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Branch Manager’s Cowboy Call: ‘Can You Ride for the Brand?’

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Hard-driving, competitive, goal-focused, Keith A. Vanderveen, president of the home region of Wells Fargo Advisors’ Private Client Group, does not mince words. Certainly not at the peak of the financial crisis when the impassioned former $4.2 million-producing branch manager was rallying his troops: In a federally mandated sale, Wells Fargo had just acquired too-big-to-fail Wachovia—the firm that only a year before bought A.G. Edwards and, in 2003, Prudential Securities.

The challenge facing Vanderveen, who joined Prudential in 2001, was to motivate the mix of advisors from four different firms to get behind Wells Fargo and turn around the lagging region that ranked last of 10.

“Can you ride for the brand?” he asked, evoking courageous, hardworking cowboys of the Old West who loyally affiliated with a ranch or brand.

“I asked everybody to consider the fact that A.G. Edwards was gone and was never going to come back and that Wachovia was gone and was never going to come back and that ‘You’ve got to make a decision: Can you ride for this brand? If you can’t, you’ve got to leave.’ Thankfully, most people stayed.” And, “the brand,” Vanderveen says, “turned out to be a huge winner.”

Today, Wells Fargo Advisors, a non-bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Co., is the third largest brokerage in the United States and boasts more than 15,000 FAs.

Keith Vanderveen, 51, is a strapping 6’2”-tall man of Dutch ancestry, within whose tough management style is woven the ability to connect deeply with advisors and managers to inspire them to accomplish more than they likely would otherwise.

Indeed, in only three years Vanderveen drove the Wells Fargo Advisors home region—Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas and parts of Illinois—from dead-last to fourth place in profitability and advisor retention. His chief goal is to lead the region to No. 1. If resolve and performance record are any indication, that will happen soon.

“I’m a very, very aggressive competitor. I absolutely love to win. I love goals. I love achievement—I can hardly get enough of it,” he says.

A pro racquetball player in his youth, Vanderveen has scored an impressive winning streak in financial services over nearly three decades. Starting as an advisor at Merrill Lynch in 1984, in less than a decade he was a million-dollar producer. The first branch he managed—where he quadrupled his own production and doubled branch revenues, with 21 out of 22 FAs doubling their business—was named Office of the Year.

But after 18 years of great success at Merrill, Vanderveen decided to move to Prudential. There, he drove the Midwest region from last to first place (2007), then followed up with the stunning turnaround of Wells Fargo’s home region, formed after its 2008 Wachovia acquisition.

Based at Wells Fargo Advisors headquarters in St. Louis, Vanderveen oversees about 1,500 advisors managing $91 billion in assets out of more than 150 branches.

Reporting to James E. Hays, president of the Private Client Group, Vanderveen runs a business totaling three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars in revenue, for which he sets and executes high-level strategy and develops, hires and fires branch managers, complex managers, market managers and advisors.

He gives major emphasis to recruiting and in the last year has hired FAs across the region. By fall, he will open a branch at the headquarters complex that is to comprise 20 to 30 FAs.

Foremost, he seeks advisors region-wide who give their clients’ interests top priority. “We’re trying to identify and hire people of integrity who are stalwarts of the community,” he says. “I want FAs who understand that they’re dealing predominantly with clients in ‘the second half of life’ who want personal connection and trust. This is almost always evidenced by a relationship built upon a financial planning process.”

Both experienced and new FAs have eagerly responded to his recruiting efforts.

 “I’m proud of the fact that we’ve hired a lot of people looking for a better [situation]. There’s a lot of unhappiness at Morgan Stanley [Smith Barney]. And I have many Merrill friends that have been coming over,” he says. “We train a lot of people as well. In my Sugarland, Texas, branch, the biggest FA is a trainee. But it’s a tough business, and not everybody makes it.”

One of Vanderveen’s primary objectives is to move FAs to a significantly more advisory-based platform. “We’ve been really trying to push the adoption of financial planning and conversation versus selling [to] people. And especially in the new regulatory environment, we’re trying to get our FAs to look at the liability side of the balance sheet to help clients with their lending needs and make sure they’re not paying more on debt than they ought to,” says Vanderveen, who so far this year has spoken to 92% of the region’s FAs in person right in their own branches.

Off the road, he works in a comfortable office on the 14th floor in one of seven interconnected buildings. Previously the home office of A.G. Edwards, Wachovia relocated its headquarters there from Richmond, Virginia.

Right outside Vanderveen’s office stands a big, brass bull.

“Some people think it’s ‘Keith, the Bull,’” he says with a laugh. “Well, sometimes you do act like a bull because you have to push for things no matter what.”

Beyond overarching goals of boosting revenue growth and profitability, Vanderveen’s main push is to be No. 1 among the firm’s regions, of which there are now nine. That largely means motivating veteran FAs to expand their assets under management.

“It’s ridiculous that Schwab and Fidelity are gathering more new net assets than all the brokerage firms combined and trying to convince people that they give individual financial advisor attention, which I don’t believe they do,” he insists. “I think we have a better model for clients,” which features the firm’s innovative financial planning tool, Envision. Last year Vanderveen’s region created more financial plans with Envision than did any other region, he says.

But spurring middle-aged FAs (“the average age of our financial advisors now is 54”) to grow their business isn’t so easy because, in general, they’ve become complacent, he says. The prevailing attitude is “business is good enough. I don’t need to grow anymore. If anything, I’d like to be more efficient so I can spend more time on the golf course.”

To change that mindset, Vanderveen tries to impress upon FAs that they have “a talent the world desperately needs: to help people in the second half of life manage their wealth. Rolling out the next trip or trinket—the way [FAs] were incented to grow when they were younger—is not effective,” he says. “In the second half of our lives, it’s a much higher calling, a recognition that we have a gift and a talent that people need, which we have to be willing to share with more of them.”

Another challenge is finding managers who can truly inspire advisors, a major Vanderveen hiring criterion. “That’s what differentiates good managers,” he says. The regional president counts local management as “the key ingredient” in his region’s sharp improvement.

“I have not been afraid to change managers when we needed to, and put someone in the seat that knows how to set a vision and inspire people to perform better than they would on their own,” he says.

At Merrill, he was a producing branch manager in Naperville, Ill., for five years and upon joining Prudential, continued to grow his book of business. Named a regional manager within nine months, he was appointed regional president of the combined Prudential and Wachovia firms in 2002. That was when Vanderveen handed over his by-then $4.2 million book and stopped being a producer.

        “It was a good run,” he remarks, casually.

Among his many managerial accomplishments is his success at integrating advisors and managers from four different corporate cultures while simultaneously, and aggressively, driving business forward.

But, to be sure, Vanderveen’s world was rocked with Wachovia’s sudden demise.

“Number one, it was very, very painful to watch Wachovia basically go out of business. You couldn’t sell all your restricted stock,” he says. “And number two, the home office bonus pools were cut down to almost nothing. Not me personally, but everybody that I was affiliated with had really tough financial times to get through,” he recalls.

Still, “coming out of the crisis, advisors at firms like Citi, Bank of America and UBS were spending an hour or two a day just defending their firms,” he says. “Our financial advisors didn’t have that issue.”

Moreover, he has found Wells Fargo to be “a terrific parent.” “They love the business. They’ve been extremely supportive. They’ve allowed [CEO-president Danny Ludeman, who held these posts at Wachovia Securities] and the leadership team to continue to grow the business. The brand resonates with clients. I love the culture—it’s more of a hands-off [approach]. Wells Fargo allows its 80[-plus] different businesses to run relatively independently and grow.”

He continues: “Here, there’s a different way of thinking about clients and advisors from what I saw at [Merrill]. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Now, he says, “the big emphasis [firm-wide] is trying to get everybody to have diversity—women, people of color, sexual orientation—at the forefront of their minds so that we look more like our client base and have a way to reach out and connect with it.”

For example, “in recruiting FAs, I’m always looking for diversity to grow the business. We must do a better job of reflecting the communities we serve as our country’s demographics and culture evolve,” he says.

The thrust for inclusiveness includes online and in-person training “to make sure that when we post positions, we have a diverse candidate pool before making any decision. We’re not just willing to say, ‘Well, there’s nobody out there—let’s hire the next white male.’ We want to really emphasize taking the extra step to get a diverse team of candidates,” he says.

As a senior manager, Vanderveen ultimately defines his personal triumphs by the success of the managers he’s helped. He excels not only at setting goals but also at emboldening people to recognize that the goals are achievable.

“I love watching managers start to believe in themselves and grow, and help their branch or complex or market grow,” he says. “And I love when advisors who tell me that I’ve inspired them say: ‘Keith, you made all the difference.’”


It is indeed rare for a senior manager to be a multi-million-dollar producer.

Here is Keith A. Vanderveen’s story:  

Born in a Fort Lee, Va., army hospital, he grew up in Pittsburgh, the eldest of four children. By senior year at Wheaton College, he aspired to be an entrepreneur. “I liked the idea of sales because I thought if I worked harder than everybody else, I could do better than everybody else,” he recalls.

Near graduation, his close friend and mentor, Dave Young, introduced him to four colleagues, each a standout in a different field, to give the young Vanderveen a sense of various types of businesses.

“After spending two hours with Dave’s PaineWebber broker, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. Right away, he began cold-calling for a broker at the firm.

Graduating in 1983 with a B.A. in economics, he worked briefly as a broker at a small Grand Rapids, Mich., shop. But with the principal’s death the following year and the firm’s imminent sale to a railroad, he opted to move on and joined Merrill Lynch in its Oakbrook, Ill., branch.

His production rose swiftly to $200,000. Next goal: to become a million-dollar producer in five years. Mission accomplished in 1993. Two years after that, Merrill appointed him branch manager of the new Oakbrook satellite office in Naperville, Ill. Within three years, he quadrupled his own production and doubled branch revenues.

Secret to that production power? Building a team early on played a big part, but the real key was Vanderveen’s philosophy of “more, not better.”

“Most financial advisors were spending their time trying to figure out how to do something better,” he says. “I found something that worked and just did more, more, more of it until you wouldn’t think to do that much,” he says. “For example, other advisors held seminars and sent out 500 invitations. I sent out 10,000 to 20,000. Other advisors had 10 people show up. I’d have 300. I wasn’t doing anything better than anyone else—I just did more of it than they thought to do. That carried me a long way.”

Now a manager, Vanderveen was eager to find out if he could run a large area yet still be involved enough with branch managers and advisors to help them grow. “I loved managing and wanted a chance at running Chicago,” he recalls. But that, he discovered, meant giving away his $4 million book and first becoming a district sales manager in another city.

“No, no, no, I’d like to run Chicago,” he told management. They said: “That’s not the system,” whereupon Vanderveen took his request to top management all the way to Robert Mulholland, then senior vice president.

“But at the end of the day, everybody agreed that I didn’t fit the system—and that nobody is bigger than the system,” he says.

In 2001 he left Merrill and joined Prudential. Nine months later he was Midwest president based in Chicago. As a regional president of the merged Prudential and Wachovia firms, he led his region to No.1 in 2007. Shortly afterward, he was asked to run the new Wells Fargo home region.

 “From my perspective,” he says, “it’s been fantastic.” —J.W.R.


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