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How Advisor Shifts Gears Between Car Racing and Wealth Management

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Chris Aitken, race car driver and top HNW advisor. Chris Aitken, race car driver and top HNW advisor.

It’s not unusual for financial advisors to play sports to “take a break” from market stress. But here’s Christopher Aitken, a managing director at UBS Financial Services, who seeks something else: More excitement. In his spare time, he’s a race car driver.

In competition since only January, at Sebring International Raceway in October — after the sport took a months-long coronavirus-induced pause — he won his first race, as he enthusiastically tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

So far, Aitken has placed in the top five in nine of the 12 races in which he has competed. Though the former teenage pro motor cross racer turned 63 this past July, upper-middle age is clearly no obstacle for this off-hours thrill-seeking FA.

His business success is striking, too. An advisor since 1986, he heads Aitken & Associates, a six-person team with $1.5 billion in assets under management. He has 45 ultra-high net worth clients — with a median net worth of $50 million — and one is a billionaire.

In the interview, the wealth manager talks about both his approach to serving clients and his hobby, which unexpectedly has begun to bring in more clients: his car racing competitors.

Existing clients are so impressed by Aitken’s leisure pursuit that they follow his racing online; some even travel to see him race in person.

Based in Ponte Vedra, Florida, Aitken, who consistently scores on Barron’s and The Financial Times’ top advisor lists, began in the industry as an institutional advisor at Citi Smith Barney. Before joining UBS in 2017, he was with Merrill Lynch for eight years.

In his approach to family-office money management, he aims to be, as he frames it, “the master custodian” of clients’ assets. This is brought out in his monthly “Flash Review” report, where clients not only see the value of their total assets at UBS but also at other firms and in, say, private equity or real estate holdings.

The Review often spurs new accounts: clients’ friends keen to avail themselves of such an enlightening convenience.

ThinkAdvisor interviewed Aitken in late October, on the phone from Florida. The Philadelphia native, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, revealed the self-imposed tough training regimen he completed last fall.

Many of the drivers he competes against are in their 20s; but “I’m right in there with them,” exults the seasoned advisor and athlete.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: How has your car racing been going?

CHRISTOPHER AITKEN: This past weekend [Oct. 10-11], I won my first race. It was super-exciting. My first victory was my 11th race in my first full season of racing.

As a teen, you were a motor cross racer. Does racing motorcycles make you well qualified to be a race car driver?

I’ve always been naturally good at racing — anything with wheels. I feel very comfortable with speed. I don’t get rattled by other cars competing around me. I’ve always wanted to race cars; and for many years, I was looking for a new challenge.

When did you start racing cars?

Last November, I made the decision to go after it. I’m bringing the same effort to racing as I do in the investment business, where I’m trying to be the best I can be for my clients, which led me to be very successful.

I realized that I had to get my body and mind in shape, and get focused and committed. I didn’t want to go out there and be at the back of the pack — I wanted to be at the front.

So you went into training. What did that involve? 

I lost 20 pounds, stopped drinking [alcohol], stopped drinking coffee, stopped eating sweets. I bought a high-tech professional driving simulator so I can drive the track before I get there.

I knew I was going up against guys that have a lot of experience. I didn’t have any — and I’m older: 63. Many of the guys I’m racing are in their 20s. But I’m right there with them.

Are your clients aware that you race cars?

The biggest surprise is the clients’ overwhelming acceptance. I had thought [it best] not to talk to clients about it, because they might think I’m crazy. But word spread — a lot of them know one another. And they were so curious. They said: “Tell me more. When can I come to a race and watch you?”

Do any of them go to see you race?

Yes. I take them in the pit. I educate them about how safe the cars are — the roll cages, fire extinguishers, the helmet and driving suit. I [seat] them in the car.

Some clients have put on my racing uniform and helmet and take a picture in front of the car, as if they’re racer of the day. It’s fun. Some are really interested and follow me online.

Have any of your driver competitors become advisory clients?

We’ve picked up one client, and another said he’s going to join us. A couple of others are very interested and want to learn more. I didn’t want to race for the purpose of getting new clients.

But they know I’m very successful at what I do — and so are they: Most are very successful business owners. So they want to talk to me about, maybe, helping them and their families. That mutual respect really makes it easy to work together.

Your practice centers on ultra-high net worth clients. What’s the biggest challenge working with that segment?

Getting them to focus on estate planning. We’re trying to be their family office and help them manage their financial life.

What’s one issue that’s upper-most in your mind in serving them?

Many clients have a lot of risk in their business. When I see that, I want to try to diversify away from that risk in what I do for them, which means, maybe, [investing in] municipal bonds or other things that are more conservative.

I try to understand where they are in their business and family life and then try to incorporate the financial side as well as estate planning.

Anything you do for clients that may be unique?

We bring the client’s complete financial life together in a one-page monthly “Flash Review” report. It’s a customized document that shows their business values, home values and assets they might have outside UBS, like private equity or real estate or an [investment] account at another firm.

You can think of us as the master custodian or quarterback. The clients set us up as interested parties, which allows us to get all that information from other companies.

What’s been clients’ feedback to receiving this?

They absolutely love it. Some clients’ friends have seen it and said, “I want that.” And all of a sudden they’re calling us — and hiring us.

What prompted you to gravitate to investment advisory as a career?

I started as an accountant at PriceWaterhouse [Coopers]. I was auditing financial assets and consulting to endowments, foundations and banks in the Washington, D.C., area.

But I wanted to be on the positive side of things, the looking-forward side. So I got into the investment business and joined Shearson/American Express.

Then Merrill Lynch recruited you, right?

Yes. That’s when I started moving my business toward what I call “instividuals” — individuals that have assets [of the size owned by] institutions.

I was shifting from institutional to ultra-high net worth families. Three-and-a-half-years ago, I decided to move to UBS. The firm’s main focus is on the ultra-high net worth business. It was a great move.

How did you get interested in finance in the first place?

When I was a young kid, my family didn’t have a lot of money. So at 10, I was making money delivering papers and cutting grass.

Very soon, my dad, who worked at NASA, said it was time I started buying stocks. So at 10 years old, I bought one share of my first stock.

Then I bought more and more of it because it was doing exceptionally well. It went up and split and up and split — and I was hooked.

What was your father’s job at NASA?

He was a scientist working on satellites. He built the machine that kept the monkeys alive when they went up into space, and he built some of the cameras that went into space. He was very, very smart, a brilliant mathematician-scientist type.

What approach do you take with financial planning for your extremely wealthy clients?

We run the plans out to age 100, and they can see how long their money is going to last so they don’t get so predisposed to the monthly or daily stock market returns. I want them focusing on the long run, not the short run.

When’s your next car race?

March 4 on the Adriatic Sea. I can bring two guests: My sister will be with me and, possibly, one of my clients. He comes to my races in the U.S. But this will be an eight-day trip; so he’s [checking with] his wife.

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Photo credit (in racing gear): Ferrari.