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.”