After years of flirting with the idea, banks are suddenly embracing a big change in the way they structure services for wealthy clients.
This week, National City Corp. said it has brought its private banking and trust departments under one umbrella to bring "one-stop shopping" to upscale clients.
Just days earlier, LaSalle National Corp. announced that it is merging its trust subsidiary into its flagship bank and creating a wealth management unit.
Experts on the affluent market have been calling on banks for years to begin integrating private banking and trust operations - and have been struck by banks' resistance to change.
"The bureaucracy that has been built up over a very long time is like a coral reef," said John J. DeMarco, a senior vice president at PSI, a Tampa research firm.
The arguments for merging trust and private banking are powerful, said David Ross Palmer, a New York consultant who counsels banks on reaching wealthy clients. "Research indicates this is what clients want and that you can increase market share."
But, he added, "when the CEO looks at the progress of the private banking and trust operations, they look good compared to most of the rest of the bank. It's hard to convince that person they have a problem."
Mr. Palmer said banks are beginning to recognize that they are losing affluent clients and market share to more nimble players. "There is a cumulative effect in which people finally get the message. After you've heard it year after year, you start to pay attention."
National City, a Cleveland-based banking company that manages $18 billion in assets for affluent clients, was encouraged to integrate its wealthy client services when it heard about success stories at other banks, said Jeffrey M. Biggar, an executive vice president.
Each of National City's eight banks now has a private-client group that reports to each bank president; Mr. Biggar runs the Cleveland group. The company is also hiring 12 fee-based financial planners to act as lead contacts for customers.
During 18 months of planning for the integration, Mr. Biggar said, he traveled to Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco to meet with his counterparts at other banks and hear their experiences. He would not say which banks he visited.
One goal of the new setup, he said, is to ensure that clients and prospects - who have wealth in six figures - are aware of all of the bank's products.
"It is surprising to me how many times I've talked to a client who doesn't really know all the things we can bring to them," Mr. Biggar said.
Mr. DeMarco of PSI isn't surprised. He said a recent survey found that only half of 2,300 affluent households interviewed were approached by a private banker to buy more products. But of those that did get sales calls, 28% made an investment.
Some banks, like LaSalle, a unit of ABN Amro Holding of the Netherlands, have been moving in stages toward integration. The company expects its wealth management unit to be up and running around Jan. 2.
Though there was already a lot of coordination with the bank, said James B. Wynsma, president of LaSalle National Trust, the aim is "to clean it up a lot more and get all these products sold through a single point of entry."
He also noted that new incentives and compensation structures usually come along with a new organization. Otherwise, "or all you've done is rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic."
As a case in point, LaSalle will give its salespeople a more appealing commission plan, along with a fuller menu of products to pitch. That should push them to be more aggressive, Mr. Wynsma said.
National City is taking similar steps. "The bank is moving to put a lot more pay at risk," Mr. Biggar said. "There will be more incentives for people exceeding goals than ever before."