of a yet needier group: Impoverished children in Kenya whose parents had died of AIDS and were living on their own in mud huts. He has now begun building a vast complex to house and educate nearly 100 of these African children. Likewise, he's arranged for their full-time care.
The philanthropist from financial services has to date committed $135,000 of his own money to pay for the compound and supervision. Ten thousand dollars has gone for desperately needed beds, blankets, mosquito netting and school desks. Ross intends to generate another $115,000 through fundraising.
With both his major endeavors, what drives Ross is compassion. At the office, "clients need to know you care about them." As for the youngsters, last summer Ross took a three-week sabbatical for a first-time visit to Pap-Onditi. The African village had come to his attention via a documentary video in 2005. He found children living on one meal a day and sleeping on mud-hut floors. He wept when he saw them in schools without desks, writing in dirt with their fingers. "My heart was stolen."
Back home in Pittsburgh, the manager took over a deteriorated office in 2003 and in two years, transformed it into a thriving one. Says James Tighe, director of Smith Barney's Chesapeake Bay Region and an executive vice president: "The branch had serious problems. But in a relatively short time, Kenn, with his enthusiasm and excitement, turned it around. Even though he had to be tough in some ways [like letting go many advisors], he has a soft side too. That's evident often, most certainly with his work in Africa."
To heal, then nurture, the branch, Ross used a two-faceted approach: He created a culture of compassion, integrity and accountability, at the same time putting together a top management team, even recruiting Merrill Lynch's Pittsburgh Complex manager to join him. Ross also added 28 advisors, some of whom were among the most senior FAs of his arch competitors, including, for instance, a $1.6 million Merrill producer and a $1.2 million advisor working at Morgan Stanley.
To shepherd the process along in Kenya, where kids call him Papa Kenn and Dad, Ross flew to Pap-Onditi for another two weeks last October. He earlier teamed up with Mama Daima, a Kenyan woman with a lifelong dedication to looking after destitute African children. "She needed a partner. That's something I believe I was called to be," says Ross, who became a born-again Christian in 2003.
From modest means, Ross survived "a tough childhood," he says. Though declining to reveal specifics, he allows: "I didn't have a whole lot of love. I was a tough kid. But some people reached out and helped me develop into a better man...I became spiritual when I got saved [born again]."
After earning a Bachelor of Science degree from Widener University in Chester, Penn., the economics major went West in 1988, finding a job as a Merrill Lynch trainee in San Bernardino, Calif. "I felt that relating to people was my gift. Becoming a financial advisor seemed like a great opportunity to almost set up your own business -- without capital," he recalls.
After transferring to the Long Beach, Calif., branch and an entry-level management post, Ross in 1992 joined Smith Barney in Irvine, Calif., to "upgrade" his platform and hop on the management track. The following year he was appointed National Training Manager, based in Hartford, Conn. He was then promoted to National Sales Manager of the Pittsburgh branch, where, he says, his task was to "get [his] arms around" new advisors. At that time, the office was doing well, though he was charged with "energizing it a bit."
In 1996, Ross was upped to full-fledged branch manager of the Stuart, Fla., office. On his watch, business grew 300 percent in two-and-a-half years, he notes. Then it was back to California and developing the firm's Rolling Hills branch. After nearly six years there, management called upon him to overhaul the then-ailing Pittsburgh office. Reputation-wise "it was a branch to avoid. But," says Ross, "there was still a good core group of people there that I fondly remembered from my prior time." He took the challenge.
Now, with planned retirement only 15 years away, Ross is set to start grad school for a Masters in pastoral ministry. "My focus," says the manager, who, with wife Lori, sponsors a Pap-Onditi boy and girl, 13 and 11, "is to get into a ministry full-time in connection with Kenya and to help Pittsburgh's inner-city children." He's already a volunteer with Urban Impact, which brings ministry to disadvantaged local youth. "They don't have good role models. I want to show them that a kid from the city who walked a broken path can actually do something."
Kenneth M. Ross
Smith Barney Branch Office Manager, Pittsburgh
Words he lives by: "If you give more, you'll be blessed more."
About his work with children in Africa: "I know God wants me to be there."