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Top Merrill Advisor Puts Life First, Money Second

By Murray Coleman April 29, 2016

This report is part of an ongoing series examining members of the FT 400 list of elite brokerage-based advisors. Compiled by FA-IQ’s sister publication Ignites Research, the rankings score FAs based on six criteria: total assets, asset-growth rates, experience, credentials, online accessibility and compliance records.

Longtime Merrill Lynch broker and planner Michael Marcovici doesn’t talk to prospects and new clients much about finances when meeting with them for the first time.

In fact, the Chicago-based member of the wirehouse’s elite Private Banking and Investment Group refers to himself as a “family advisor,” leaving the word “financial” out of his title.

“Early in my career I noticed that other firms would try to win clients by highlighting various investment products,” says the 47-year-old Marcovici, who joined Merrill straight out of college in 1991. “They would present charts and graphs to show how they could grow wealth and talked to prospects about benchmarks and performance.”

So the young advisor deliberately set out to carve a different path for himself.

“I’d show up at introductory meetings with only a pad of paper,” recalls Marcovici. “My focus was on getting people to open up to me by sketching out a basic family tree.”

That simple exercise gave him a strong sense of what kind of social support system prospects had and who besides close relatives might be influencing their decision-making processes.

“People don’t care about your credentials,” says Marcovici. “What impresses patriarchs and matriarchs is when an advisor shows enough initiative and empathy to ask questions about what truly makes them tick as individuals.”

Today he’s a partner on a six-member team that includes four staffers and manages $1.5 billion for families that typically have at least $10 million invested. He’s also a member of the Financial Time’s FT 400 list of the industry’s most successful brokers.

“I’ve been fortunate,” says Marcovici. “Even though I entered this profession as a 22-year-old college graduate with no local contacts in the Chicago area, my parents had drilled into me a strong work ethic.”

The young advisor dug into cold calling right away. He’d spend 14 hours a day on the phone. And he’d do it six days a week.

“In those days, I considered doing laundry as my big social activity,” he says.

But Marcovici had another ace up his sleeve. His parents, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Romania with $40 in their pockets, built successful practices in the Philadelphia suburbs as psychiatrists. His father, Martin, who has since passed away, worked with business owners.

“I often heard around our house discussions about issues such as conflict management and the importance of relating to co-workers with strong interpersonal listening skills,” says Marcovici. “But I really didn’t realize how ingrained that was in my thinking until I started at Merrill.”

This grounding in psychology helped Marcovici appreciate the advisor’s role in shaping client behavior.

Michael Marcovici

“My meetings with new clients early in my career reinforced the concept that finding out what shapes individual attitudes about money involves more than just sorting out their present-day financial situations,” he says.

As Marcovici began building a client base through cold calling, he gradually began going into prospect’s homes.

“I would spend 90%, if not more, of those first meetings talking about family concerns, not money,” he says.

It’s a strategy Marcovici now credits with providing a strong foundation for a long career in wealth management.

He’s learned too that as an advice practices evolves, it’s important to reach out to clients’ other trusted advisors. By doing much of the leg work in meeting and coordinating work done by a family’s lawyers and accountants, Marcovici believes he can become a more integral part of other centers of influences’ own work.

“If you see yourself as a coach more than an investment manager, it expands your role and creates a lot more value in terms of being able to better serve an entire family’s needs,” he says.