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Practice Management > Building Your Business

An Advisor's Advisor

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Ask not what your clients can do for you — ask what you can do for your clients.

That variation on a John F. Kennedy theme is the heart of financial advisory. Helping clients is indeed what has driven John A. Nersesian — first as a Merrill Lynch financial consultant for 20 years and now as managing director of Wealth Management Services at Nuveen Investments, where he counsels the money management firm’s leading advisor clients.

Who: John A. Nersesian, managing director-founder, Wealth Management Services group, Nuveen Investments; Chicago.On fatal planning decisions: “A mistake in judgment doesn’t hurt a 30 year-old client too badly. But if you get it wrong when they’re 65, you don’t get a second chance to get it right.”

“I don’t define success by how much production you do or how much money you make. Success is defined by how accomplished you can be and how much help you provide the clients you serve,” says the high-energy Nersesian, 49.

Based in Chicago, his mission is to bring Nuveen’s successful FA customers up to speed to meet the increasingly complex, sophisticated financial needs of wealthy families. He calls such clients “instividuals,” a meld of the institutional and the individual investor.

The education and consulting support, available at no cost from Nersesian’s eight-member team, ranges broadly from the technical (like portfolio construction) to practice management (building effective teams, for example) to reports about behavioral finance to issues of family governance.

Last year Nersesian conducted a six-month wealth management institute that he designed for Morgan Stanley. The program included white papers, a Web presentation and a two-day symposium where the FAs put to work all the new material they learned.

Nersesian has a talent for presenting complicated subjects in a simple, understandable way, whether in formal group training or consulting with advisors one-on-one about specific topics or client cases. In an interview, his conversation is packed with facts and scenarios. An in-demand speaker at industry meetings, Nersesian was the keynoter at Merrill Lynch’s 2008 kick-off conference.

“John is a tremendous teacher,” says Alan Brown, Nuveen executive vice president. “A thousand financial advisors came through here last year to take his pre-CIMA [Certified Investment Management Analyst] course, many flying into Chicago on their own dime. It’s a credit to him for them to say, ‘I want to go there to learn.’”

On helping today’s high-net-worth clients, Nersesian stresses: “The financial advisory world has really changed from what it was 10 or 15 years ago. Advisors not only have to be tacticians but family counselors and psychologists. It’s integrated advice.”

With a passion from the get-go to learn finance’s academic side, it was natural for Nersesian to want to pass along this knowledge and practical advice to other FAs. That opportunity cropped up when, as an 18-year advisor, Merrill asked him to provide advanced training to other big producers. And for the next two years, in addition to being an advisor, he taught wealth management strategies and business development practices.

He gave up his practice to join Nuveen and now, well into his career’s second act, says: “I loved being an advisor, but I enjoy training so much.” He misses his book “not at all,” admits the Investment Management Consultants Association board member, with Nuveen now since 2000. The asset management firm, which went private last year, consists of six boutiques, including units focused on growth equity, value and alternative investments.

A native of Livingston, N.J., Nerses-ian, whose dad was director of research and development at Bristol-Myers, displayed early interest in pursuing a career in business. But, he says, it wasn’t until a sophomore college course in investments that he “fell in love” with finance.

He graduated from Lehigh University with a B.S. in business and economics, and joined Merrill right away. Based in Northern New Jersey, he rose to become a $1.5 million producer catering to high-net-worth families. One of three partners, the team managed assets of $500 million.

But as soon as he started training others, he found a calling. “Don’t get me wrong — being an advisor was great. But I was beginning to come home and grumble about the market or about my clients. My wife Lucine could immediately tell the days I was doing training because,” he says, “I was energized and in a more positive mood.”

About eight years ago, Nuveen gave him the opportunity to start a consulting group as an extension of the firm’s sales team. It was an exciting offer to do what he was doing informally at Merrill and, for the first time, become a senior manager. The timing was perfect: Not only was he tired of being an advisor, his partnership was breaking up.

“I was thinking, ‘What’s the next step for me professionally?’ People have to be intellectually stimulated and given the chance to find out what else they could be good at beyond what they’ve already done.”

Here’s a man who found out. “John really knows his stuff,” says independent advisor Jim Dobbs, a consultant to IMCA, where Nersesian is on the faculty of the Chartered Private Wealth Advisor program. “He’s technically sound — and he’s a great teacher and communicator. It’s hard to find that combination,” says the Denver-based FA.

To be sure, advisors nowadays need all the help they can get: wealthy families are seeking services similar to those typically previously provided to institutional clients only, notes Nersesian.

“The financial advisory relationship [with individuals] has certainly evolved beyond just the recommendation of stocks and bonds. The question now is, given that evolution, what progress have you as an advisor made in your own development? What it comes down to,” he says, “is survival of the fittest.”

Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.


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