With a campaign-like enthusiasm reminiscent of her upbringing and prior career, Kathleen L. Brown has a plan for expanding Bank of America Corp.'s West Coast private bank, and it starts with people who have been customers for years.
As president of the western region in private banking for the Charlotte, N.C.-based company, Ms. Brown's primary goal now is to lure into the private banking fold the Bank of America retail customers living in California and the northwestern United States who have more than $1 million of investable assets.
By the company's own estimate, perhaps one million retail clients that would qualify for its private bank are getting lost in an organizational shuffle, simply because the private bank can't easily identify them. Ms. Brown says as many as one-third of these are likely to live in the West, where the high-tech industry has created a generation of millionaires who are strangers to such services as estate planning or yacht financing.
To that end, the company plans to improve internal systems designed to help identify prospects and then follow up these efforts with better cross-selling. In a nod to the broader physical presence private banking customers demand, Bank of America also plans to open 10 offices in and around California.
Bank of America is hardly alone in its bricks-and-mortar drive to attract the wealthy and defend its turf once customers become wealthy. Citibank, which opened a Palo Alto private banking office a few years ago, is now looking for bigger office space to house its growing staff, said Richard Catterton, managing director in private banking for the Citigroup unit. Nearly 70 employees of the private bank work in Northern California.
Though Citi gets most of its private banking contacts through referrals and calling on potential high-net-worth clients, "you have to be close to them physically," he says.
Ms. Brown, a member of a California political dynasty, certainly ranks among the most recognizable bank executives in the state. Sister of former presidential candidate and California governor Jerry Brown and daughter of former governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, Ms. Brown was herself a Democratic Party nominee for California governor and was state treasurer from 1991 to 1994.
She joined the old BankAmerica Corp. in 1995 as senior vice president and managing director in the investment management services group and in 1997 was named executive vice president for the Southern California private bank.
During her tenure, the company was also undergoing dramatic change, a process that culminated in the merger of BankAmerica and the former NationsBank Corp., which created Bank of America.
BankAmerica, Ms. Brown said during a recent interview in the company's Los Angeles offices, used to have a "one-size-fits-all," attitude toward its customers. "That's not the reality anymore."
The company started to differentiate among its retail clients by income levels several years ago. Its retail bank divides customers into categories such as "premier," a slice occupied by customers with more than $100,000 of assets who get preferential treatment. And the private bank is the largest money manager for high-net-worth clients, with more than $130 billion of assets under management at the end of 1999.
Ms. Brown also said the company's track record in cross-selling to clients could be better: Half the private bank's customers use only one Bank of America product.
Assisting Ms. Brown - and the two other presidents of the private bank - is what she calls a "silo busting" process occurring throughout the company, which is still ironing out its 1998 merger.
From even before the merger was announced, the company has been dismantling walls between services that naturally overlap with a private bank customer, such as trust and investments, she said. In contrast with the situation two years ago, there is now a single account executive in charge of delivering the gamut of client services.
But Bank of America must also break down some of the barriers between distinct business lines, such as the private, commercial, and retail banks. In January, the private bank signed a "partnership pact" with commercial banking that lays out a set of clear guidelines, including incentive and accountability components and numerical goals, for employees at both units to refer customers to each other. The target of these referrals will be customers who are part of "the fastest-growing wealth segments," particularly business owners and active executives, she says.
The private bank has yet to complete a similar agreement with the other business lines of the bank that could be a gold mine for high-net-worth services - the retail bank, which counts 30 million households nationwide as its customers.
Working out an agreement with the retail bank is "a much bigger undertaking," she says.
And there are still nuts-and-bolts matters to be worked out. For example, the company wants to simplify the process of opening an account and make statements easier to read. "We're focused like a laser to kill the dumb things we do," Ms. Brown said.
She is emphatic that the company already has "best-in-class" advisory services - it just needs to showcase them.
The payoff for the private bank's efforts, she said, should be 20% to 25% growth in the unit's net income. Companywide, net income rose 52% last year, to $7.88 billion.
As with other financial services sectors, in recent years the private bank's revenue mix has shifted, from about 60% lending and 40% fee income to today's 50/50 split. Ms. Brown says she expects the bank to continue to lean toward making more of its money from fees, particularly as it builds its annuities business.