The idea is to "create wealth, not just make money," says the ambitious Watkins, 28, who wants to "lead the new generation" to a secure future.
Right now, his clients -- sports figures, musicians, actors, writers, directors -- are still on the way up. But he aims to guide them financially all the way to stardom -- and in the process, turn himself into a star advisor.
"I've created alliances now that years from now will help make me a sought-after, top producer," he says from his World Financial Center office in downtown New York City. The FA blends financial astuteness with a hip, chatty style.
Growing up poor in downscale Mount Vernon, N.Y., bordering the Bronx, Watkins, who is half-African American and half-Hispanic, was an honors student but consistently told by guidance counselors and others to ditch his dream of becoming a Wall Street stockbroker. But a steadfast believer in his abilities, Watkins would have none of it.
Now, not only is he a financial advisor but, in under a year, has already accumulated assets of more than $726 million.
Merrill has high expectations for Watkins. "When Jeff gets in front of clients, especially from sports and entertainment, he's really able to connect. They trust him," says Gregory McGauley, director of the firm's World Financial Center Office.
At the moment, Watkins has his own book of business; in the future, he envisions partnering up. "It's harder [nowadays] as a stand-alone advisor to make up for the dwindling amount you can charge. So to get more assets, the emphasis is on groups -- and it will be in the future."
Most evenings find Watkins hobnobbing with the in-crowd at fancy publicity parties and events. "I'm entrenched with the pacemakers who paint the social landscape here," he says. "But my goal isn't to be a socialite. It's to make sure I can effectively [use] these resources to help build a clientele and translate that into money in my pocket," he says.
Watkins has had no problem stepping into a world light-years from his disadvantaged youth. Academically, he was a stand-out; but "I was shy and got teased a lot." Now, at those ritzy, invitation-only events, he has "instant credibility. It takes you to a different level," he says. "Recently I was talking to a couple of guys on the Knicks and a slew of football players who know players that are my clients. They said: 'Oh, yeah -- here's my cell phone number'."
The 6'3" Watkins is athletic himself. It's not surprising that he relates well with his clients. Often their economic background is similar to his own.
"I try to show them we're the quote-unquote new money," he says. "I'm pretty sure, I tell them, that when they were growing up, their situation was like mine: I never had a final advisor knocking on my door. It was more like bill collectors!"
The huge difference between Watkins and his prospects? He realizes that financial planning is crucial. "For 95 percent of these guys, the money they're earning now will be the most they'll ever make in their lives," he says. "I try to help them understand that they need to be disciplined and look toward the future, down a long time-horizon."
He continues. "I've seen football players walking around with a duffel bag with literally a million dollars in cash to blow off for the weekend at clubs."
Watkins began as a cold-calling Morgan Stanley trainee. He didn't mind that prospecting approach but felt frustrated with his role. "I wasn't good with being a junior guy with no stake in the group," he recalls.
Born in Venezuela, to a Chilean mother and African American father -- neither with high school diplomas -- Watkins, at age 8, went to live with his construction worker dad when his parents divorced, five years after the family came to America.
Elmo Watkins fought to have his son bused to a prestigious elementary school. By 8th grade, Jeff wanted to become a stockbroker. "I heard they made a lot of money," he says, "and I had a preconceived notion that it was a cool job."
But after high school, Watkins, at Dad's urging, enlisted in the Marine Corps. The plan was to gain discipline ("I was easily distracted"), then attend college on the G.I. Bill. However, scoring unusually high on his entry tests, he was convinced by a recruiter to apply to the ROTC officers program. He was awarded an ROTC scholarship and later, majoring in economics, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
As a surface warfare officer en route to Iraq in 2003, Watkins was unexpectedly sent back to the States when his father took critically ill. He cared for him until his death four months later.
Watkins' civilian career kicked off in 2005, when he received an honorable discharge from the Navy. Turning down other job offers, he told recruiters he wanted a post on Wall Street. One put him in touch with a Naval Academy alumnus who was a Morgan Stanley regional manager. A year after joining that firm, Watkins moved to Merrill.
Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions