It was a broker partnership made in heaven for Louis Bell and Marc Levitt, but the idea hadn’t originated with their firm. Rather, the two clicked so well when they met as trainees studying for licensing exams, that once registered, they swiftly joined forces. Now, 25 years later, the Bell and Levitt Wealth Management Group of nine manages client assets of $1.2 billion.
The practice, at UBS Financial Services for the last five years, serves wealthy and ultra-high net worth families in every aspect of their financial lives — even mentoring teenage and 20-something client kids on money-related issues. Some accounts are as large as $50 million.
On Park Avenue in New York City, the group, whose client base is concentrated in the New York Metro area and Florida, has 125 core client relationships. Bell and Levitt are indeed picky when it comes to new clients, and they tell why in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.
Theirs is a two-generation practice delivering high-touch help to affluent families. In 1998, Bell, now 56, and Levittt, 47, together with Bell’s father, Stephen Bell, 79, a 56-year industry veteran, combined their two practices.
The team of nine — including financial advisor Jamie Wolff and five registered relationship managers — employs an efficient planning process that divides client goals according to needs of liquidity, longevity and legacy. Assets are thus laddered to help reach goals over the client’s lifetime. The bucket system brings clients peace of mind in volatile markets — like now.
Louis Bell and Levitt work chiefly on the equity side. Stephen Bell handles fixed income investing, his longtime specialty. Bell and Levitt were fee-based from the get-go — at a time when the now-ubiquitous compensation plan was just emerging.
The two younger advisors began at Prudential Securities in 1993 and remained there, as did Stephen Bell, through the Pru-Wachovia merger a decade later. But they found the new firm a poor fit and moved to Bear Stearns. They stayed for five years following JPMorgan’s 2008 takeover, then joined UBS Financial Services in 2013.
All three Bell and Levitt partners are New Yorkers, born and bred. Louis Bell practiced law for six years before transitioning to financial advisory. Levitt came to the industry fresh from college.
Key to their success? The FAs say it’s more than just walking the talk: It’s deeply, genuinely caring about clients.
THINKADVISOR: Why did you two team up?
MARC LEVITT: From the very day that Prudential put us in a room and told us to study for exams for three months, we became very close friends. When they threw us off the end of the pier and told us to build a business, we decided to do it together. From Day One, we wanted to be the primary, most important advisor in our clients’ lives — their chief family financial officer.
What’s been the secret to your success?
LOUIS BELL: Conveying empathy and concern for clients’ well-being and success. You can’t just walk the walk. You have to actually feel it.
LEVITT: You can’t fake caring. You either care or you don’t.
Why do you two get along so well? What are areas of disagreement?
BELL: The chemistry between us has always been there. It’s like a marriage because we’ve spent so much time together over the years. We started our practice as partners; so we’ve never had a disagreement over approach. We don’t fight. We built our approach together.
You consider only half the referrals you receive as appropriate clients. Why is that?
LEVITT: We don’t take on clients that don’t need or don’t want what we do. If we’re not going to be ultra-effective for them, getting involved would be frustrating for them and impossible for us.
BELL: We’re not transactional advisors, so we won’t take on people who are looking for that kind of advice.
What about extended family members of existing clients? Do you serve them?
BELL: We’ll never not take on a family member of a client, such as a niece or nephew. No matter the [account] size, we’ll find a solution for them.
Do you have any requirements that clients need to stick with?
BELL: We have a rule: If you want to work with us, you have to commit to speaking with us at least twice a year. If a client isn’t willing to be very much a part of their own process, we can’t work with them. We need to know what’s going on in their lives — which relates to our careful asset allocation [process].
What’s one thing you do that’s helped grow your practice?
BELL: We have a certain number of clients that we assign to each relationship manager. As the business has grown, we add relationship managers to take on new families. Once a relationship manager’s plate is full, so to speak, we hire another manager. That gives us capacity for new clients to come onboard.
You mentor and otherwise help clients’ children find jobs, invest their bar/bat mitzvah and communion money, and keep their confidences. Tell me more.
BELL: If a client’s child is, say, 23 and thinking about getting married, we’ll talk with [him or her] about a prenuptial agreement in a way that’s different from the discussion they’ve had with their parents.
LEVITT: Parents will call us: “[Our daughter] is getting married. We think a prenup might be important. We tried to talk with her about it, but she doesn’t think it’s necessary. We’d appreciate your having a discussion with her.”
What do you say that’s different from what the parent has said?
LEVITT: We get away from the emotion of the situation and talk only about economics and realities. Because we’ve already developed a relationship with the [child] when they’re younger, they understand we’re not going to break their confidence. So they’re very open to hearing our ideas.
Do you ever suggest family meetings?
BELL: Often. They’re designed [in part] to help give us a bigger picture of what the family needs are and what we have to think about to advise them. For instance, when families become philanthropic, we encourage them to have a meeting where the children bring ideas to the “Board,” which consists of the parents, children, grandchildren and sometimes nieces and nephews. They talk about being socially conscious and the causes that they feel are important.
What does “comprehensive wealth management” mean at Bell and Levitt?
LEVITT: We’ve practiced it since we started out. Our theme has always been solving problems, not selling product. It’s: What clients need and how to get there with the least amount of risk and the least amount of ups and downs that can put them off-track. We start from the end — what they’re trying to achieve — then build what we do along the way.
What’s your approach with clients in today’s volatile market? Do they call you?
BELL: No. Our clients don’t worry. We phone them. They say, “I wasn’t worried before; but now that you’ve called, maybe I should be worried.” When we construct the equity portion of portfolios, we do a lot of education and talk about the bad times — 2000-2001, 2008-2009 — to help them visualize the worst possible [scenarios] and what volatility means. That helps them get through volatility when it does occur. So our clients don’t panic. They’re well diversified, and we’re very careful about making sure they don’t have a level of risk that’s inappropriate for them.
What’s the biggest change that’s occurred in the business over the quarter-century since you teamed up?
LEVITT: There’s a level of sophistication out there that’s developed in the last 10 or 15 years. Because of access to online information, people are more informed. So we’re finding that the need and demand for much higher-end services has grown.
As business partners, has the nine-year difference in your ages ever mattered?
BELL: When we started out, I had more life experience. Marc had more enthusiasm. [Laughter] Now we’re basically the same age, and we finish each other’s sentences.
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