At the ripe old age of 24, Binney Wietlisbach became a branch manager for Meridian Bank in Philadelphia. She had a staff of 11, was responsible for a cost center and felt that she was going places.
And she did. Today as president of Haverford Trust Company in Radnor, Pennsylvania, Wietlisbach is accomplished.
Despite her father being the founder of the firm (then Rittenhouse Financial), she had to earn everything. There were no short cuts. “I learned early you have to have a thick skin and be assertive,” she says.
Rittenhouse Financial, founded in 1979 as an RIA, also became a trust company in 1984. In 1997 the RIA was sold to Nuveen, but the trust company remained and was renamed Haverford Trust.
A trust company is regulated by the Federal Reserve Bank and other banking watchdogs, Wietlisbach explains. And though in about 20% of the business they act as corporate fiduciaries, about 80% is providing client advice, “just like a regular RIA,” she says.
When the RIA was sold, the trust company had 17 employees and $900 million in assets under management. Today, despite a 10-year non-compete arrangement with Nuveen, they have 100 employees and $9 billion under management with close to 6,000 accounts. Plus, 50% of its employees are women, Wietlisbach says.
Despite a psychology, statistics and religion degree from Penn State, “my forte has always been numbers. I’m a total geek,” she says. After graduation she found herself getting interviews for bank management training programs, and started working for Meridian Bank.
She eventually joined Haverford Trust in 1992 as a portfolio manager and was part of the executive committee, “because I could do big picture cost center management and strategic thinking, as well as work with individuals.”
In 2008, her father stepped away from being chairman and CEO, and promoted Joe McLaughlin into that role. As Wietlisbach had always been McLaughlin’s “right hand man,” she was named president.
When asked to describe any career challenges, she tells a “four-minute story” about what happened when she followed her father’s suggestion and joined the Union League Club of Philadelphia, which had just begun accepting women in 1986.
During a breakfast for new members, she learned about a Juniors group for members under age 35 who wanted to play softball and host gatherings. Wietlisbach signed up on the spot.
But during her first game as the only female member of the softball team, her teammates basically ignored her. Walking home from the game, she wondered if joining the group had been “a bad idea.” But few guys on the team called her the next day and explained “the drama.”
When the club had debated whether or not to let women in as members a year before, the Juniors group was the most vocal opponent of the change. One of its members even had said that if a woman played on the team, he would leave and take the star pitcher with him.
But not all felt that way and the group pleaded with Wietlisbach to come play again, which she did.
During warm ups a week later, though, Wietlisbach saw the previous anti-female team member complain to the captain about her presence; he later threw his glove down and left.
She stayed, played and even joined her teammates the following week at the Union League bar, the Old Café, then still off limits to women.
“When I went up to the bar and asked for a gin and tonic, the bartender said ‘no,’” she recalls, and he asked her to leave. “Steam was blowing out of my ears. I had never been discriminated against just because I was a female. I thought, my God, it’s 1987. This is ridiculous.”
After some arguing with the manager, Wietlisbach was allowed to stay. And that’s how she became the first woman to get a drink in the Old Café — breaking a unique “glass” ceiling.
“I look back on that, and it wasn’t something I had set out to do. I was just reacting.” she explains. “The purpose of that story is to say, you have to get out and get involved in things. And sometimes you’re led down a path that you didn’t anticipate. You’ve got to make the most out of the opportunities that are thrown at you.”
Here are some highlights from our interview:
What other advice would you give to young women?
Get involved in finance. Join an investment club [at school]. It’s a great way to distinguish yourself. There are a lot of firms looking to diversify, and if you have the ability and like numbers, [our business] is the area to get into.
Our industry is dying for women. In terms of being a portfolio manager, someone who interfaces with clients, women have very good soft skills. That can be coupled with technical skills and that becomes a wonderful relationship manager.
Also, learn how to play golf because if you don’t, you’re locked out of a lot of opportunities to get to know people in a different way. [Today] if I called [a potential client] for lunch, I get a half hour. If I say, ‘Let’s play golf,’ I get four hours together without a cell phone. And it really deepens a relationship.
How is Haverford Trust dealing with the pandemic?
We’ve never had a work-from-home culture, so we had to very quickly adapt.
I’m extraordinarily proud of our team, which has done an amazing job of going from zero to ninety to being able to very effectively work from home.
Will you go back to being in the office once this ends?
We want people together because that’s how you really develop and build a culture, and we don’t want to lose the really good culture we have.
But we may work on a plan for the ability for people to work from home when needed. I’m not exactly sure how that will play out.
Have your clients reacted (or overreacted) in the pandemic?
Actually, the work with institutions and individuals should have been done before; that is, the conversation of how much cash do you have, how much cash flow do you need, and what’s the right balance between stocks, bonds and cash in your portfolio.
We probably lost less than a handful of clients that liquidated at the bottom of the market in March 2009, out of about 2,400 accounts.
Today we have close to 6,000 accounts. We’ve had some people liquidate a portion of their portfolio, and maybe less than a handful liquidated their entire portfolio.
By the way, everybody says they are a long-term investor. I’ve always laughed and said, ‘They are long-term until they get their first monthly statement in a bear market.’
And when the market went down 37% in six weeks [earlier this year], that was astonishing. Nobody’s ever seen it go down that fast in our lifetimes.
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