The good news for banks is that large brokerage firms are not serving wealthy individuals well. The bad news is that most banks are not serving them well, either. It's the independent financial advisers who are serving the wealthy as they should be served, and banks must emulate them if they want to be successful.
Which banks can do this? Independent community banks.
Banks must be relationship oriented, long-term in their perspective, unbiased in their recommendations, and constant in their efforts to provide investment services to the wealthy.
Let's look at how big banks identify this tremendous opportunity to serve the wealthy and how they throw away this same opportunity time and time again.
Relationship oriented. I know of no bank that doesn't claim to focus on the "relationship" rather than the "transaction." Then why are profit centers and organizational fiefdoms allowed to ensure failure in serving the wealthy? Private banking is over here; trust services are over there; investment products are provided by this subsidiary or that third-party marketing firm; proprietary funds are managed by this unit.
Can anyone in a bank structured in this fashion really concentrate on a client's overall relationship when there are so many competing forces at work? Most, if not all, superregional and money-center banks are in some way organized along these lines.
Long-term in perspective. How many large banks have the time and commitment to nurture along the process of serving the wealthy? Personal relationships need to be fostered. Thoughtful analysis needs to be applied to a client's overall financial picture. Products and services that satisfy these needs have to be introduced in a methodical manner to ensure their efficacy in the client's situation.
Unbiased in recommendations. If you have proprietary funds and have institutional goals for the growth of these funds, how can direct or indirect pressure to sell these funds be avoided? It can't. It's amazing how many of a firm's proprietary funds are sold despite the fact that consumers have 5,000 mutual funds to choose from. This is true for brokerage firms as well as banks. Are they selecting the most appropriate investment for their client or are they really selecting the most appropriate proprietary fund?
Constant in their effort: Large banks frequently change direction in their endeavors to serve the wealthy. Sales goals, profitability issues, better market opportunities, different corporate focus, these all influence the ebb and flow of larger banks' dedication to the wealthy.
Is there anything fundamentally wrong with large banks managing their business units as described above? Not at all. The ultimate responsibility of these banks is to increase shareholder value. The ultimate criterion for dedicating resources to various market opportunities is whether those opportunities will do the most to increase earnings per share.
This is exactly why small, independent, closely held community banks have a unique opportunity to easily outperform their larger competitors.
The shareholders and senior management of an independent bank can commit to serving a market segment such as the wealthy and not be pressured by turf battles or quarter-to-quarter profitability issues. They have the ability to identify and nurture a business line that will strengthen the bank long-term.
Independent community banks will ultimately serve the wealthy, rather than the large banks, which are truly envious of the advantages their smaller brethren enjoy. The independent banks can be successful if they develop a well-thought-out strategic plan and then implement the action steps to achieve the plan. The most important ingredient to this enormous opportunity is the commitment to take action.
Mr. Morda is principal of Private Client Services, a consulting firm in Boulder, Colo.