Career Began: 1985
Home Base: Red Bank, N.J.
Civic Affiliations: New Jersey Paper Hill Playhouse and the Ranney School
Ira Walker has been called an "organizational genius," a "true visionary" and one of Wall Street's "most watched" financial advisors.
With more than $1 billion in assets under management, the 52-year-old Walker has created one of the industry's most successful financial teams with a core clientele that reads like a Who's Who of New Jersey.
But in some respects, Walker is just getting started. His goal is to manage $10 billion to $20 billion in assets over the next 10 years and build a business he can one day turn over to his children.
As he looks across the industry, something he studies carefully and critically, Walker observes: "The industry is changing rapidly, and the professional advisors that will survive will be the best. Ultra- and high-net-worth clients will be better served, in my opinion. It will be a great benefit to the investor."
Walker, who grew up in Brooklyn, had been intrigued by the stock market when he was in college and became hooked when he watched a stockbroker work the room at a party in the mid-1980s.
"The whole party, and there were probably 20 people there, was listening to this one person. The command she had over these people, the knowledge she had...I thought that's something I'd love to be able to do," says Walker. And do it he did.
In 1985, Walker joined Shearson Lehman Brothers, becoming one of the top rookie financial consultants in the firm's history. Two years later, he joined Morgan Stanley, his corporate home for 20 years. Earlier this year, he and his seven-member team left Morgan Stanley for UBS Financial Services, where he is ranked among the top 10 producers.
Walker, in constant touch with his top clients, says he joined UBS because its focus on wealth management is more in line with his practice. "It was very hard to leave, very stressful," he says. "But it's the greatest move I've ever made."
Jamie Price, co-head of UBS' Wealth Management Advisor Group US, calls Walker a self-made man who wisely built a team early and has "outworked" most people. "He's extremely hard-working, extremely competitive and he's always focused on what he thinks is right for his clients and his business," says Price, who helped recruit Walker. "When we hired him he brought all his assets -- and then some. He's a person who takes very much pride in his business."
A lot of advisors have robust businesses, but Walker's has been a little different from the start. His vision always, he says, was to act as a financial advisor and planner as opposed to a traditional stockbroker. "My interest was finding out everything I could about an individual and really understanding an individual's objectives, investment goals and personal life -- and then create an asset allocation model based on those objectives," Walker notes.
Moreover, since he inaugurated the platform at Morgan Stanley in 2002, Walker has managed portfolios entirely composed of ETFs. Operating as a boutique asset management firm, Walker says the all-ETF strategy has allowed him to reduce fees and to give clients more flexibility, liquidity and greater tax efficiencies. It's also enabled him to access different financial markets worldwide.
"It's a tremendous platform and every year it gets better and better as ETFs in the marketplace increase. And it's a very scalable program," he adds. "A client with $1 million can be invested in the same way as a client with $300 million."
It's an investing model that has also insulated his clients from the vagaries of the current market climate. As Walker puts it: "They don't own individual stocks, and therefore the ETF strategy instantly diversifies them. It's a major benefit in this kind of environment. My clients understand the strategy and because they know they're diversified, it minimizes the amount of stress a client has."
Nonetheless, Walker and his team are in regular contact with clients, keeping them apprised on a daily basis by e-mail or phone about what's going on in the market. "A lot of people have a fear of communicating," says Walker. "Client communication is paramount for us."
Walker once said about his team: "We frequently joke that we are all parts of one body. One person's an arm, one person's a leg, one person's the head -- everyone has a different function, but we fit together into a whole, and that's what makes us go. It's a very healthy environment to work in. We focus solely on making the clients happy."
The group doesn't just help clients with their financial needs. If a client needs a private jet, Walker can make the arrangement. He also counsels clients' young heirs about the responsibility of wealth. As for his annual client event, it is reputed to be among the best on Wall Street.
Over the next years, look for Walker to grow the business he hopes one day to give to his children, now 17, 16 and 14. "I'm building the business up for them. They're all tremendously interested in the financial markets. They manage their own money in their accounts through me," he says. "In five to 10 years, hopefully, there will be more than one Walker in the Walker Group."
Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md.; the former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.