As spring 2009 approached, disarray reigned at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s La Jolla, Calif., office: Its long-time manager had just left; a million-dollar producer had exited too; the economy and markets were still struggling. And in the press, Merrill was being severely thrashed for paying bonuses to top executives — after a 2008 loss of billions and the firm’s near-collapse.
Who better to stabilize the La Jolla branch than a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and veteran of the Persian Gulf War air attack, Operation Desert Storm?
After 15 years of active duty, Tom Lawson had retired in 1993. For his second career, the Naval commander chose financial services, spending seven years at Merrill and rising to La Jolla complex sales manager. In March 2009, after nine years at Smith Barney, he returned to Merrill — and La Jolla. His mission: Get the branch office back up to speed — and then some.
Tall, fit and take-charge, the resident director, who doubles as a producer, quickly disabuses a reporter of the notion that the job of combat fighter pilot is tougher than brokerage branch manager.
“Flying airplanes off carriers was much easier. I’m not joking! You have to be well versed in so many things to be a producer, and to be a manager and keep everyone out of trouble. When you’re flying off aircraft carriers, it’s just you,” says Lawson, 54, in his slight, native Texas twang.
He has indeed brought stability to the branch, leading La Jolla to a 5.5 percent increase in assets and liabilities under management, as well as a 15 percent increase in annualized assets.
Merrill, of course, has undergone a huge change since Lawson’s first stint: In 2008 Bank of America took over the firm, rescuing it from failure during the nation’s worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression.
Now Merrill Lynch is a BofA subsidiary with 950 offices nationwide, 15,000 FAs and its Global Wealth Management unit — including U.S. Trust — managing about $2.2 trillion in assets.
The Bank’s name recognition is great. But “the bull never went away!” Lawson says, with gusto. “They’re still letting us retain our own identity.”
Located in retiree-packed San Diego, La Jolla is an affluent beach community 12 miles north of Downtown. Lawson’s branch fills three-quarters of the top floor of a three-story building a block-and-a-half from the beach.
He oversees 38 advisors managing $3.5 billion in assets, three BofA wealth management bankers and 20 in staff. Most of the FAs are veterans of the business — average age: about 60. Approximately 60 percent of the advisors are fee-based, and there are a number of teams.
A vice president of global wealth management, Lawson leads the branch in a manner appropriate to its mostly senior sales force and retirement-age clientele. There is no bullpen, there are no sales contests and there are few group pep talks.
“We’re a high-end office and manage a lot of money,” he says. “We want to present ourselves as professionals with offices,” not working in bullpens. Sales contests? “Not a real big motivator. Besides, that isn’t the way we want to do business. We [just] want to do the right thing for clients.”
The focus is assuredly on high-net-worth, though “that doesn’t mean we don’t welcome other clients,” Lawson says. “But we try to limit the number of households so that everyone gets the proper amount of service…Our goal of course is to find a few wealthy people and be a provider of all services to them.”
Lawson is “trying everything we can to expose clients to the features and benefits of working with Bank of America itself,” he says. For example, the three wealth management bankers on his team “bring a variety of product on the lending side that we never had access to. We’re doing much more business in liability management.”
And: One floor below the branch resides a representative of the investment management firm BlackRock, of which Bank of America owns 34 percent. BlackRock is a Merrill Consults Program manager for separately managed accounts.
“We use them extensively. [But] it’s one of our many options,” Lawson says.