Both sides of my family are from Texas, but my parents, my siblings and I moved to Washington. D.C. when my father got a job at the National Institute of Health. My first real job was in high school working at a consortium. Small business owners contacted the consortium for interns. I got to [run the office of] a small temp agency whose staff was always out drumming up business. I also got to take classes they gave in finance, accounting and marketing. I loved math and computers and was good at anything that involved talking. I attended the University of Virginia and had a joint major in business and finance. For my internship at Riggs Bank in D.C. I worked in information technology and wrote macros for the International Bank. Two things scared me. First, people who had been there 20 years said they wish they were doing what I was, and second, the technology department was in the basement. That's when I switched from IT to finance.
I joined Merrill Lynch in 1987 in the municipal bond department just before Black Monday that October. There was not a lot to do when that occurred. I asked a banker in the department (a financial modeling expert) to give me a project, something I could learn. He had me work on financial models and then build them from scratch. When the market came back, the bankers were looking for people for their largest clients. My mentor said he had trained me, and I was given a large client. It taught me that if you learn your craft and do more than expected, you'll benefit.
I attended business school at Stanford after that and then joined McKinsey & Company. In three years I worked with companies in seven industries. I loved the retail business and finance, but at the time I didn't see the link between the two. Then a colleague who had gone to Charles Schwab called and said I should join him there. I started at Schwab in 1994 and worked in the strategy group for five years. Next I worked for an Internet startup, which was fun, but because many of these companies are venture-backed, they frequently change focus. I didn't care for that. I liked starting new businesses, however, so I returned to Merrill and started what became MerrillEdge. I became director of the Retirement Group. After that I went to E*TRADE as head of Investor Marketing. In 2007, I joined Wachovia Securities which became Wells Fargo Advisors. I launched what became Wells Fargo Advisors Solutions that year. [Now] I'm in charge of the retail-direct businesses, including the call center-based advisors and WellsTrade for investors who want to trade some or all of their investments on their own. We help clients at the wealth creation stage.
The one lesson that has been consistent in my career is that if you focus on the client you can get through the rough periods. The businesses that fall by the wayside have not done this. You also have to be clear about the pace of investment. Anything that comes too quickly probably does so for a reason; the foundation may not be there. I advise everyone to look for sustainable growth.
-As Told to Pat Olsen