No. 1: Erik Bjerke
Firm: Merrill Lynch
AUM: $12.81 billion
Note: This profile is part of a special series devoted to On Wall Streets Top 40 Under 40 ranking for 2012. Every day we take a look at an advisor who made the list to find out the secrets of their success.
When Erik Bjerke reports his total assets under management, he reads it off digit by digit, and it sounds like he could be giving you his phone number.
His definition of success has changed greatly in the 17 years following his college graduation and completion of Merrill Lynch's training program. In the past decade of his career as an advisor, his sense of accomplishment has become less about how big that number is and more about the many people who reap the benefits of his work with institutional clients.
"I definitely jumped out of college thinking much differently," Bjerke says. Initially, he just focused on income, production, assets and other targets. "Early in my career, I was fortunate to get the sense that it's not about yourself and it's not about going after the opportunity yourself."
As his career progressed, his priorities and practice underwent a significant change owed in large part to a newfound belief in God and religion, which he discovered through the encouragement of his wife.
"I developed more of a relationship and faith in God and really came to view what we do quite differently," Bjerke explains. "We touch over three million participants though all of the folks that we deal with and companies that we deal with."
In fact, Bjerke credits his religious journey with the realization that he can have a huge impact on so many individuals by running what he believes is a "highly ethical [business]."
While Bjerke says that he was "immature" and "self-centered" growing up, his operative word now is "giving." His current set of beliefs have made him more interested in philanthropic goals and how that connects with estate planning. That means giving to others before himself, especially when it comes to his team, the Global Corporate Institutional Advisory Services Group, a large network of Merrill advisors throughout the country that has its hub in Atlanta.
To that end, he has thrown his book of business in with 12 other senior equity partners to pool their management and drive the collective spirit. According to Bjerke, the structure of his team's practice is somewhat comparable to that of a law firm.
"[It's about] giving more to clients, giving more to each other, giving more to the firm," Bjerke says. "If you give more of yourself constantly, more than you pay back, it's only an amount of time before you'll achieve success whatever that means for you."
He learned that lesson early in his career. Back before the "Do Not Call" Registry existed, and before he was dealing with Fortune 500 companies, Bjerke picked up a lead out of the local paper from an ad, "House Boats for Sale." Despite the jaunty title, the situation with that business owner client was very complex and forced Bjerke to rely on others.
"Having the sense to work and partner with more senior folks at the time and do things together instead of trying to everything myself or having over confidence really helped out," Bjerke says.