Talk with senior wealth management executives for an hour, and you'll get a 45-minute pitch about their ability to achieve superior strength and size while keeping a "small-firm" feel.

You'll hear how the firm, more than its competitors, can "walk the walk" when it comes to putting clients first. You'll hear about the excellent quality of the company's advisors, its platform and its products. You'll hear about the organization's outreach programs to the female and minority communities, the coming opportunities created by the aging baby boomers and their firm's total confidence in seizing them.

But in those other 15 minutes, the executives provide candid, insightful commentary about the state of the wealth management — how it's been able to recover from the challenges of the recent financial crisis, the obstacles it faces as the industry evolves and what executives have been doing to expand their business.

The biggest shift revealed during these interviews, conducted in September, is the increasing focus on wealth management as a revenue generator. As regulators cast a gimlet eye on investment banking and proprietary trading, and as commercial and consumer lending stalls, banks are looking to the relative safety and profitability of their wealth management divisions to boost earnings.

And, so far, that focus has been paying off handsomely for many banks. For example, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) on Friday reported net revenue from asset management of $2.8 billion in the third quarter, up 12% from a year earlier; its client assets rose 11%, to $2.2 trillion.

Banks overall are still trying to rebuild wealth management income to precrisis levels. Income from annuities, fiduciary activities, investment advice and securities brokerage was $33.4 billion last year, compared with $37 billion in 2008, according to a review of more than 1,400 banks in the Michael White-IPI Bank Wealth Management Report for 2013.

More firms are investing more time and money into their wealth management operations. Recent layoffs at UBS hit the investment bank but did not touch the financial advisory arm, which Bob McCann, CEO of UBS Group Americas, says has been a net "hirer" this year.

Not surprisingly, McCann and other wirehouse executives suddenly find themselves taking center stage within their banks. Meanwhile, regional broker-dealer executives face the same challenges as the national wealth management firms, while also trying to figure out how to compete against better-funded, bigger rivals.

The flip side of all this attention is that these executives and their teams are expected to tote the banner for the rest of the firms' business lines — most notably lending.

Cross-selling is the marching order across wealth management. It was made manifest by the recent appointment of Mary Mack to CEO of Wells Fargo Advisors. The former president of Wells Fargo's financial services group was noted for encouraging cross-selling across all business units. No clearer message could be sent to the advisors in that firm that their job is no longer to simply serve clients, but to become a lead-feeder for other business lines.

For advisors, this is good news, as it opens up the opportunity to create additional production — and income — from activities not linked to assets under management.

This will also create a profound shift in the way advisors work and how they are ranked. Production and assets under management are rapidly being decoupled, and industry execs expect that trend to accelerate in coming years.

Cross-selling also creates some potential problems. If a uniform fiduciary standard were written that required brokers to put their clients' interests above their own, the mandate — and in many firms it is becoming a mandate — that advisors suggest in-house, non-investment products to clients could attract the same sort of regulatory scrutiny that investment products have generated.

These practices have not yet raised any warning bells with wealth management executives, who claim cross-selling is being driven by customer demand from their highly sophisticated clients. This defense will likely hold as much water as it always has, which is to say not much if regulators get involved. Executives ignore this at their own peril.

Despite the real or anticipated challenges, the state of wealth management in 2013 is healthy, optimistic, and eager to make up for time lost to the financial crisis and resulting scandals from which these firms are still, to one degree or another, disentangling.

Kris Frieswick is editor-in-chief of On Wall Street

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