Meeting Gregory F. Laetsch, 6 feet 4 inches tall, 215 pounds and buff, you immediately think: football player.
And you wouldn’t be wrong. Fresh out of college, Laetsch was a receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. But a foot injury put the kibosh on his budding pro sports career the first season.
Bummer — except that the gridiron’s loss was Wall Street’s gain. For the past 31 years, Laetsch, 53, has chalked up victories as an outstanding player in the financial services arena, all three decades-plus at Smith Barney and its successor firms.
Appointed managing director and complex manager of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney’s seven-branch Los Angeles complex in 2009, following the two firms’ merger, Laetsch is something of a legend within the company, famed for his impeccable ethics and credibility, and reputation as a rare straight-shooter.
From his double-size office in a 48-story building on the corner of Fifth and Flower Streets in Downtown L.A., the unassuming Laetsch manages 197 financial advisors — including 10 recruits and 37 trainees he has hired since his promotion to the complex post. All told, the FAs have $17.6 billion in assets under management.
Last year the complex scored as one of MSSB’s top three in revenues nationwide. In 2009, the L. A. branch — of which Laetsch also is manager — was the firm’s most profitable in Southern California, owing to cost cuts and revenue preservation.
Under pressure, Laetsch is calm, cool and unrattled. But taking charge of seven MSSB branches — Los Angeles, Long Beach (2), Manhattan Beach, Torrance (2) and Palos Verdes — in the depths of the country’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, presented a unique set of hurdles, not the least of which was how to boost FA morale.
“That was one of the biggest challenges of my career. Many advisors owned stock in Smith Barney or Morgan Stanley and were worried. But most were far more worried about their clients. I communicated as much as possible. I believe in being open and honest and telling people about the not-so-good as well as the good things. I felt it was important to be visible and a role model,” says Laetsch, in whose speech are traces of his native Asheville, N.C.
He is well known for the enduring relationships he builds with both advisors and staff members.
“I hear people say all the time, ‘I’d work somewhere else, but I don’t want to because of Greg,’” says Michele Hanna, senior complex risk officer, with Laetsch for more than 12 years and on his 23-member complex management team. “After the merger, those of us working with Greg felt very strongly that we wanted to stay here with him in whatever role he wanted for us. Some [accepted] secondary roles to be part of his team.”
Since taking the complex reins, Laetsch’s biggest achievement perhaps is proving to have been on target with the investment strategy he established during the financial meltdown. “We were early in helping people believe in the return of the equity market,” he says. “In the toughest of times, when it was difficult emotionally for clients, we were advocating to buy stocks and make sure clients had an appropriate allocation so they could take advantage when the markets rallied.”
Helping advisors make good investment decisions — on top of gathering assets — is indeed one of Laetsch’s key priorities. He relies on both MSSB research and his own.
“I try to free myself up to be the investment leader and the primary person who helps set our investment strategy as well as drive revenues,” he says. “If financial advisors make good investment decisions, clients prosper. It’s also good for compliance because then we don’t have big problems of people making poor decisions.”
For 2011, Laetsch’s prime goal is to grow revenue and assets by 10 percent each. At the same time, another ongoing major aim is to create an environment that embraces what he calls “the gold standard” of investment advice, staffing and resources.
Laetsch’s Downtown L.A. branch is located in a now-trendy part of the city. Until a few years ago, it was considered a virtual Siberia in which to work and live. Now, with nighttime attractions and new residential allure, it is helping Laetsch pull in FAs as well as clients.
“We’ve attracted advisors from competitors, which [because of location] would have been very difficult to do 10 years ago,” he notes. The office now boasts a total 97 advisors — 62 from the legacy Smith Barney office, 23 from the legacy Morgan Stanley and a dozen new hires — both recruits and FA trainees — that Laetsch has made.
Recruiting, in fact, ranks on the manager’s list big-time. He is fussy, however. “It’s not just revenues but the type of person they are. We hire young people who I believe to be good, solid human beings — honest, ethical and driven to be successful. The same goes for experienced advisors who do a lot of business — the right way. I’m not interested in hiring people who are mediocre,” he says.
Laetsch is immensely proud of his extensive complex management team that includes supervisory managers who focus on operations, risk officers and a business development officer concentrating solely on products and services. Laetsch considers, and relates to, each manager as his partner.
Brad Dykes, the complex business development officer, notes: “Two distinct cultures [Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley] have been brought together, so people may be [wary]. But with Greg, everything is on the table honestly and openly communicated. There are no secret deals; nothing is hidden. Yes, we need to grow our business; but that doesn’t come before the fair and equal way he treats people.”
Complex FAs are a diverse mix of ethnicities and ages — from 23 to 80 years old — and clientele is just as varied. It is served by advisors specializing in a wide range of investors and investment vehicles, encompassing high-net-worth individuals, stock plans, 401(k) plans, corporate services and institutional clients.
The L.A. branch — one of 800 MSSB offices worldwide — occupies 45,000 square feet on four floors of the Citi Building. His private office, on Floor 26, is in an open area, where, he says, “I can be involved with what’s going on.”
Football coach Vince Lombardi’s “What it takes to be No. 1” speech is posted on a wall close by Laetsch’s desk chair. Other words of wisdom — these from football coach Lou Holtz — are in a frame on his desk: “The best way to get what you want in life is to help enough people get what they want.”
Laetsch has taken that advice seriously. “I try to make a positive difference in people’s lives each day,” he says. “I believe great leaders are competent, confident, caring and committed.”
And he applies those qualities to what he lists as the main functions of a complex manager: retaining FAs, recruiting, sales and investment leadership, compliance, training and administration.
Laetsch has been a potent leader ever since his days as a Furman University football captain. Pauline Chui, management team complex risk officer, who has worked with him for 14 years, describes Laetsch’s approach as “trying to create a team during this time of big changes and confusion that’s not only powerful and proactive but also cohesive.”
She adds: “He doesn’t try to micromanage. He empowers the team to make certain business decisions. He gathers our brainpower. But he knows that when we need him, we need him.”