From Guinea Pig to Elephant Hunter

Greg Sarian is living proof that timing is sometimes more important than time served. The 34 year-old Merrill Lynch broker has been in business just 11 years, but he's already built a $300 million practice (with the help of two partners). He's also garnered two professional designations CFP and ChFC and is working on a third. Sarian attributes his success, at least in some part, to good fortune. He

Greg Sarian is living proof that timing is sometimes more important than time served.

The 34 year-old Merrill Lynch broker has been in business just 11 years, but he's already built a $300 million practice (with the help of two partners). He's also garnered two professional designations — CFP and ChFC — and is working on a third.

Sarian attributes his success, at least in some part, to good fortune. He entered the securities industry just as comprehensive financial planning was coming into vogue at the large firms. Having never held a position as a transaction-oriented broker, he was unencumbered by a transition to a new way of doing business, and this let him add customers quickly.

True, this timing cast Sarian and others like him as financial-advisory guinea pigs, testing the waters of financial planning on behalf of their firms. But, having little prior exposure to the business, the tradeoff seemed fair to Sarian.

He started his professional career in financial consulting at Deloitte & Touche, but joined Merrill's Wayne, Pa., office soon after in 1992. As a broker from a modest background, he lacked a Rolodex full of influential personal contacts.

“The firm doesn't hire that much out of college,” says Sarian, a Boston College graduate. “It was difficult for someone with no family contacts and established relationships.”

To build his book, he partnered with an attorney and began holding tax and estate planning seminars. He quickly found he enjoyed drawing up retirement and college-savings maps for his clients, and he set about making this the core of his practice.

After earning his CFP in 1997, Sarian formed a broker team, and then set about codifying the group's approach to client recruitment and retention. Using Merrill's in-house training processes as a guide, Sarian drew up an eight-step wealth management process — one that places extra emphasis on understanding a client's needs before initiating a financial plan.

One step involves scheduling a second client/broker meeting whose sole function is to confirm that the broker and the prospective client are on the same page regarding the direction of a fledgling financial plan. Another involves submitting copies of the financial plan to the client's CPA, attorney and other advisors for approval and discussion.

“And we have two face-to-face meetings a year with clients to review their situation relative to the overall market environment,” he adds.

Hardly rocket science, but Sarian believes these steps reflect an extra level of conscientiousness.

How does he make time for such personalized attention? Well, for starters, Sarian doesn't have a lot of clients. He's part of a Merrill program that requires wealth managers to reduce their clients lists to under 100, which is what he's been doing the last few years. Meanwhile, his partners help Sarian spread out the responsibilities. Mark Nottingham handles the group's liability management; Frank Masse watches the market and keeps in touch with the money managers who invest the clients' money.

Sarian spends about 15 to 20 percent of his time “elephant hunting,” that is, prospecting, with an almost exclusive focus on the ultra-wealthy. Even as his client list is shrinking, he's increased the size of his staff to ensure that his most valuable clients continue to receive superior service.

“We just hired our third client associate in June,” Sarian says. “With six of us, we have enough capacity to handle the increase in the size of clients we bring on-board.”

The next challenge for Sarian is to complete the CIMA coursework and obtain that designation, which concentrates on advanced wealth management consulting practices.

“I love what I'm doing,” he says. “I have no aspirations to go into management — I just want to find ways to create value for clients, and elevate our practice to work with more affluent families.”

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