When I started my career at PaineWebber in 1983, one of its rivals broke with industry tradition and began paying upfront money to recruit brokers, as financial advisers were then known, from competing firms. They offered an over-the-top, one-time cash payment of 30% of trailing commissions.
Over the next three decades, recruiting would move from a rogue tactic to an accepted practice to, in recent years, what I believe has bordered on an unhealthy obsession. Now, thousands of advisers switch firms each year.
At current volume and expense levels, this relentless recruiting is bad for the industry: It doesn’t provide direct benefits to clients, it detracts from the culture of wealth management firms, and it weighs on the returns we generate for shareholders. For all of these reasons and more, our firm recently decided to say, "enough is enough."
To be clear, recruiting helped UBS build our adviser force to a size and level of productivity aligned to our business strategy, and we will continue to selectively hire. But we’re dramatically shifting our focus — cutting our recruiting program nearly in half so that our managers and resources are concentrated on retaining our existing advisers, helping them grow their practices, and serving clients rather than courting outside advisers.
I believe our business is a Main Street business more than it is a Wall Street business, one that should always be centered around the trusted relationships built between advisers and clients in the communities in which they live and work. Disrupting those relationships and creating burdens for clients is the opposite of a smart business strategy.
Make no mistake; the cost of change is high for clients. There are the simple nuisances – I’m almost certain no client has ever told their adviser they would like the opportunity to fill out another form, to change their credit card auto-payments and online bill pay information, to try to understand a different account statement, or to have multiple accounts.
There are also opportunity costs, as advisors who are changing firms, rebuilding their business and learning new systems may be temporarily more focused on their own needs than their clients'. And there can be direct costs to clients as well, including tax implications or additional fees and commissions. As I traveled around the country over the past six months listening to our advisers, it became clear to me that they want stability for their clients and their practices. It was this input from long-tenured advisers as well as those we recently recruited that led to the development of the new operating model UBS announced last week.
Critical to being a great people business is building a client-focused culture. Rightly or wrongly, levels of trust in and appreciation for the financial services industry are low – and it couldn’t come at a worse time. We are in the midst of a massive generational shift as baby boomers age and millennials become the largest segment of the population, new industry entrants vie for our clients, and the regulatory landscape continues to evolve.
To rebuild trust, we need to continue to operate with integrity in everything we do. We have to get back to a place where clients feel they are our top priority. That requires a deep commitment to building on the right elements of our cultures. Shaping culture is a challenge in the best of times, but in an environment that rewards change and constant turnover above loyalty, it is an even more difficult task.
Sizable recruiting deals also have left their mark on the industry’s profitability. In addition to having billions in recruiting loans sit on our industry's balance sheets for as long as a decade, billions of dollars of costs hit our bottom lines each year, from recruiting fees to upfront and back-end payments of more than 300% to advisers who have changed firms. With increasing capital requirements, that translates into significant amounts of capital that are not available to reinvest in our businesses or distribute to our shareholders.
As I look at the challenges and opportunities facing our industry and our clients, I don’t see answers in further disruption, turnover and wasted capital. The answer is in investing in the relationships that are the foundation of what we do. Taking steps to ensure advisers have the support and technological capabilities needed to provide the best possible advice and service to clients. Putting in place programs that help make those relationships deep and long-lasting – from rewarding loyalty to encouraging teaming to facilitating business transfers when an adviser wants to retire – so the advice we provide is more consistent and better informed.
We have to remember that people who work together over time build a bond of trust that supports the delivery of real value — that's good for clients and for advisers.
Our industry has come a long way over the three decades I’ve been associated with it. We’ve done important work helping to create and protect wealth that has improved the lives of our clients, driven increased philanthropic engagement, and funded advancements in critical areas like technology, healthcare and infrastructure. As in any industry, there are times when it becomes important to step back and ensure that we are not straying from our core purpose. In doing so, we may all find we have spent too much time and effort focusing on the competition and not enough time appreciating the strengths of our own business and clients. The good news is that it’s never too late to change.