Managing Director-Investments

Cotto & Padovani Financial Strategies Group

Wachovia Securities

Career Began: 1987

Home Base: New York City and Mt. Kisco, N.Y.

Civic Affiliations: Operation Smile, future-care planning for families of children with disabilities

A lot of advisors build teams — but not quite like this one. How else to explain the driving principles of the Cotto & Padovani Financial Strategies Group? We want to add value to our clients. We want to provide for all of our families. We want to make sure that, when we leave it, we know we did some work on this earth that made a difference.

When James Cotto moved from Merrill Lynch to Wachovia Securities in 2001, he and partner Paul Padovani decided it was time to recreate their practice.

“The business we run today is an effort of us reinventing ourselves,” says the 44-year-old Cotto, who has $250 million in assets under management. Among the questions the partners asked: What do we want to be for our clients? What kinds of clients are we looking for? What types of services are we willing to provide? “Once we crystallized that, we hired the team to do it,” Cotto adds. “It’s been a leap of faith.”

Cotto, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, manages roughly 260 client relationships as well as 100 supplemental needs trusts for the families of children with disabilities. He doesn’t believe in a minimum account size. “I don’t judge people by the size of their wallets,” he says. “If people have integrity and value, we would like to work with them.” Clients include entertainers, athletes, business owners, corporate officers and high-net-worth individuals.

Concetta Stefani, a 44-year-old real estate agent with three children, hooked up with Cotto five years ago — but not without testing him. “I needed to meet that certain person who could relate to me and my husband and understand what we were trying to do. I needed to feel him, know who he was, what he’s about,” she says.

“What’s developed isn’t just a business service. It’s more of a friendship-relationship. It’s not always about making the money, it’s about doing the right thing for my children, for me and my husband. Believe me I tested him. A lot of people just want the sale. I’m a very hard person to sell. I’m difficult. What I learned is that he’s genuine. And every time I call the office, even though I’m a smaller client, we’re treated the same as anybody else.”

Cotto, a graduate of Rutgers University, was born in the Bronx and grew up in New Jersey in an Irish-Italian community. At home, his mother spoke to him in Spanish; he’d always answer in English. Neither of his parents graduated high school. Cotto, however, credits his father’s unswerving focus on discipline, effort, work ethic and team work with instilling the values that he now brings to his business team.

“When you’re on a team, you’re all in it together. You’re letting someone else down if you’re not doing your best. In our business, on our team, mediocrity is one of the most selfish acts you can perform. When you’re not doing the best of your ability, someone else has to pick up the slack,” says Cotto, who splits his time between offices in Manhattan and Mt. Kisco. “Everything we do has an effect on someone else.”

At the moment, the Cotto-Padovani team includes Matthew Stone, who handles the top 50 relationships; financial consultants Drew Gorman and Mike Sharkansky; and office manager Jacqui Clowry. Going forward, Cotto hopes to grow the team by acquiring other practices.

“I believe when you’re dealing with us, you get a lot of value. Sole practitioners promise to be all things. We have the infrastructure to keep those promises and we do it for the same price,” says Cotto, who, with wife Cory, has three children. “Having somebody like Drew who has expertise in insurance and mortgages, Paul who knows alternative investments, and Matt, who is technically savvy — everybody’s got their expertise. When you come in you may be here to see James Cotto but you are getting so much more. And one thing I never want is for you to come to us and say ‘Gee, James, I didn’t know you did that.’”

Philanthropy has always been a core of Cotto’s practice. When he was with Merrill Lynch, he assisted the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. In fact, he was Merrill’s national spokesman for its Families of Children with Disabilities Program. Since his six-year-old daughter Lucy was born with cleft palate, Cotto has also been hugely involved in Operation Smile, which credits him with helping the organization become one of the best known children’s charities in New York City.

As Cotto closes out the year, he doesn’t look at assets under management as a measure of his team’s success — far from it.

“To me, a good year is a year like this year where my daughter was declared fine without any more operations and Matt was able to buy his condo. We got to hire Jacqui, and pay her what she deserves, and Paul had the birth of his second child,” says Cotto. “If we can do those things, everything else will fall into place.”

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 ellenuzelac@msn.com.