The Winner’s Circle has proved its mettle as an enduring institution in the financial industry. A program for ranking the best financial advisors, it is widely respected as a means for recognizing and transmitting best practices in the advisory field. This year, as in previous years, Research joins in congratulating all the winners and takes a closer look at a few who made the cut. In what follows, we focus on four impressive teams.
Click here for a complete list of Horizontal, Vertical and Family Teams.
Click here for the Winner’s Circle group photo.
Eckerline, Bencini and Boyd GroupMerrill Lynch, Wayzata, Minn.$1.8 billion in assets under management
The Eckerline, Bencini and Boyd Group’s management structure is so flat that even the client associates can almost squeeze onto the top line. Of the six associates, one has an MBA, one has the CFP certification, one has the CRPC designation and five of them have their Series 7 registration.
This level of knowledge among the assistants is just one of the elements that sets the Minneapolis-area Merrill Lynch team apart from the competition, says Peter Eckerline, the senior partner. For many years Peter has been recognized as one of Barron’s Top 100 advisors by The Winner’s Circle, and his two primary partners, Christina Boyd and Barbara Bencini. Boyd and Bencini were both named to Barron’s Top 100 Women Financial Advisors list in 2008. The average tenure of the three senior partners is over 20 years.
“We have a very deep bench,” Eckerline says. He has an MBA and a chartered retirement planning consultant designation. Bencini has a CFP certification and a certified investment management analysts designation. Whatever resources they don’t have on staff they have readily available within Merrill Lynch.
“This business has become so much more complex, and high-net-worth clients are demanding the best of the best, and we want to provide that,” Eckerline says. Having a strong team in place that can advise clients throughout their financial lives, from college savings and home financing to estate planning services and retirement income strategies, is critical to meeting the increasingly sophisticated needs of the high-net-worth client base.
“We utilize a lot of Merrill Lynch tools, such as Wealth Outlook and Retirement Income Service,” he says. “We deal with a lot of boomers who are either retired or heading in that direction and need help with the transition from asset accumulation to distribution.”
A broad cross-section of in-house experience also allows the team to work with a wide variety of corporate and private wealth clients, mixing and matching team members based on each client’s needs. For example, Eckerline and Bencini both work with the group’s largest client, a major corporation in the Twin Cities area. Bencini advises on its 401(k) plan, while Eckerline works with senior executives on their corporate cash flow.
“When Barbara meets quarterly with plan participants, I’ll go with her and meet with the treasurer and CEO,” he says. “That has helped us deepen our relationship with the client, and now we are discussing doing some corporate-based lending with them.”
From the business management perspective, all the team partners, including Joe Gibbons, are engaged with client relationships. Bencini does most of the financial strategy work for clients, while Boyd and Eckerline spend more of their time building the practice.
All clients have a lead advisor, and the client associates divide the book by the clients’ names. Each is the primary service contact for a section of the alphabet, and every client associate has a designated backup.
“Whenever a client calls in, they always get someone who has a relationship with them,” Eckerline says. “We each have an important role in the success of the team. Everyone is on the same track and focused on team growth,” he says.
The Novelli GroupCitigroup, Houston$1.7 billion in assets under management
When one of The Novelli Group’s clients was ready to retire from his CEO position at a major oil field service company, he had to decide what to do with the significant amount of restricted stock and options that he had accumulated over the years. Leveraging the expertise of his two senior partners, David Novelli put together a trading plan to sell the company stock the client owned outright while John Vander Voort managed the options. Vander Voort and his staff determined the optimal timing for each option to be exercised, settled every transaction with the company and filed all of the necessary paperwork with the SEC. As the options were exercised, Novelli included the shares in the systematic trading strategy.
After the shares were sold, the client, who was working with his estate planning attorney, established a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT) for himself and his wife to facilitate the tax-free transfer to their children. Diane Gonzales worked with Novelli to develop an investment strategy that would maximize the client’s ability to make annual gifts to his children.
The client service group set up all the accounts necessary to fund the GRAT and implement the strategy. Now into the second year of his plan, the client has established a new set of GRATs that the team is managing as well.
“For our clients, how to deal with the equity compensation that they’ve earned in their careers may be the single most important decision they have related to the accumulation and protection of their wealth,” says Novelli, who has been designated as a Barron’s Top 100 advisor by The Winner’s Circle for many years.
“Because we have two businesses that are tightly woven for our clients, having the expertise in both their corporate wealth creation world and their private wealth preservation world under one arc ensures that we are just a moment away from expertise,” says Novelli.
With two separate business divisions, the Houston-based Novelli Group looks more like a boutique firm operating inside the Citigroup infrastructure. Novelli is managing partner, while Vander Voort and Gonzales head up the team’s two major businesses — corporate services and private wealth management. There are eight financial advisors on board, and the team totals 15 employees.
Each financial advisor, including both John and Diane, are compensated directly based on the revenue generated by their client relationships, plus staff members receive incentive-based compensation based on overall team performance.
As the team has grown over the years, and as the advisors and group directors assume more responsibility, it has slowly transitioned from a vertical team, with Novelli at the top holding on to 100 percent of decision-making and 100 percent of the equity, to more of a horizontal structure.
Since 2002, he has been letting go of both, passing management authority and a share of the business to his primary partners, Gonzales and Vander Voort, along with the rest of the team. Novelli’s ownership has dropped to around 65 percent, with a goal of eventually getting that below 50 percent.
“Our mission is to provide exceptional service, and it’s been my experience in working in this industry and running this practice that the greatest motivator for behavior is a sense of ownership,” he says.
RMD Wealth Management GroupMorgan Stanley, New York$850 million in assets under management