Wells Fargo Advisors recently vaulted past Wall Street rivals to become one of the largest U.S. brokerages. Just don't tell its chief executive.
CEO Danny Ludeman bristles at the idea of his company being considered a brokerage giant despite having 15,119 advisers -- more than Merrill Lynch's famed Thundering Herd. Its first-quarter revenue of $2.91 billion was in spitting distance of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney's $3.11 billion.
Yet in his mind, Ludeman still runs a cozy little regional company.
We kind of cringe when people call us a wirehouse, Ludeman told Reuters. We don't view ourselves that way.
Ludeman, in an interview, outlined his strategy to marry the products and services of a big national company, while keeping the kind of small-company touch attractive to advisers and investors.
By doing so, the St. Louis-based brokerage is taking a different approach to the wealth management business than Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, the largest brokerage at 18,140 advisers, or Bank of America's Merrill Lynch, which ended the first quarter with 15,005 brokers.
This is a push to regain the client's trust and show they're not just another Wall Street firm, said Sophie Schmitt, a senior analyst at Boston's Aite Group. And they're going after the low-hanging fruit among their own customers.
Backed by the fourth-largest U.S. commercial bank, Ludeman said, Wells Fargo brokers can offer investments and services to clients that regional and boutique firms cannot match.
There are huge economies of scale in this business, Ludeman said. With our scale and scope now, we can compete with anybody.
Being big is also critical to being a long-term survivor. The wealth management industry in time will adopt a barbell shape, he said, with a few giants on one end, lots of boutiques on the other end and nothing in between.
That said, Ludeman said he's working harder than ever to retain a small-company feel. Wells Fargo tracks information about its employees' personal and professional milestones, like recognizing a birthday or wedding anniversary.
It's about making sure people understand relationships, to make sure we strengthen the bonds between the adviser and the client, he said.
Ludeman said he is not likely to pursue new acquisitions, focused first on integrating the many legacy operations early next year.
BANKING ON BROKERS
For now, Wells Fargo Advisers is targeting a relatively narrow customer segment: affluent clients with $250,000 to $1 million of investable assets and preferably those who also want to become Wells Fargo bank customers.
Indeed combining banking and brokerage services is a cornerstone of Wells Fargo Advisors' growth plan.
While brokers traditionally resisted selling loans and deposits, closely linking stocks and bonds with banking products has become a key strategy for all of the largest brokerages.
Bank of America Corp is counting on Merrill Lynch to extend loans, take in deposits and provide retirement planning for corporate customers. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney is controlled by investment bank Morgan Stanley , which has made retail finance a top priority since the 2008 crisis.
Swiss bank UBS AG's U.S. wealth management arm, as part of its revival efforts, is also ramping up credit and savings to boost adviser profitability.
In that regard, Ludeman said Wells Fargo has the advantage because it has offered banking and brokerage for 13 years.
It's the right model for our clients, he said. We've been at this for a while. We've been affiliated with a bank for a long time. It's not like trying to figure this out now.
Wells Fargo Advisors was created as part of Wells Fargo's buyout of Wachovia in the fall of 2008 at the depths of the financial crisis. Wachovia and its predecessors had built a brokerage giant by acquiring dozens of regional firms, including Richmond, Virgina-based Wheat First in 1997. Ludeman was the 299th financial adviser hired by Wheat First.
We are the amalgamation of 40 of the largest regionals and regional banks that had brokerage firms, he said.
Bank-owned brokerages have traditionally been dismissed by advisers working at independent boutiques or Wall Street firms. Conventional wisdom said highly paid, free-wheeling advisers did not mix with process-driven, risk-averse banks.
The financial crisis, which put a premium on capital strength and cheap deposits, may have ended the era of large stand-alone brokerages. Customers, Ludeman stressed, benefit more from a one-stop approach.
I staked my whole career on a retail banking and retail brokerage model as the right model, he said. I feel good about our position in the marketplace. I'm fired up and more excited than I've been in my entire career.
(Reporting by Joe Rauch in Charlotte, N.C. and Joseph Giannone in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)