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Elite Morgan Stanley FA Thinks Like an Entrepreneur to Serve Clients

By Murray Coleman February 16, 2017

This report is part of an ongoing series examining members of the FT 400 list of elite brokerage-based advisors. The rankings score FAs based on six criteria: total assets, asset-growth rates, experience, credentials, online accessibility and compliance records.

Mark Curtis isn’t an engineer or software developer. But he grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, so the longtime Morgan Stanley advisor knows the lingo.

Perhaps just as importantly, says the perennial FT 400 member, is carrying into new client relationships a strong grounding of what makes his community tick.

The 60-year-old veteran advisor, who started his career at the old E.F. Hutton in 1982, still lives in the same house he grew up in. He studied as an undergraduate up the road at Stanford University.

“In fact, the farthest I’ve moved away for any length of time is going to Los Angeles for an MBA at UCLA,” Curtis says with a laugh. He adds: “I’m about as much of a long-term local as an advisor can get.”

Strong community roots aren’t the only important building block in his career. But he does believe that knowing who you are – both personally and professionally – is essential to staying grounded in managing clients’ financial futures.

“One of the most common mistakes I think we make as advisors is to be too focused on the wrong time horizons in sorting through a family’s investment and financial issues,” Curtis says. “After all, it’s just natural to share a person’s most immediate concerns about current market conditions and the short-term financial environment they’re trying to deal with at any given moment.”

But living in the same place and working at the same firm for so long, he adds, gives him a sense of stability that lets him step back and keep his clients focused on the bigger picture.

“Over the course of 36 years in this business I’ve seen the world come to an end at least eight different times,” Curtis says. “A good grounding of who I am as an advisor really helps me to keep things in perspective – both for myself and our clients.”

Mark Curtis

To some younger advisors who see mobility as a key to survival, he might look rather dated by today’s standards. Curtis, though, doesn’t see devoting an entire career to being an advisor at the same firm as a liability. After starting at E.F. Hutton, he stayed with his Palo Alto, Calif.-based team as it merged into Smith Barney, which was eventually bought by Morgan Stanley.

In fact, Curtis heavily credits staying in place – and not jumping at the first signs of change – as playing a big role in developing a certain level of fortitude and trust as a relationship manager with clients.

“The incredible wealth creation boom I’ve been a part of has certainly propelled my career – many of the people I met early in life have gone on to become prominent executives at major corporations,” he says.

But at the same time, Curtis has tried to build a highly diverse practice. Besides working with high net worth individuals, he’s branched into working with corporate retirement and stock plans. In fact, he now counts 36 of the Fortune 500 as clients. He also reports a growing part of his business is coming from working with private endowments and foundations.

Along with his partner, Karen McDonald, their eight-member team now manages more than $27 billion. “The conventional wisdom is to find what you’re good at and focus on that to grow your practice,” Curtis says. To such logic, he responds: “Maybe I just haven’t found my niche yet.”

In a nutshell, Curtis sees “diversity as what drives my professional growth – I like working with a lot of different types of people and businesses.”

Leaving yourself open to going in any direction and not getting too specialized is something Curtis credits as being at the crux of his practice’s long-term growth strategy.

“I don’t want to define what we do by my own self-interests,” he says. “I really believe that the best way to stay current as an advisor is to make sure your clients’ interests are always defining what business you’re in at any given time.”

Along those lines, Curtis finds that his best relationships over time aren’t always the ones tied to the largest portfolios. Instead of account size, Curtis says he prides himself on “making my clients feel wealthier than they are.” By that he means “taking control” of client interactions by interjecting a disciplined approach to “treating everyone with the same amount of respect.”

So when he sits down with a family, Curtis notes that he makes a mental point to pay attention to little things like turning off his cell phone and avoiding outside interruptions while meeting one-on-one with clients.

“Whether they’re a billionaire or not,” he says, “people want to feel like you’re paying attention and empathize with their situations. As an advisor, I’ve always felt like that’s the least I can do for a family.”

That might sound a little simplistic. Curtis does note that he does make exceptions from time to time when emergencies arise. But his point, he says, is that sometimes he’ll see a younger advisor forget about seemingly “little things” that can prove to be bedrocks in the relationship-building process.

“It can’t be too overstated – you’ve got to show a lot of plain old common sense when you’re trying to build trust as an advisor,” Curtis says.

Even after decades in the business he tries to keep a sense of “urgency” in his daily work life. By that he means not allowing himself to become “too smug” or work with an attitude like he’s “arrived” as a practice manager.

Wealth management, Curtis believes, is too fluid of a profession with its myriad of daily planning challenges to dwell on “what you’ve done in the past for people.”

“Although I work at Morgan Stanley, I try to think like an entrepreneur,” Curtis says. “Over the years, I’ve found it really helps to maintain a mentality of working at a startup. You've got to never stop trying to become an even better problem solver for your clients."