Close Close

Practice Management > Building Your Business

Servant Leader

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

Brett Thelander, Managing Director, Midwest Region, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
What drives him?
“In my mind, I like to flip the organizational chart upside down: I love working for the advisors to serve our clients. For me, it’s just natural.”

From the mountains, to the prairies, to the ocean 861 miles from home, Denver native Brett Thelander has crisscrossed America in a variety of Merrill Lynch management posts during his 17 years with the firm. Now, in his newest job, he’s based smack-dab in the country’s heartland.

Promoted last December to managing director of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 10-state Midwest region, Thelander, headquartered in Chicago, oversees 967 financial advisors in 49 offices who manage $99 billion in assets and liabilities.

As managing director of the Orange County complex, just prior to this appointment, his office was in balmy Newport Beach, Calif.

Since he had earlier endured freezing winters in Denver, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tulsa, the extreme climate change from SoCal on the Pacific to Chi-Town on Lake Michigan hardly fazed him.

“I got all ready: My wife bought me a scarf, and my assistant got me Merrill Lynch ‘bull’ earmuffs,” says the ebullient Thelander, 45.

He has spent his entire financial services career at Merrill, which he joined as an advisor trainee in Denver. Immediately after training, he began coaching other FAs and found management to be his calling. What to do for a free 30 minutes: tend to his practice or help a colleague? Invariably,

Thelander would choose coaching.

“It just got in my blood,” he recalls.

Now, as managing director of the Heartland region, his greatest challenge is delivering to retail, corporate and institutional clients the wide array of B of A products and resources available following the bank’s 2009 Merrill acquisition — plus services offered by U.S. Trust Corp., the private banking unit that B of A bought from Charles Schwab in 2007.

“We’ve got all the pieces. Now we’ve got to leverage everything,” Thelander says.

At the 7-branch Orange County complex, he increased 2010 revenues 10.6 percent. Thelander says his chief accomplishment last year was the high-level advisor retention rate. Further, a dozen FAs from competing firms joined the complex, contributing to an 11 percent expansion of the advisor force.

“Brett balances a sense of urgency with being reasonable, rational and responsible — the three Rs that I’ve always tried to find in executives,” says Greg Franks, Western division managing director and Thelander’s O.C. boss. “He understands the business because of his depth of experience and has a real passion for people and the industry.”

Given the Midwest’s large corporate base, Thelander sees big opportunities beyond the individual investing needs of company executives.

“We can deliver a whole other side of the balance sheet because we’ve added or significantly enhanced services like commercial lending, financing, 401(k) services and helping private companies go public. Before [the acquisition], we offered advice predominantly around asset management. Now, that’s only a small — but important — piece of what we do. Advisors have many arrows in their quiver,” Thelander says.

Indeed, he stresses, the FA is “the centerpiece managing each relationship and partnering with our expertise network, investment bankers and commercial lenders.”

Boosting the client roster and growing the advisor base are two of Thelander’s top Heartland goals.

“Our new [business] model of having all financial needs addressed at one point of contact with one advisor is appealing to clients,” Thelander says. Last year the O.C. complex — in what is largely an upscale locale — saw “one of the best years in a long time for bringing in new clients.”

As for attracting more advisors: “The firm and I, personally, have very aggressive hiring goals this year for both trainees and quality recruits from the competition,” he notes.

Thelander’s ideal advisor? “Client-centric, passionate about furthering their education to stay on the cutting edge and a vibrant member of their community.”

Before stepping into the financial services arena, Thelander — who has an MBA in organizational management from the University of Colorado and was a Colorado State University business major — held jobs selling photocopiers, technology products and commercial real estate; he was also a cost accountant.

As a new investor, this truck driver and credit union president’s son had become fascinated enough with the markets to apply for a job as a Merrill advisor. In 1994, he joined the firm.

Shortly after finding his mojo through coaching, he was promoted to producing manager of a small branch office in Englewood, south of Denver. Soon he had to make up his mind: produce full-time or dive into management full-time.

“It was not that difficult a decision,” he says.

By 1999, he had given up his book of clients. A year after that, following a turn in Pittsburgh, he was appointed director of the Oklahoma complex, a six-year stint. Then he was off and running: two years as managing director of the Cleveland complex and a promotion to regional managing director for Southern California, 2008-2009. He spent the next year managing the O.C. complex before he was picked as Heartland regional managing director.

Heading the region, he intends to continue to promote its “non-territorial,” collaborative culture. “The challenge,” he says, “is connecting all the points and helping advisors deliver everything to clients in a cohesive, understandable form. Being a regional managing director today is a little more complex than it was 10 years ago because of the [intricacies] of the business and offerings. We need to make sure we put all the pieces together.”

Thelander misses having clients of his own, but coaching still claims his heart.

“I consider myself a servant leader: I like to serve our advisors and their clients. It’s a really comfortable role for me,” he says, “and it has worked.”

Photo by Jonah Light