When UBS Group CFO Tom Naratil takes the helm of Wealth Management Americas next year, he'll inherit an organization in much better shape than the one President Bob McCann found in 2009, industry insiders say.

McCann, 57, who will step down as president to become chairman on Jan. 1, joined UBS during a period of turmoil, after serving as vice chairman and president of Merrill Lynch's Global Wealth Management Group for six years, according to the firm's website.

When McCann took the helm at UBS, the industry was reeling from the financial crisis and many industry insiders expected UBS to exit the U.S. market. A number of long standing firms disappeared during that time, such as A.G. Edwards and Smith Barney.

"At the point he came in, I think they were seriously contemplating a sale. My hunch was that they would sell. But ultimately what he managed to do is instill, not just more confidence that this would be a profitable unit, but also a ton of talent from Merrill Lynch," says Alois Pirker, an analyst at research firm Aite Group.

Among McCann's priorities at the time: restoring the morale among advisors.

"He really turned that around and made them feel that they were really cared about and listened too," says recruiter Michael King, noting that the firm created an advisory council of brokers, allowing them to give feedback on firm policies.

"I think he did a terrific job, that’s my honest opinion," King says.


Under his watch, McCann shrank the advisor force while also raising productivity. At the end of 2008, UBS reported having about 8,600 advisors, according to earnings reports. As of the third quarter, that figure had dropped to 6,989 advisors.

The firm exited some markets; in 2009, UBS sold 56 branches to Stifel.

During McCann’s tenure the firm's bottom line has grown, as UBS has become more profitable in part by recruiting higher-end advisors and focusing on high-net-worth and ultrahigh-net-worth clients.

In a memo to UBS employees, CEO Sergio Ermotti highlighted the unit's numbers, noting that McCann led the wealth management unit to achieve $1 million in annual revenue per advisor and $1 trillion in invested assets.

"He has been a mentor and a friend to me for many years and I am pleased that he will continue to be an important contributor in his new role," Ermotti said.

The management ranks were also bolstered, including by a number of top executives who had experience at Merrill. For example, Rosemary Berkery, vice chairman of UBS Wealth Management in the U.S., was previously a senior Merrill executive. Brian Hull, head of the Client Advisory Group, spent 15 years in various management positions at Merrill, according to the firm's website.

In an interview last year, Bob Mulholland, a former Merrill executive who previously served as head of the Client Advisory Group at UBS, said that collaboration between UBS' various units was greater than it had previously been.

Mulholland said that there had been a "big cultural shift" allowing them to deliver more to the client by bringing to bear the resources of the global asset management and bank

"The silos are broken down. And it's really helped our business and it's done just as much if not more for our clients," he said.

Like its competitors, UBS has become much more focused on comprehensive planning and meeting the broader range of needs of its wealthy clients. Lending has become a much bigger part of the business, for example.

The firm recently reported that loans rose 10% year-over-year to $47.5 billion for the third quarter. Meanwhile, net interest income for the unit, which represents income from lending, rose 15% to $311 million for the quarter.


Though Naratil will oversee a much more robust firm, he'll face new challenges – particularly as new technologies transform the business, experts say. "With the market evolving quite rapidly, how do you change your current business model into a more digital one?" Pirker, the analyst, asks.

"The problems of survival from the crisis years have clearly been solved," he adds. Now it's a question of navigating a changing landscape.

Naratil has been at the firm his entire career, starting at as an intern at PaineWebber, which was later acquired by UBS. That long familiarity with the firm is a plus, experts say.

"The industry is going through a tremendous amount of change, and change-minded people are needed. And he knows that firm extremely well," Pirker says. "On the one side, the leadership role that Bob had – that's big shoes to fill. And on the other hand, the market changes are big as well. He has his work cut out [for him]."

But UBS's Hull, speaking during a recent interview about the firm's plans for 2016, pointed to McCann's recipe for success.

"Honestly, if I really think about [it], and you look at the success that Bob McCann has had and UBS, it's always about execution," Hull said. "I'm optimistic about the future."

Read more: