When Rosemary Vrablic and Jane Heller left Citicorp's private banking group in 1995 to help start a similar business in New York for NationsBank Corp., there was mutual suspicion between them and their new employer.
The two women wondered how committed a company based in Charlotte, N.C., would be to the New York market.
Hugh McColl, chairman and chief executive officer of what is now BankAmerica Corp., was skeptical that the private bankers would be able to attract 100 high-net-worth clients in less than a year.
Both sides were dead wrong.
By December 1995, when the two bankers held their Christmas lunch for top customers at the Four Seasons restaurant, "Mr. McColl's mouth dropped open" at the sight of a roomful of big-ticket clients, Ms. Heller said.
Since then, NationsBank's New York private banking office has amassed a loan portfolio of $1.5 billion, and its original staff of four has grown to 18. It is set for even more growth under the coast-to-coast BankAmerica umbrella.
"People were concerned when a Charlotte bank came to New York," Ms. Vrablic said in a recent interview. "Would it still be here? But we've been enormously successful."
In fact, New York is BankAmerica's most profitable private banking outpost, according to William Helms, president of the private bank east.
"The New York office is without a doubt our most successful by growth and profitability," he said. "It would be the smallest of our regions in revenues but, in terms of per capita wealth, there is a ton of it in New York."
After years at Citicorp-23 for Ms. Heller and six for Ms. Vrablic-the two thought they had "died and gone to heaven" after a few months at NationsBank, Ms. Heller said. "The difference between here and Citibank is there are no separate fiefdoms. You work for one company, not for a department."
This is important for executives whose clients include celebrities, wealthy entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, and corporate bigwigs, all of whom prize consistency in their bank dealings.
"Our job is to cross-sell the rest of the bank and act as a liaison," Ms. Heller explained. "People don't want to have to tell their story a thousand times."
"We try and make it seamless for the customer," Ms. Vrablic added.
The women describe the private banking business as having two distinct parts.
The first, which they call Tier 1, involves lending to entrepreneurs with net worths of $50 million to more than $1 billion. The loans, which are secured against personal assets, could be used as venture capital to help start a new business, or for a bridge loan to tide a company over until additional financing can be found.
Customers may borrow to buy stock to diversify their personal holdings or to purchase a plane, a boat, or a piece of original and expensive art. One client, from New Orleans, borrowed several hundred thousand dollars to build a float for Mardi Gras, the bankers said.
Each of the loans is tailored to the client, and the interest rates vary based on the quality and amount of collateral.
"This is not cookie-cutter lending," Ms. Vrablic said.
The second, Tier 2 type of private banking, is the kind that most banks provide to those with about $1 million or more in investable assets. This is personalized banking, including services such as check cashing and mortgage lending.
"Ninety-nine percent of banks do that and call it private banking," Ms. Heller said. It does not interest her very much, nor is it particularly lucrative.
However, Tier 2 is a big business for a competitor, Bank of New York. Asset management for the Baby Boom generation has attracted a host of new entrants into the market, said vice president Esslie Hughes.
She said BankAmerica is not among the rivals that Bank of New York runs into most often. That group includes Chase Manhattan Corp., U.S. Trust Co., Merrill Lynch & Co., Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney, and Goldman, Sachs & Co.
New York "is a very competitive market," she said.
Meanwhile, in the Tier 1 end of the market, Ms. Heller said she is most often up against her old employer, Citibank, and UBS.
Ms. Vrablic and Ms. Heller are at points in their career cycles where many clients need to work out trust and estate issues. These customers did not inherit their wealth, Ms. Heller said. And most of them are currently doing a lot of investing.
"Our client base has matured," Ms. Vrablic said. "They have a few assets and many homes, ex-wives, and many children."
The trust and estate issues are complex. Ms. Heller said she often helps to set up a family office so that customers can manage their estates through the bank.
"Because of the paperwork involved, they really need the bank to act as co-executor to sort things out with their attorneys," she said.
Working closely with these customers for many years, through divorces and second marriages, new ventures and business partners, Ms. Heller said she has become "like a member of the family. I've had most of my clients for 20 years."
She and Ms. Vrablic are also committed to bringing in new clients. The recent arrivals often come as a result of referrals from current clients. "Rich people tend to socialize with other rich people," Ms. Vrablic pointed out.
Client leads also come from other parts of the bank. BankAmerica's Montgomery Securities unit is a good source of tips as well as an important provider of products for their clients, the two women said.
As part of a cooperative effort by the securities underwriting unit and the private banking group, the bank sponsored a Jackson Pollock exhibition recently at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"Our clients are on the board of MOMA," Ms. Heller said. "They own Jackson Pollocks. This was a premier New York event."
As a trustee for the New York Yankees Foundation and a member of the capital committee of the Central Park Conservancy, Ms. Heller has her hands full with good works that bring her into contact with prospective clients.
Ms. Vrablic, just back from a stint in San Francisco, is about to get more involved in this part of the rainmaking. Recently appointed market executive for New York, she will be BankAmerica's top executive in the metropolitan area and will oversee the integration of the two merged banks' private banking groups.
The job is like "being a cheerleader," she said. "I have to ensure we drum up as much business as we possibly can."
This summer, the private bank will start using the BankAmerica name in New York. The addition of the former San Francisco bank's staff will bring the number of employees in the New York office to 21.
Although the merger sparked discussion about the treatment of women at the combined company, Ms. Vrablic and Ms. Heller, who is a senior vice president, said they are happy and comfortable at BankAmerica.
"This institution cares about results," Ms. Heller said. "This is positively the most merit-driven organization I've ever worked for," added Ms. Vrablic.
Mr. McColl is also pleased with the situation.
"Rosemary and Jane are great examples of relationship bankers," he said. "They're tough, smart, and totally dedicated to their clients. I'm proud of both of them."