- The largest US wealth managers are adapting to please their richest clients when social distancing measures mean the usual high-maintenance, in-person approach isn’t an option.
- Business Insider checked in with the largest US wealth managers for a window into how financial advisers catering to their richest clients are keeping up those relationships during the global pandemic.
- Some advisers are guiding clients by making themselves available at all hours of the night, while others are pulling together presentations detailing how their ancestors may have dealt with hardship a century ago.
- “We have been working with a ton of our advisers on creating innovative ways for the holidays to be special, but different, this year,” one Morgan Stanley Wealth Management managing director said.
- Visit BI Prime for more wealth management stories.
The global market rout has wiped out trillions of dollars in regular investors’ wealth. Americans are filing for unemployment benefits at levels never seen before. Economists say a recession has already taken hold.
While the coronavirus pandemic rages on, every industry is adjusting to life upended as we know it — even the one catering to a tiny, elite group usually equipped with enough money to weather anything.
The largest wealth managers in the world’s wealthiest country are adapting to please their most well-heeled clients when social distancing measures mean the usual high-maintenance, in-person approach isn’t an option.
Last month, Kirt Gardner, the finance chief of UBS, the Swiss bank known for catering to wealthy clients, said at an industry conference that the firm was thinking creatively when it came to interacting with clients through screens.
“We actually created an online viewing room for Art Basel in Hong Kong for our clients that were interested in purchasing art,” he said, according to a transcript on the platform Sentieo.
For some in the industry, right now it’s all about being available around the clock at a time when anxious clients have questions about everything from the state of the pandemic to the extremely volatile markets.
Ken Shapiro and Tom Livaccari, advisers at UBS, have had their work cut out for them over the last few weeks.
They’re partners with the Entrepreneurs Group at the firm, and serve a large business-owner client base, managing some $1 billion in client assets.
They’ve helped dozens of clients in recent weeks file paperwork for the federal government’s payroll protection plan and apply for small business loans.
“We’ve never been busier,” Shapiro said in a recent phone interview.
“Everyone on the team is sort of 24/7 available — emailing, calling, texting,” he added. “You’re doing whatever you have to do with clients to keep them feeling like we’re there as support for them.”
Small business leaders whose operations have been slammed by the novel coronavirus this year have started flooding big banks with loan applications amid the economic damage.
“I noticed this morning that Ken had an email at 1:46 a.m., which I think is above and beyond the call of duty,” Livaccari said in a phone interview last week, laughing.
Other firms are thinking of more out-of-the-box ways to keep well-paying clients happy.
For Wells Fargo’s Gretchen Krueger, that’s meant days filled with reaching back in time and speaking with remote clients about pandemics of centuries past, like the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1919.
Krueger is the senior historian in Wells Fargo’s Institute for Family Culture, which sits under the bank’s wider wealth and investment management umbrella. Her team serves clients across wealth businesses, including the ritzy Abbot Downing unit that caters to clients with at least $50 million in investable assets.
Part of her role involves creating presentations, like archives, for clients about families’ legacies, using a historical lens to help them think about charitable giving and future generations. With more recent restraints, she’s had to get “creative” about delivering those presentations over Zoom and phone calls while shifting to discussions about how clients’ ancestors made it through difficult times.
“When we first came together as a team and were talking about our strategies, we anticipated that most families would certainly want to delay in-person retreats,” Krueger, who is based in New York, said in a phone interview.
She’s pulled together whole archives for wealthy families featuring “census records, military records, immigration records, but also things like birth and death records,” which can suggest when family members may have died during epidemics and pandemics.
Still, video conferencing isn’t always enough. Krueger said she’s spoken with some clients who have young children about keeping journals of this time in their lives to create a sort of “time capsule” for future generations to look back on.
The most high-touch advisers and wealth management businesses tout their all-encompassing services for lucrative clients whose financial situations demand lots of attention well beyond basic planning. And the pandemic, with its human toll and the wrenches it’s thrown into the usual extravagant event and business planning, is testing the industry’s approaches.
Adapting and coping
With the coronavirus outbreak extending into religious springtime holidays, firms are also trying to tailor their new, albeit less intimate communication methods to ultra-wealthy clients who will have to observe Passover or Easter away from family.
“Most seders will be Zooms,” Melanie Schnoll Begun, the head of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management’s philanthropy management group, said in a recent phone interview, referring to the Jewish ritual feast.
“We have been working with a ton of our advisers on creating innovative ways for the holidays to be special, but different, this year,” Begun, who launched and oversees the firm’s donor-advised fund, said.
To shepherd clients through what that might look like, her team has created a guide for some Jewish clients with ideas around how they can incorporate their religious values in philanthropic giving, and think about their faith to persevere through a time of crisis.
Still, she’s operating under uncertain conditions with her clientele. Many of her team’s clients are pushing out fall and summertime events to the end of the year still with “complete uncertainty,” Begun said, adding she’s had to move her firm’s own annual signature philanthropy conference held in lower Manhattan to the end of September.
The new normal between ultra-high-net-worth clients and their wealth advisers also places a fine point on the technology overhauls that big banks have been executing for years.
Communications between clients and advisers have to be monitored for compliance, and the current state is forcing the wealth management industry to speed up modernization efforts for even their richest customers.
For Bank of America’s wealth businesses, including Merrill Lynch and the firm’s private bank, it’s an unprecedented time: all of its units under wealth management are operating completely remotely for the first time in their history, a spokesperson said.
It has a number of efforts underway to keep wealthy clients engaged.
Its team of investment strategists has held daily audiocasts for Merrill Lynch and private bank clients. Its private bank is developing a strategy around hosting virtual events to replace in-person client events to discuss topics like tax, trust, and philanthropy. Meanwhile the amount of social media content Merrill Lynch financial advisers are sharing over LinkedIn has risen by 86% compared with the same time a year ago, the spokesperson said.