One advisor was previously a mountaineer, guiding clients to mountaintops before he began helping guide their financial lives. Another managed the branch of a retail bank at age 18. These standouts and others made the cut in On Wall Street's latest annual ranking of advisors under the age of 40. The members of this elite group come from all walks of life, from small suburban towns, such as Patchogue, N.Y., to big cities such as Chicago.
Yet while these industry leaders have varied origin stories, their successes share similar foundations.
In their dedication to clients, these advisors go above and beyond what may be necessary. "They have 24 hours, seven days a week access to me," says Morgan Stanley's John Perry, who ranks as No. 1.
Almost all say they take a conservative approach to investing, which several of this year's top advisors say will keep them growing into the future.
"As long as I continue to make that my goal, as long as I'm not reaching for returns, then we'll be set up for future success," says Chris Vollmer of RBC Wealth Management.
Finally, many of this year's top advisors under 40 place a premium not only on the importance of hard work, but of teamwork, too. Many credited their co-workers and mentors with helping set them up for future success. Raymond James & Associates' Jay Hack cites the mentorship of his father, who is an advisor at the same firm, as a key reason he has been able to serve his clients and their families as well as he does.
"It's the importance of family — the importance of our family and those that we service," Hack says. "It's this watchword that we just keep coming back to."
Learn from the profiles, including this year's expanded list of the top 25 advisors at regional broker-dealers, how these elite advisors built their businesses.
To see the full list, click here.
1. Christopher Vollmer
There are times, Chris Vollmer says, when he has to turn away more clients than he accepts. "Sometimes people come to us wanting to grow their money 10% or 15%. That's not what we do," he says.
Vollmer and his team at RBC pursue a conservative, long-term investment strategy, and he wants clients who reflect the team's approach.
The Patchogue, N.Y., native joined the business on the equity side after graduating from Stony Brook University on Long Island. Vollmer, who played football, studied sports management with the goal of working in coaching at the collegiate level. However, a friend helped him get a job in financial services after graduation.
Vollmer says he was hooked instantly on the profession, but the dotcom bubble burst soon followed. That difficult market time made him realize that he had to do more than just sell stocks, Vollmer says.
He paired up with an advisor specializing in fixed income, while also branching out in planning and other areas. Self-education is necessary for survival in an industry that has changed so much, Vollmer says.
"When I first started, people were cold-calling clients. Today, you can't get clients that way," he says. "The name of the game has changed into the high-net-worth individual, and you can be a lot more holistic in your approach."
He credits his success to his conservative approach and pursuit of education, his three team members and RBC, which has offered a lot of support. "I work with people who are really good at what they do," Vollmer says.
2. Jay Hack
FIRM: RAYMOND JAMES
In an industry where many advisors boast impressive certifications, Jay Hack may have the most unique one: avalanche safety. When the Emory University alum was 23 years old, he quit his job as an equity researcher in San Francisco to become a mountaineering guide.
"I used to jokingly call myself a midlife-crisis expert, because if you just sold your business and bought a Harley, then your next move was probably to go mountaineering," Hack says.
After six years of scaling mountains, volcanoes and glaciers, Hack decided it was time for a change. He earned his MBA at American University in Washington, D.C., and his father, Paul Hack, invited him to join his Raymond James practice in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Making the transition to the advisory business wasn't easy, but Hack's father served as his mentor and role model. Hack has tried to closely follow his father's example, including getting involved in his community through charity organizations such as the Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League.
Hack has helped serve the practice's existing clients while building his own book. He says he and his father have been able to more deeply serve multiple generations of the same family.
"Frankly, our industry is traditionally very bad at retaining those assets," he says. "We are trying to buck that trend by demonstrating to the family that things won't get lost in the cracks, that there are really benefits to the whole family."
Hack has also prospected for new clients among fellow outdoor enthusiasts: "They are traditionally underrepresented groups. Every broker and their brother-in-law is on the golf course trying to meet estate-planning attorneys."
In a sense, being an advisor isn't that different from being a mountaineer for Hack. "This was just an exercise in guiding in a different realm," he says.
3. Nicholas Anger
Clients vary widely in their risk parameters, Nicholas Anger has learned. "Some would like to have most of their money in CDs, while others are comfortable with 80% in equities," says Anger, who left Merrill Lynch in 2015 to join RBC's office in Stamford, Conn.
Keeping clients' goals in mind, Anger applies certain basic principles to their investing strategies. For instance, Anger's clients fill out their fixed- income allocations with individual bonds, corporate and municipal. "We talk to bond traders about pricing and inventory," he says. "That's how we can add value."
Anger tells of selling his complete position in Puerto Rico bonds on a single day in 2010, perhaps "a year or two early." Even selling early, Anger's clients received much more than those bonds' current trading prices.
Anger says he uses some bond ladders, with staggered maturities, but currently he prefers a "barbell" approach, focusing on long- and short-term bonds.
Anger uses mutual funds for equities, but asserts that "downside protection is our mantra." To reduce risk, he avoids long-only funds, preferring certain unconstrained entries.
Despite his obvious interest in financial performance, Anger positions himself as more than just an investment manager. Anger and his associates go beyond what might be considered the norm in serving their clients.
"We've advised on choosing a college for a client's child," he says, "and we've sent someone to a client's home to help with computer issues. One client even called us when her car broke down."
4. Benjamin Cohen
FIRM: RAYMOND JAMES
When asked about the reasons for his success, Ben Cohen's initial response is "a willingness to ask for help."
Indeed, help for Cohen, a Raymond James advisor in Chicago, isn't far away: He works with his father, Michael, a Wall Street veteran with over 40 years of experience.
Next on Cohen's list is the ability to "face my fears and make difficult calls." Those aren't cold calls. "We don't seek new clients," Cohen says. "Our business all comes from referrals." Instead, the calls he is referencing are those made to existing clients during difficult times in the financial markets, when portfolios have slipped.
Cohen adds that doing "better than the next guy" is not among his goals; rather, he aspires to do better for clients in absolute terms. "Relative returns don't matter," he says. "Down is down." Thus, when Cohen makes those calls during times of market stress, he doesn't point out that he might have done better than some market index.
Instead, Cohen brings the bad news honestly. "Eighty percent of the time, I'm rewarded for communicating with my clients," he says. "I try to put things in perspective for them."
This tell-it-like-it-is approach was tested in 2008, when Cohen was working for Bear Stearns, the first major casualty of the financial crisis. "We were worried then, because we couldn't provide clarity as to what was going on," he says. Even so, communicating to clients helped keep most of them in the fold after J.P. Morgan acquired Bear Stearns. When Michael and Ben Cohen moved to Raymond James in 2014, "almost everybody came with us," Ben relates.
At Raymond James, Cohen says, "I'm able to fully use my CFP designation to serve clients. This leads to another conversation that may not be easy: talking about commissions. But I have concerns with conflicts of interest, so one of the first things I talk about regarding these products is how the client will benefit and how much it will cost."
5. Jacob Duffy
A top advisor while under 40? Jacob Duffy says he got his start when he was under 10. "I've been hearing about financial matters from my father my whole life," he says. "Sitting around the kitchen table at home, that's what we'd talk about."
While Duffy is now in Baird's Scottsdale, Ariz., office, his father, Brian, is a planner with Raymond James in Seattle. Nevertheless, Jacob's clients still get to hear his father's advice. "When I started to work," Jacob says, "I wanted to invest my money with him. My father would say, 'Explain in 30 seconds why you want to buy that stock. If you can't, don't buy it.' My clients all know that story."
Indeed, Duffy says his most important investment rule involves knowing why he's recommending something to clients, and explaining his reasoning. "I tell them," Duffy says, "that they wouldn't buy a building without a walkthrough. They wouldn't buy a business without being shown the books. So why buy shares of a public company without knowing the reasons?"
Before joining Baird from Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in 2010, Duffy worked as a wholesaler for Federated Investors; he learned from advisors there. "They told me that they experienced highs and lows in building their business," he says. "Therefore, I found out that I would have to handle rejections, and use them positively."
Duffy says he never asks for referrals. "I believe that I'll get as many as I deserve," he explains, "so if I want more referrals, I need to do a better job."
One way to do a better job, he notes, is to communicate regularly with clients, ensuring they understand his investment strategies.
6. Sean Fitzpatrick
FIRM: RAYMOND JAMES
When it comes to staying in touch with clients, Sean Fitzpatrick believes in voice-to-voice communication. "I don't use email for that purpose," he says. "Phone calls work better."
Fitzpatrick says he makes multiple calls each day, reaching out to each of his 150 clients about twice a month.
"The calls might be, 'How was your weekend?' or 'What are you planning?'" relates Fitzpatrick, who joined Raymond James & Associates in his native Houston after studying marketing and finance at DePaul University.
"The more you talk to them, the easier it gets to find what to say. Often the calls are not about investments — they're just a way of getting to know clients better, and gaining their trust."
Nevertheless, these calls may wind up leading to more than just good will. "Recently," Fitzpatrick says, "I called a client who told me he was planning to sell his company and retire. He asked for my thoughts and how this would affect our relationship."
Fitzpatrick's response was an offer to "quarterback the whole process." This might mean bringing in an attorney to handle the legal aspects and an investment banker to value the client's firm.
Not only could this assistance strengthen the existing relationship with a client, but a successful sale might mean a substantial amount of dollars flowing to the client, and perhaps more assets for Fitzpatrick to manage.
Fitzpatrick's interaction with clients doesn't stop at phone calls.
"My wife and I might arrange to have dinner with a couple who are clients," says Fitzpatrick, "and the clients may ask two other couples to join us. Once the conversation is under way, you find things you have in common. This can be an easy way to get referrals to qualified people."
7. Christopher Lazos
After majoring in architecture and engineering in college, Chris Lazos realized those careers weren't for him. He decided to pursue his passion for investing on Wall Street.
Lazos, who had been buying stocks since his teens, spent a summer at a small brokerage firm, cold-calling business owners and corporate executives. It was 2003, shortly after the market crash, and many other advisors were cautious about stocks, Lazos says. "I was more positive, and I succeeded in getting business there," he says.
After a few years, Lazos moved to Maxim Group, where he made partner by age 25. By then, he had decided to shift from a transactional business to a managed business, providing more-comprehensive financial advice on a fee basis. In May 2008, he left Maxim for Oppenheimer, bringing many of his clients with him.
"I still had most of their assets in cash when the financial crisis hit in the second half of 2008," the New York-based advisor says. "To me, this felt like a repeat of 2003, so I advised clients to stay in stocks and even increase their holdings, which has worked out well."
Switching to a managed business means Lazos mainly relies on boutique money managers to handle his clients' assets. "They may have left a large firm to go on their own, so they now have fewer assets to manage," he says of these professionals. "This makes them more nimble than the competition, able to produce better returns."
Lazos has added another role to his career: portfolio manager. His managed account, a dividend growth strategy, is now up to $30 million in assets, Lazos says.
8. Michael Berger
If you're looking for a stock picker who's going to go all in on the next hot tech startup, Michael Berger is not the advisor for you. Berger is unapologetic about his commitment to "conservative wealth management," professing a cautious but confident investment strategy geared toward clients looking for a solid fixed-income portfolio.
"I'm definitely a slower and steadier approach than most people," Berger says. "Basically, the idea is preservation of capital, and we're trying to earn as much of a return on that capital as we can."
Berger's team, based in New York, serves high-net-worth clients, with a combined AUM of $1.3 billion. His clients are families or individuals who are generally past the accumulation stage and looking to preserve their nest egg.
"I'm looking to put them in conservative investments where they can sleep at night and know that everything's taken care of, and not worry too much about risk or loss of principal," Berger says.
Like all successful advisors, Berger touts the high level of service his team provides, though he acknowledges its limitations. Berger and his partner, brother-in-law Ira Mark, share a conservative investment philosophy, and he understands that he operates a niche practice.
"I don't think I'm all things to all people. I don't really think anyone is," he says. "The good part about this business is you can do it many different ways."
Berger says a big part of the job is to fight "headline risk," the sometimes irrational reaction clients have to news of the day. Such has been the case over the past year, as Wall Street has looked with unease at the prospect of an interest rate hike. When rates inevitably start to rise, Berger expects a very gradual climb and sees no reason to delay investing in, say, an interest-bearing bond in anticipation of a higher rate a year from now.
"There's definitely a cost of waiting and doing nothing," he says.
9. Tim Forster
To grow his business, Tim Forster began shrinking.
Since Forster combined practices with Ron Farley in 2003, the two have steadily thinned their roster of clients from 1,300 households to about 600. Simultaneously, they've increased their combined AUM from $119 million to around $475 million.
Forster says he doesn't feel as if he's doing his job if can't deliver superior service tailored to each client's goals and circumstances.
"We customize and do a lot of in-depth planning, which I don't think a lot of advisors do," he says. "You can't do that with 5,000 households."
Based in Eau Claire, Wis., a town of a little more than 67,000, Forster says that he knew from an early age that he wanted to make his mark in finance.
He bought his first shares in a mutual fund at 16, majored in finance in college and joined Baird in 1999, drawn both to the numbers side of the operation and the idea of helping people.
Forster strives for a deep engagement with clients, which he expects will strengthen with the addition of a junior advisor in January.
"That's the one thing that sets us apart is the service model — the quarterly calls, the in-person reviews, the client events," Forster says. These events have included plays, sporting events and wine tastings. Next up? Renting out a movie theater for a viewing of the new Star Wars movie.
That level of interaction just makes sense in a small town like Eau Claire, Forster says.
"You'll run into people at the grocery store; you'll see clients in the local newspaper," he says. "That's why your reputation is so important — because word travels very quickly in a community of this size."
10. Tanner Robinson
When Tanner Robinson started out in the advisory business 10 years ago, his most receptive prospects were foundations, endowments and retirement plans.
"It's hard to get folks to take your calls when you're 23, 24 years old," he recalls.
Institutions remain an important part of his business, composing about 70% of the accounts the team handles. Many of the private wealth advisory clients who make up the balance of the book heard of the practice by way of one of Robinson's institutional clients.
"I think that's a sign that we're doing something right," he says.
The office, with two advisors and two support staffers, is well-equipped to serve the practice's 50-plus clients, but Robinson is wary of expanding too quickly.
"We're very lucky in that we have a client base that is not overwhelming, so we can provide that white-glove service that our clients expect," Robinson says.
At an early age, Robinson determined he was a good fit for the advisory field because it marries the number crunching he studied as finance major with interpersonal skills.
"Having both of those things on the plate in lieu of, say, a 9-to-5 job where you're either exclusively in sales or you're exclusively running spreadsheets is what got me excited about it," he says.
Regular interaction with clients is central to Robinson's practice, which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C. Robinson, a CFP, describes this region, which is thick with financial-services firms, as an "over-advisored" market where clients expect a high level of service.
He professes a "holistic approach" to working with clients. "We try to find solutions for our clients, and not the other way around," he says.