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How Three Wealth Managers Followed Their Bliss

By Chris Latham May 1, 2013

The three speakers on the April 29 “Journey to Success” panel at IMCA’s annual conference in Seattle came from very different backgrounds. So it was instructive to hear each of them describe the turning points in their career trajectories that got them where they are today. A summary:

The Kid in a Candy Store

Ten years ago, Eric Gray of Merrill Lynch was at Goldman Sachs when a lightbulb went on over his head. “I no longer really wanted to represent my firm,” he recalled. “I wanted to represent my clients.”

Gray moved to Merrill Lynch. Goldman lured him back briefly, but he ultimately preferred Merrill for its wide range of products and strategies. “It was like being a kid in a candy store,” Gray said.

Now he works in Merrill’s Los Angeles office, which manages about $5 billion for 30 entrepreneurs and wealthy families. He enjoys the long question-and-answer exercise he conducts with new clients to discover their priorities and goals before doling out advice. “There’s a big difference between selling and advising,” Gray remarked to the IMCA audience.

The Specialist

Michelle Smith got the idea of specializing in divorce back in 1999, when a client who was an attorney asked her to explain to a judge the financial implications of a high-net-worth split-up.

That’s when Smith saw a gap in the advisor market waiting to be filled. Her New York firm, Source Financial Advisors, has grown ever since by focusing on wealthy women with a strong incentive — a faltering marriage — to change both their portfolios and their financial advisors. Smith says she tries to maximize her clients’ “return on luck.”

Besides being a CFP, Smith holds the Certified Divorce Financial Analyst credential, and she co-authored a book for Wachovia Securities advisors, Divorce and Your Finances. “Why not specialize in something where people really need you?” she asked at the conference.

Voluntary Downsizing

Douglas Berger started out as an advisor in the 1980s with a transaction-heavy business that grew steadily — and kept on growing, he says, past the point of reason. By the time he was managing 1,500 households, he knew things couldn’t keep going that way. “I needed to cut my business back,” he said.

Berger, who runs Morgan Stanley’s Cascade Group in Silverdale, Wash., transitioned to a fee-based model and focused on his more profitable clients. He has developed expertise in providing fiduciary training for foundations’ board members and trustees.

It’s a base that lets Berger concentrate on clients’ particular needs, and a practice where “you’re judged by the quality of the questions that you ask,” he said.