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UBS Wants to Build the Advisor of the Future

By Thomas Coyle February 27, 2014

UBS is training rookies to hit the ground running as fully formed “holistic” advisors and serve the brokerage’s aging client base more effectively.

“It’s training that goes beyond investments,” says David McWilliams, who, as head of Wealth Management Transformation at UBS’s U.S. brokerage unit, oversees the initiative to tweak its culture. “The wealth manager of the future has to understand planning, and how to put things in writing for the client — things our FAs haven’t had that much experience with.”

The catalyst for change in UBS’s training is the increasing complexity of its clients’ lives. “Fifteen years ago, FAs and clients didn’t have conversations about estate planning,” says McWilliams, who joined UBS about five years ago after more than 30 years with Merrill Lynch. Now, with the average UBS brokerage client over 50, legacy issues, long-term care and detailed retirement planning are priorities clients insist their advisors tackle head-on. “We’re responding to client demand for more holistic approaches.”

David McWilliams
UBS isn’t alone in this, says Bellaria Jimenez, cohead of MetLife Solutions Group, which manages about $3.8 billion out of 18 offices in the U.S. Northeast. Like McWilliams, she says clients’ financial lives have grown more complex. As a result, she tries to educate her advisors “on what clients are looking for today — a trusted advisor who can provide holistic direction and guidance.”

This can be hard for advisors at traditionally transactional firms like MetLife and UBS. To make the new ways work, advisors have to ask clients probing questions and develop relationships that go beyond the superficial. These things can be a stretch for advisors who still view themselves, at heart, as salesmen or order takers.

As an added challenge, firms have to get their advisors adjusted to a new economic environment, Boston Consulting Group says in a recent report. The wealth-management industry’s “traditional value propositions” were rooted in broad-based growth of the economy and the financial markets, writes Brent Beardsley, head of BCG’s asset- and wealth-management practice. In these less bullish times, clients are demanding an approach based less on investment management and more on financial planning.

That insight is at the heart of UBS’s new Wealth Planning Analyst Program. During the first two years of the three-year course, trainees who have passed their Series 7 exams work in several different UBS branches as financial planners, formulating holistic plans for the clients of full-fledged advisors and generally making themselves useful as needed. In their third year, trainees are placed with teams and further schooled in client relations, asset gathering and career management.

So far, seasoned advisors have responded well to the program, according to McWilliams. “They need to be holistic, because clients are asking for it, but a lot of them don’t know how to do it,” he says. “The smart ones are reaching out.”

In contrast to Merrill, which also launched a new training program last year and where rookies join a team shortly after learning the basics, UBS wants to turn out well-rounded advisors rather than people trained by a single team leader, says McWilliams. The Merrill approach risks setting advisors on a narrow track based less on aptitude than on the needs of a particular team or principal, he says. “Our aim is to train advisors who can inherit a book of business and run a practice.”

But whereas Merrill’s new program applies to all of the 1,000 to 2,000 trainees it starts with every year, UBS’s Wealth Planning Analyst Program is still an experiment. It started with 50 trainees last year, and this year it’ll go with 75. That leaves most of the total 300 or so novices UBS trains every year in the firm’s more traditional, transaction-oriented program. But if the pilot program succeeds as McWilliams hopes, there will soon come a time “when this is all we do” in terms of new-advisor training, he says.