Lifetime Achievement: UBS’ Rosemary Berkery

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In the early 1980s, Rosemary Berkery was a young attorney at a white-shoe law firm in New York when she had a career epiphany.

She realized that she didn’t want to follow the same professional path as some of her more seasoned Shearman & Sterling colleagues, who were still doing the same kind of work that Berkery was tackling in her late 20s.

“I thought to myself, I love doing what I’m doing now, but if I’m doing exactly this 25 years from now, I’m going to put a gun to my head,” she recalled with a laugh.

As a lawyer who advised financial services companies on mergers and acquisitions, Berkery had become enamored with the energy and excitement of the banking business. She ultimately landed a job as in-house counsel at Merrill Lynch, a decision that would launch a lengthy, high-powered career in banking.

Berkery traveled the globe as a Merrill executive. She helped launched the investment bank’s first-ever radio commercials. Eventually she became Merrill’s general counsel, and played a key role in negotiating the company’s sale to Bank of America over a pivotal weekend at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

She capped her career with an eight-year stint at UBS, where she led the overhaul of the bank unit it has to serve U.S. wealth management clients. In 2015, she survived a serious health crisis, after which she dedicated herself to philanthropic work on behalf of organ donation.

During a recent interview, Berkery, who retired in May, marveled at the journey she has taken since her days as a 20-something M&A lawyer. “Believe me, I feel very blessed,” she said.

Berkery will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at American Banker’s annual gala for the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance in New York on Oct. 4.

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Early in Berkery’s banking career, she saw very few female role models in the executive ranks at Merrill or elsewhere. “That was true across the industry,” she said.

Berkery spent 14 years in legal jobs at Merrill before she was offered a big opportunity on the business side. One day in 1997, Merrill’s then-president David Komansky asked to speak with her following a meeting.

“And he said to me, ‘We’d actually like you to move out of the legal department if you’re interested, and become the co-head of the securities research and economics division,’ ” Berkery recounted.

“He looked at his watch. He kind of smiled at me and said, ‘Rosemary, if you take longer than 20 minutes to decide, we’ve made a huge mistake in offering you the job.’

“He was both serious and being funny at the same time. He was implying what a huge opportunity it was.”

Berkery walked back to her office, 32 floors above the Hudson River, to quickly collect her thoughts. “And I thought to myself, ‘This could be absolutely the greatest opportunity in my life, or it could be a nosedive out the window.’”

She took the job, even though she was nervous, maybe even terrified, of the challenge she was facing.

In her previous role Berkery had overseen a group of 30 lawyers; now she would be managing 1,000 analysts based all over the globe. “It was a tall order,” she said. “But I thought, ‘Somebody thinks I can do this job.’ ”

A few years later, Berkery became head of strategy and marketing for U.S. private client investment products. In that role she once found herself standing in a sound booth with the actor and comedian Steve Martin as he recorded a Merrill Lynch radio spot.

In 2001, Berkery became general counsel and a member of the executive management team. She stayed in that job until the height of the financial panic, when the investment bank was sold to BofA over the course of a frenzied weekend.

During a recent interview, Berkery did not want to dwell on that breakneck experience. She noted how much has already been written about the crisis, including all the recent 10th-anniversary coverage.

But she did briefly reflect on the sale of a fabled company where she’d spent 25 years. “Just on a personal note, it was sad,” she said.

After the deal closed, Berkery decided to step down. She didn’t know what she was going to do next, and took nine months off, following the advice of a friend who advised against jumping into a new job right away.

One day she got a phone call from Robert “Bob” McCann, a former Merrill colleague who had been hired to run the U.S. wealth management unit at UBS. Over lunch the next day, McCann offered to make her chief executive of UBS Bank USA, which offers loans to American wealth management clients.

“I said ‘Yes’ literally on the spot,” Berkery recalled.

In 2010, the Swiss bank’s U.S. wealth management business was struggling, a plight that has been attributed to various management shakeups and shifts in strategy.

Berkery quickly surmised that UBS was failing to offer adequate sources of liquidity to its high-net-worth clients. The bank did not issue its own credit card or give customers the ability to borrow against their holdings in hedge funds.

UBS Bank USA offered mortgages, but the customer experience was subpar, which was unacceptable to wealthy clients. “I thought, ‘Rather than trying to patchwork this, let’s actually build it from scratch,’ ” Berkery said. “We needed a whole different service model.”

Soon the bank’s efforts to upgrade its loan products paid off. Its deposit base grew from $23 billion to $55 billion in five years.

Berkery’s life changed in May 2015 when, after a 10-hour workday, she went into acute cardiogenic shock. For her entire life she’d had a heart condition called cardiomyopathy, and it had not prevented her from having an active lifestyle.

But now her liver had shut down, her kidneys were on the verge of failing, and she was told that she would not be leaving the hospital until she got a heart transplant. Berkery was kept alive for two months until a heart became available.

“It was a miracle, frankly,” she said. (Later, in accepting her award, Berkery spoke about how supportive colleagues had been during her wait for a transplant, singling out McCann in particular.)

Earlier this year, Berkery was elected to the board of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, where she works to give the same gift that she received to others. “It’s really incredibly rewarding,” she said.

Berkery is also serving on various other nonprofit and corporate boards, and said that life after banking seems busier than ever before.

She and her husband, Bob Hausen, have a 25-year-old son, who’s currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania Law School after a post-college stint in investment banking.

Berkery recounted a conversation in which her son Bobby expressed a desire to find a career path that brings a lifetime of learning and continuous challenges.

“I couldn’t believe I was hearing this,” she recalled. “It was like an echo from my life.”

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Wealth management C-suite Rosemary Berkery Merrill Lynch UBS UBS Wealth Management Women in Banking