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The Winner's Circle

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What is the quickest way to build a Winner’s Circle-quality team? In each of the Winner’s Circle teams, we consistently found that it took many years of accumulated, disciplined actions among passionate team members with common resolve and purpose.

NOTE: A complete list of Horizontal, Vertical and Family Teams appears at the end of this story, as an associated chart.

When Mark Curtis of Smith Barney — No. 1 on both our vertical teams list and our Barron’s Top 100 list — practically invented the stock option business model among financial advisors, it was the outcome of many years of hard work with his team acting in the best interests of his entrepreneurial client base. Hardly the overnight sensation it may appear to be.

For our leader among horizontal teams — the 545 Group, a private wealth management team at Morgan Stanley — Greg Vaughan, one of the five partners, says their success was essentially built by always acting in the best interests of each client one day at a time, the result of many decades seeking to exceed their clients’ expectations.

And for our family teams (for our ranking purposes, a husband and wife, or three or more closely related individuals), business cultures developed around family values and work ethics.

Regardless of the team structure, when asked about any transformational events, not one team could mention a single defining moment; virtually every team credits a strong culture, always acting in the best interests of clients, and disciplined business processes. Here are some of our key observations relating to these processes:

o Top teams have developed a strong team culture that shares unifying principles, such as integrity of process and product — and personal integrity of team members.

o Top teams have determined the two or three different types of clients they believe they can serve and advise better than anyone else in the world; other clients are referred to other advisors who can better serve them.

o Top teams have collegial atmospheres with high morale and free from a bureaucracy that conceals a lack of discipline. This includes employing individuals passionate about their area of work.

o Top teams have proven systems that are instilled in daily processes, from welcoming clients into the office to a highly disciplined asset allocation process; these processes are typically documented, along with back-up procedures and overlapping responsibilities.

o Top teams know where they are “best-in-class,” and are not distracted by opportunities outside their competencies.

We have found that the biggest opportunities for growth go hand in hand with a commitment to bettering the team’s processes and levels of competency. In other words, it all comes back to doing what’s best for the client, including anticipating and meeting clients’ changing needs.

Congratulatory GalaIn July, Franklin Templeton hosted an event in New York City to celebrate our two featured teams. During lunch, Dan O’Lear of Franklin Templeton remarked to the group: “In our many years of working with the Winner’s Circle, it’s become obvious that every one of its advisors is absolutely passionate about serving the client and acting in their best interests. If there is a secret to success in this business, that’s it.”


The Cenname TeamMerrill Lynch & Co.Columbus, OH

The Dream TeamAugust Cenname only has one complaint about the Cenname Team: its name. While “Augie” may be the founder of the team, he considers himself an owner like everyone else on the team.

Entrusted with more than $7 billion in assets, this Columbus, Ohio-based, private wealth management team has built a culture devoted to serving clients and a commitment to constantly getting better at what they do.

“We’re a big team, but our real strength is leveraging the breadth, depth and global reach of Merrill Lynch into a very customized and personal experience for each family,” Nicole Reehil says.

Managing all of these moving parts requires constant interaction and communication within the Cenname Team itself. Each family works with a team of four or five people, each responsible for overseeing the different aspects of that family’s plan.

To that end, each family is assigned a “customer care” team, consisting of a relationship manager, a private banker, a specialist in asset allocation, a wealth manager, and the concierge. “We’ve found that clients are more comfortable speaking to a few people than to a whole team,” Nicole continues. The relationship manager could be anyone on the team, depending on factors such as a client’s needs and comfort level with particular individuals.

With nearly 42 years in the business — all with Merrill — Augie is part of each client service team; but rather than interact with clients on a daily basis like other teammates, he meets with clients on a quarterly basis. He is also available around the clock for anyone — teammate or client; everyone has his home and mobile numbers.

Nicole, Angela Contini and Gina Morell are the private bankers. Peter Motta, the team’s COO, is in charge of day-to-day operations, and specializes in asset management, with an emphasis in equities, managed money, research and portfolio strategy.

Charles Jarrett focuses on the estate planning and retirement planning aspects of the client relationship. Rounding out the investment side is Mike Denti, a 25-year Merrill veteran. Mike oversees the team’s asset management and performs in-depth due diligence on money managers, hedge funds and private equity managers.

Cindy Elmore, supported by Lydia Johnson, leads the corporate services area. Chris Chatfield is the team’s analyst. Carlin Depaepe is a dedicated concierge who provides lifestyle and family services. Her planning has ranged from assembling clients’ travel arrangements to helping one client plan a 50th birthday party in the Caribbean.

An Expanding FootprintThis year the team opened a dedicated office in Naples, Fla. “About 45 percent of our clients spend time in southwest Florida, and we were spending a lot of time traveling back and forth to service them,” Peter says. “We finally realized that we had enough volume there to service clients, and that region is also a good market for developing business.” Managing that office is their newest partner, Steve Smith, the team’s specialist in the areas of trust services and lending. He spent most of his career with a major trust company. He is supported by Yadira Vintimilla.

An integral part of the team’s expansion beyond the home office in central Ohio is working with a group of “virtual partners,” advisors around the country who have clients that need the high-touch services that require the depth and breadth of the Cenname Team. Typically these advisors have a client who has had a significant cash event, such as selling a family business, and suddenly the advisors have $200 million or more that they need help managing, Peter says.

“These advisors understand that they probably can’t keep that in their book, so they look for a team like ours to work with,” Peter says.

Why the Cenname Team?Augie once asked a client why he chose the Cenname Team. The client’s response: “I like your team’s ideas, the way you all think, and the way you all work together. And most of all, I love my relationship with the team”

Augie smiles proudly. “This is the reason why we have clients.”


The Austin/Decher GroupSmith BarneyNewport News, VA

Family TiesPopular culture likes to differentiate between “family of origin” and “family of choice.” Wanda Austin has seamlessly combined the two, building a team around the nucleus made up of herself, her husband and her daughter, and then extending that family relationship to both the team’s two other members and every client she works with.

“In many ways I feel blessed,” Wanda says. “It sounds like bragging, but we have a wonderful relationship. It’s rare there has ever been a personal conflict around the business.”

It helps, of course, that, unlike the traditional family, everybody’s role is clearly defined. Wanda and her husband, John Decher III, are both senior vice presidents and wealth management specialists, and her daughter Christina Austin, is a financial advisor and unofficial chief operating officer. All three have an ownership interest in the business, but at the end of the day, Wanda Austin is in charge.

“I have the final say, but that’s never been necessary,” Wanda says. “All decisions are based on team input, and everyone is treated equally, even if they are not family members.”

While those roles are clearly defined today, the structure itself was more of an evolutionary process, not a management decision. In fact, 20 years ago, nothing could have been farther from Wanda’s mind. When she started her business in 1982, she was a single mother, making cold calls with Christina sitting beside her doing homework.

“Christina always swore she’d never go into this business,” Wanda laughs.

Even when she married Decher, another advisor working in the same branch, in 1987, it never occurred to her to merge books.

“He was an old-fashioned stock jock,” Wanda says. Meanwhile, Wanda has always been about building deep, personal relationships with her clients around long-term financial plans.

That changed when the couple was in a car accident soon after their wedding. She managed his book for nearly four months while he recuperated, catching the attention of their branch manager, who thought the two practices were a perfect fit. Still, it took nearly five years for Wanda and Decher to see the light.

In 1992 they formally joined forces, with Wanda doing the financial planning and Decher implementing the investment strategy.

“That’s what he really enjoys, so he is the in-house money manager,” Wanda says. “I love the people. I am totally a people person. I really enjoy getting down to the nuts and bolts of it, knowing the families and the relationships within the families. Our clients become an extended family of our family.” Wanda says of her team: “Our No. 1 objective is to make a powerful difference in the lives of our clients and their families.”

Christina came aboard five years later. Fresh out of college, she was just going to help with the administration side for a few months. Ten years later, Christina is still sitting across the office from her mother, separated only by a pair of French doors, and now a partner.

“She listens and observes, and makes sure all of the information goes wherever it needs to be,” Wanda says. With Wanda building deep relationships with clients — especially in a small town — many of Wanda’s clients have seen Christina grow up. “They love working with Christina, and now my daughter is working with their children.” Christina and Wanda are together during most client meetings, getting to know the families and understanding their long-term goals and ensuring continuity in the process.

“Clients love that,” she says. “People rely on us so much in so many different aspects that they worry about what is going to happen 20 years from now; so they love the idea of Christina being involved in those meetings. It gives them a sense of security.”

R.J. Shook is founder and President of the Winner’s Circle, LLC. The firm’s research appears in three annual Barron’s cover stories, and is featured in dozens of regional publications including San Francisco Business Times, Los Angeles Business Journal, Crain’s Detroit Business, and Connecticut Magazine. The 3rd annual Barron’s/Winner’s Circle Top Advisor Summit is scheduled for Sept. 26-28 and the Women’s summit for Nov. 28-30. For more information visit The Winner’s Circle is a registered trademark of The Winner’s Circle, LLC.

COVER PHOTO: Christina Austin and Wanda Austin of Smith Barney (front row); August Cenname and Michael Denti of Merrill Lynch (front row); John Decher of Smith Barney (back row); Peter Motta, Charles Jarrett and Stephen Smith of Merrill Lynch (back row).