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Portrait of a Branch Manager

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It takes an ultra savvy advisor to service ultra-high-net-worth clients — and it takes an ultra-talented branch manager to coach top FAs to be even better.

Meet Wendi Eckardt, managing director of UBS’ San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif., Private Wealth Management offices, where 24 advisors work exclusively with clients who have investable assets of $10 million or more.

“The best way to learn the ultra-high-net-worth business is to live it and breathe it every single day,” says Eckardt, the high-energy Bay Area native whose afternoon coffee break is often a run along the nearby Embarcadero waterfront.

Right now in a telephone interview, she is in her 32nd-floor office on California Street, the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.

Eckardt is herself the best example of living and breathing the ultra-high-net-worth space, with its demanding, unique investment planning needs. She arrives at the office at 6 a.m. daily and typically does not head home until 14 hours later. With 21 advisors in the San Francisco office and three in the satellite Palo Alto branch, Eckardt’s two dozen Private Wealth FAs manage more than $8 billion in assets.

The tall 5’10″ manager brings first-class credentials and years of managerial experience to the job, a post created last year when UBS launched the sixth and seventh in its planned series of coast-to-coast dedicated Private Wealth Management offices.

Opened in December 2007, the San Francisco and Palo Alto PWM offices followed those UBS launched first in New York City in 2006; then in Stamford, Conn.; Chicago; Atlanta and Los Angeles. An eighth debuted in Houston this past March.

The firm’s strategy pivots on demographics and advisor skills: create PWM offices in cities with both large concentrations of ultra-high-net-worth prospects and advisors who have proven they can serve this choice clientele.

Establishing a PWM branch in San Francisco seems an obvious move, what with the Bay Area’s affluent high-tech entrepreneurs, hedge funds, private equity principals and venture capitalists. Clients there and in Palo Alto — think tech-centric Silicon Valley — are exclusively private individuals and their families.

“It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” says Eckardt, one of only two Private Wealth Managers on UBS’s advisory council that is shaping the wirehouse’s vision for the ultra-high-net-worth market.

UBS has about a 3 percent market share of UHNW clients in the Bay Area, according to Eckardt. Its goal is to reach 6 percent in three to four years.

That will mean doubling gross production in Eckardt’s two offices within five years, she says. (UBS provides neither production nor revenue figures for individual branches.) This planned production boost is to be achieved through both business development and recruiting. The small Palo Alto office, 40 miles south of San Francisco, is scheduled for a full build-out in early 2009.

UBS, which describes itself as “the leading global wealth manager,” was formed from the 1998 merger of Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp. Two years later, it merged with PaineWebber.

There is, of course, the famed Swiss precision; and here Eckardt seems a perfect fit, with her exacting standards and penchant for everything to be just so.

“When I first got into this business, especially in management, I was a control freak — because the things that you can control, you can hold yourself accountable to. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been getting better at delegating,” she says. “I haven’t perfected it, but I am improving.”

Upbeat, inspiring and a strategic thinker, she prides herself on what she calls “relentless stamina” and leadership through example. As a role model, she says, she shows employees what is possible.

“I’m a workaholic. I don’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I absolutely love what I do for a living. When one of my advisors brings in a new client or gets more of a client’s assets to manage,” she says, “I’m as excited for them as if I did it myself.”

Eckardt knows about that because she was formerly a Morgan Stanley financial advisor for four years, moving into management her third year there. She began at the firm as an assistant, then went on to become an international futures and options trader. After 14 years of rising through the Morgan Stanley ranks, in 2005 she was recruited by UBS to run its San Francisco wealth management office. The 65 advisors catered to high-net-worth, emerging high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients. Two years later she was appointed to her current position.

As an FA, Eckardt found playing a major role in clients’ financial lives gratifying; but her apparent sharper skill for managing staff soon surfaced.

One day in 1999, “my manager tapped me on the shoulder: ‘I really think you could make a bigger impact working with some newer people who are just getting into the business. Would you help me out and be assistant branch manager?’” Eckardt recalls.

She said yes and found “I was more passionate about that than being a financial advisor.” The following year, she decided to go the management route.

Now, she has 65 employees reporting to her. This includes 10 San Francisco advisor teams and two in Palo Alto. The teams usually consist of two private wealth advisors, two support staff and an analyst. Each team makes their office in a “team room,” or “pod.” That way, everyone keeps on top of client activity.

“High-Touch, High-Service”The spacious 30,000-square foot San Francisco office suite — styled in contemporary light cream and chocolate brown — is equipped with six ultra-private client conference rooms. The “client interaction area,” as it’s been dubbed, provides a remarkable 360-degree view of the City by the Bay.

“This is a very high-touch, high-service business.” By sitting together, team members can “share best ideas and brainstorm. But more importantly,” Eckardt says, the arrangement promotes good communication.

Even more critical than the rigorous internal accreditation process required of UBS Private Wealth advisors is that “their core competence is serving [ultra-high-net-worth] clientele. They have to already have an understanding of the clients, not [just] a desire to go into the business,” says Eckardt. “Our clients want to know that we’ve solved these problems before.”

Further, “most issues need to be solved within the day. Coming back to these clients in a couple of days or a week isn’t going to work for them,” she adds.

Eckardt, who is paid a salary plus bonus, spends a third of her time coaching and educating the advisors — aged mainly in their 40s — “to make them better at what they do,” she explains.

Coaching is indeed the favorite part of her job. Right now, she’s working with four teams one-on-one. “I let the advisors decide what they think they need to be better at. It might be business processes or the client experience or helping them get a clearer, more concise strategy for what they’re trying to accomplish,” she notes.

On average, each advisor works with only 30 to 35 client households. “That’s a smaller number than [is] traditional because they have to have a deeper understanding of client needs and [design a more] comprehensive plan,” Eckardt says. Advisors are also required to have direct access to the firm’s senior management at, for example, the investment bank, and boast in-depth working knowledge of capital structures for both public and private entities.

In creating the San Francisco and Palo Alto offices, Eckardt drew advisors from three local UBS branches and recruited four FAs from the outside. Five of the 24 are women, including all three in Palo Alto, which has a full-time manager and where Eckardt spends one day every two weeks.

“I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but not everyone can service this type of client,” she says. “You have to service them every single day.”

Most of the FAs focus on fee-based assets, but are paid on a commission grid.

Daily RoutineEckardt begins her workday at precisely 5:07 a.m. (“Those extra seven minutes make a big difference!”). By 6:00, dressed in a conservative suit, she’s already doing a loop around the office to help advisors and discover any “little fires” that may have broken out the night before.

She typically takes such spins three to four times a day. “I’m a big believer in the [unannounced] pop-in on advisors,” she says. “You can pick up sentiment around the office. Or, there might be something on their minds that they wouldn’t call me about but since I’m right there, I can help them with. If [managers] don’t walk [the office] and aren’t involved with advisors day to day, it could be detrimental to their business. You have to be out and about.”

Besides, she adds, “walking around is the fun part of the job because there’s nothing you can plan for. Something comes at you constantly.”

Eckardt maintains optimum visibility to clients as well. In fact, hers is the only office that affords a view of clients coming and going — not to mention the Golden Gate Bridge through her windows.

“On a perfect day,” she says, “I probably meet about every client that comes in.”

Early in the morning, she checks with her two assistant branch managers, then turns to sourcing opportunities for business development.

In establishing the two offices, Eckardt assembled — with the exception of one assistant branch manager — an entirely new management staff: two assistant managers, compliance and operations managers, and a branch office assistant.

Later each morning, jumping on the phone, she often holds conference calls with branch managers to discuss PWM’s “value proposition” and the opportunities for other advisors — working from their own locations — to partner with PWM FAs in San Francisco or Palo Alto. She describes this value proposition as “vigilance on behalf of the…families for whom wealth is a means of making a difference.”

About mid-afternoon, it’s time for coaching. One team is planning to add a new member. Eckardt wants to make sure all bases are covered. “Advisors always plan for the positive, but they don’t plan for the negatives, like: If this doesn’t work out, then what are we going to do?”

The manager’s busy afternoon might include a weekly sales meeting with all the advisors, wherein best practices and ideas are shared.

One recent Tuesday, Eckardt had a lengthy conference call with the other Private Wealth branch heads to discuss strategies: what’s working management-wise, what’s not.

For lunch, the vegetarian (“I’m a health freak!”) usually grabs a salad at her desk, unless she’s out meeting with a potential recruit.

From 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., the athletic Californian, in training for a half-marathon, often takes a run along the picturesque Embarcadero — or at least has a work-out in the health club located right in the building.

Then she’s back in the office, perhaps to host an educational client event with catered fancy hors d’oeuvres. The day would wind up at about 7:30 p.m.

Upon reflecting, Eckardt insists that being a woman in a predominantly male industry has never held her back. Rather, “I think it’s an advantage to being female in this business. We’re better listeners. We’re much more empathetic than our male counterparts. We’re more apt to ask for help and also go after a team approach.”

As for managing 19 male advisors, the only time, um, sexism becomes an issue is when Eckardt picks up the restaurant tab.

“They’re used to it now. But they don’t like it,” she says with a laugh. “They’re still always reaching in their pockets, and we have at least a 30-second argument: ‘I’ve got it!’ ‘I’ve got it!’”

Otherwise, she faces no resistance in firmly taking the lead.

“A lot of people are over-managed and under-led. People want to be led,” she says. “When you have someone modeling the way who is passionate about the business — which I am — and you’re not told what to do but shown what to do, that makes a big difference.

“I’ll know I’ve perfected my job,” she says, “when someone on my management staff is now my boss!”

Father knew best when he guided daughter Wendi into a financial services career.

Art Gilman, a Morgan Stanley broker and management executive for 32 years, talked Eckardt out of entering law school the summer she graduated with a BS from San Diego State University and hired her to assist him in his San Francisco branch office.

“I really had no choice when I selected my career path,” Eckardt says, laughing. But it was the right choice. No sooner had she begun working with the institutional futures and options traders Dad had recruited, than “I positively fell in love with the business.”

Eckardt, born in Alamo, Calif., and reared there and in Saratoga, both in the Bay Area, was with Morgan Stanley 14 years as a trader, advisor and manager before leaving in 2005 to join UBS to run its San Francisco wealth management office.

“The opportunity of a lifetime knocked on my door. [But] my biggest hurdle was making the decision to leave. I was concerned about the impact it would have on my father,” she says. It turned out, however, that “he was my biggest advocate about making the move. He told me I was absolutely out of my mind if I didn’t take them up on it.”

Eckardt surely had built a solid resume. Soon after joining Morgan Stanley, she was promoted from junior institutional trader to institutional futures and options trader, concentrating on hedging strategies for Fortune 500 companies. Five years later, when the firm moved that arm of its business to New York City, she opted to stay in San Francisco and become a financial advisor working with individual clients.

“The first year was extremely difficult,” she recalls. “I was used to dealing with people who were paid to be decision-makers. But when it’s your own money, not corporate money, people are a little more conservative in making decisions. I wasn’t very patient at the time.”

By 1999, Eckardt discovered that she had lots of patience as a manager and hopped on the executive track to become sales manager of the San Francisco office. Two years later she gave up her book, when she was named manager of the Santa Cruz, Calif., branch.

Another promotion came in 2003, this time to regional vice president working exclusively with top producers in the Silicon Valley area. But Eckardt missed coaching the same advisors daily (“You can hold people accountable for things they tell you they’re going to deliver on.”). She soon returned to branch management to run the San Jose, Los Gatos and Fremont offices.

Less than two years after UBS recruited her, she was appointed manager of its brand-new Private Wealth Management office in San Francisco and satellite branch in Palo Alto, Calif., both of which opened in December 2007 and cater exclusively to ultra-high-net-worth clients.

A certified investment management analyst, Eckardt earned an MBA from the College of Notre Dame and completed Wharton’s Investment Strategist Consultant Program.

But beyond that formal education, she’s had the benefit of two first-rate mentors: her dad, of course, and also his biggest competitor, who ran another Morgan Stanley office in San Francisco and whom he recommended she contact.

“When he retired, my father said: ‘You’ve learned from me. Now you’ve got to learn from someone else.’ So I sought [the manager] out and,” she says, “he was my mentor till the day I left Morgan Stanley.”

Eckardt, wed to real estate investor-developer John Eckardt, has a few words of wisdom of her own for advisors. She says:

“There’s no [single] solution for every client. Everything is very customized. Our business is not necessarily a science — it’s an art.”


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


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