From the March 2012 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Magnetic Personality

Peter Cocolaras of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney believes in bonding with clients.

Do you like grilled octopus? You’d love my octopus! And I did a grilled calamari that would literally melt in your mouth!” Peter J. Cocolaras is enthusing about his years as a restaurateur, the owner of a Greek taverna, Santorini My Love, on Long Island, New York.

But the charismatic Cocolaras, 46, is even more passionate when it comes to caring for and about his financial services clients. He is a consulting group senior vice president in Morgan Stanley Smith Barney’s midtown Park Avenue office in New York City, where he manages about $65 million in assets. With a practice focusing on a compact 100 households, he showers attention and attentiveness on each and every client. The advisor says he speaks with 70% of them at least monthly.

“I very much bond with my clients. When you’ve forged a special type of relationship, 80% of the conversation has nothing to do with stocks and bonds. It has everything to do with what’s happening in each other’s lives,” he says.

Cocolaras is wont to talk percentages; but in addition to his affinity for numbers, he is a people person of the genuine kind.

“Peter is a bit of a magnet when he walks into a room. He always has a smile on his face — immediately likeable. He’s the kind of guy you want to go out to dinner with. And he’s as honest and sincere as the day is long,” says Jim Mulcahy, MSSB managing director and complex manager.

Gregarious Cocolaras concentrates on two niches: small business owners and retirees at least 65 years of age.

His investing strategy? Minimize risk and maximize returns by diversifying asset classes and rebalancing portfolios quarterly. He speaks with clients so frequently to be sure he’s on top of every significant event in their lives.

“There are trigger moments — a marriage, arrival of a child, retirement. It’s imperative for advisors to recognize these and plan [for clients] accordingly,” he says.

Low interest rates and market volatility don’t faze him. He’s well up to the challenge of “providing retired clients with a steady income stream while maintaining their quality of life and not compromising their risk tolerance. It’s a little bit art, a little bit science,” he says. “I’m able to focus my time and effort on just a hundred clients and gain their trust.”

A few years back, time management was a real juggling act. The hands-on restaurant owner was simultaneously a full-time financial advisor with Dreyfus Service Corp. Though taverna and office were right across the street from each other in Great Neck, his daily schedule was a killer. Two a.m.: charge down to the Fulton Fish Market to buy fish; back home to shower, shave and don a suit for his FA job. Later: change again to host dinner at the restaurant.                

Whew! After five years of that, in 2001 the Greek-American entrepreneur sold Santorini My Love to his chef. “That schedule,” he says, “cannot be sustained for an extended period.”

Cocolaras had some prep for the restaurant game, though, as supporting himself through college, he was a host and captain at New York’s Rainbow Room, a ritzy, capacious dining-dancing spot located on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

“It was a really exciting time in my life,” he says. “That was one of the most important experiences in cultivating the person I became.”

The now-closed venue was frequented by the well-heeled — some very well-heeled: Frank Sinatra had the habit of leaving $150 in tips after one Jack Daniel’s.

While working at the Rainbow, Cocolaras got a yen for the financial services world. It was the lavish 1980s.

“Big Wall Street execs would come in with big suits and big cigars,” he recalls. “I was young and impressionable. That lifestyle caught my attention — and piqued my interest.”

But later he discovered that’s not what the financial services industry is really about. As an advisor, he derives gratification on a far deeper level.

“When a spouse or child of a parent who has passed away that I worked with for many years takes my hand and says, ‘Thank you for taking care of my loved one,’ I don’t know of any better feeling,” he says.

Born and bred in Elmhurst, Queens, New York, Cocolaras was offered a wrestling scholarship by the University at Albany but because of an injury, opted instead to enroll at local Queens College of the City University of New York.

A political science and finance major, he graduated in 1988 with a B.A. and was hired by law firm Reid & Priest to manage its litigation department. Four years later, he still couldn’t get Wall Street off his mind and decided to become an FA.

Starting as a trainee at Dreyfus, Cocolaras stayed 13 years before moving to Smith Barney in 2005, when his aging clients needed a firm with full-service resources.

At age 29, he’d had personal confirmation of the critical need for trustworthy financial advice. That was when his father John died, and he took over management of the family finances.

“In those days,” Cocolaras says, “anything financial was handled by the husband. When he was no longer there, a void had to be filled. So when I work with a couple, I try to make sure both husband and wife are present at meetings. It’s necessary that each has a clear understanding of their financial picture.”

At his Bayside, Queens, home, the FA relaxes listening to the big band sound and whipping up fancy gourmet meals. The fact that girlfriend Sofia speaks four languages fluently often determines his choice of menu.

“One night, for instance, I’ll ask her to speak only Italian ­— and I’ll do a Tuscan dinner. We’ll dine on the balcony under a Tuscan moon … in Bayside,” he jokes.

Safe to say, though, that Cocolaras’s favorite creations are redolent of his heritage.

“I’m Greek!” he says. “I could do a leg of lamb that’ll knock your socks off!”

 

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