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Wells Fargo’s family-office business, Abbot Downing, is named after the company that built the Wells Fargo stagecoaches.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

St. Anthony: Wells Fargo wealth unit gains footing

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY
  • Star Tribune
  • November 11, 2012 - 5:46 PM

Jim Steiner, the Minneapolis-based president of Wells Fargo's family-office business, had just finished an exhaustive presentation on pressing economic issues at the Minneapolis Club last month when he fielded an unexpected question.

Did anybody else confuse the year-old name of the Wells Fargo wealth management unit, Abbot Downing, with the BBC's high-end TV series "Downton Abbey"?

Steiner, nonplussed, chuckled along with everyone else. Name changes can be confusing.

Steiner's bigger challenge was integrating several high-end Wells Fargo wealth boutiques around the country into one national brand and strategy. Abbot Downing, fittingly, is named for the early 19th-century builder of Wells Fargo stagecoaches.

It wasn't the easiest haul for Steiner, who had to remake the company even as several key client-relationship people and customers left for smaller shops. Abbot Downing targets clients with net worth of at least $50 million. Its Minneapolis-based predecessor, Lowry Hill, had a $5 million minimum.

"Our clients are our clients," Steiner said in an interview last month, noting that most Lowry Hill clients stayed, regardless of their net worth. A year-plus into the transition to Abbot Downing, Steiner said, the numbers and satisfied clients are running in Wells Fargo's favor.

"Nobody liked giving up their name, including Lowry Hill in Minneapolis," said Steiner, who joined Lowry Hill in 1998. "We wanted to keep the boutique [feel], but we also wanted the united power of Wells Fargo behind us. And we've had growth. And we've grown the number of people in Minneapolis.

"Our clients have seen the shenanigans on Wall Street. They want to be in a boutique but they also want that security [of a big, non-Wall Street based firm]."

The consolidated Abbot Downing has about $31 billion in client assets, including more than $4 billion in new money since Abbot Downing officially launched nationwide in April, Steiner said. Lowry Hill managed about $5.9 billion in client assets. Minneapolis, headquarters for the regional and national headquarters of Abbot Downing, employs about 100, compared with 67 for Lowry Hill.

Huge banks, which tend to turn customized services and products into commodities, tend to not be the best place for boutique investment shops, said Martha Pomerantz, a former Lowry Hill principal. She left Lowry Hill in 2011, after more than a decade, and became a partner in the new Minneapolis office of Evercore Wealth Management, a New York-based specialist with $3.8 billion in assets.

"It was a great decision for me," Pomerantz said. "Many clients do not have $50 million in liquid assets and want to be with an independent firm. These big banks are under more regulatory pressure and they want to reduce expenses and increase profitability.''

Steiner minimizes defections. And focuses on the pluses of the new firm.

Abbot Downing offers myriad money-management and personal services. They include psychologists who deal with rich parents and kids; short-term cash-flow planning; loans for vacation homes, aircraft or yachts, and long-term inheritance and philanthropic plans -- including setting up a foundation.

And Wells Fargo, one of the largest financial complexes in America, is only doing what other large rivals have done in order to compete with titanic likes of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, in their never-ending quest to capture the business of the rich.

Last year, Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp created Ascent Private Capital Management, a unit focused on investors with assets of $25 million or more.

As most Americans have lost equity in their homes for several years and dealt with stagnant wages, the ranks of the affluent have grown thanks to a strong 30-year stock market, inheritances, sales of business and long-term capital gains taxes that are half what they were 30 years ago.

In short, the rich have been a lucrative growth market for financial services firms. Fees and commissions can top 1 percent of invested assets annually. And a happy client represents a recurrent stream of revenue.

Steiner, 53, is an intense but affable guy who can take a joke at the club or a puck in the chops. The son of a shopkeeper on St. Paul's rough-hewn Rice Street, Steiner was a hockey player at Yale University. He earned a University of Minnesota MBA before commencing an investment career.

"Our value proposition is broader and deeper than that of Lowry Hill," Steiner said. "The [Abbot Downing] name resounds with our clients and within Wells Fargo. It got everybody working ahead. We've had some fallout. Some people left. But, at the end of the day, we've created more value for our clients."

Abbot Downing, part of the brokerage and wealth management division of Wells Fargo, serves clients coast-to-coast through offices in San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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