By Annie Massa
(Bloomberg) --Mark Wiedman arrived at BlackRock Inc. 15 years ago a newcomer to the asset management industry.
From his start in an advisory arm of the company, Wiedman ascended to lead one of its most valuable businesses: the exchange-traded funds unit, with about $1.8 trillion in assets. Now he’s on to his next act as head of international and corporate strategy.
Some readers of the corporate tea leaves took Wiedman’s appointment -- a newly created role reporting directly to CEO Larry Fink -- as a signal that he’s being groomed to lead the world’s largest money manager.
“It certainly moves him up the list as a possible successor to Fink,” said Kyle Sanders, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co.
It’s no sure thing. Fink, who turned 66 in November, sees “seven or eight” people as possible successors, he said in an interview with Bloomberg Markets in 2017. To others, Wiedman’s new position could be a sign that BlackRock wants to prepare for an acquisition as it zeroes in on ways to grow its $6.4 trillion in assets under management, especially abroad.
The 48-year-old executive’s promotion left little doubt of his value to Fink. As Fink weighs how to expand his asset management empire, he often underscores the importance of investing in BlackRock’s international growth. The firm gets only about one-third of its total revenue from overseas.
Fink appears to be evaluating the entire firm. In the memo disclosing Wiedman’s job, the CEO promised more changes this year. A day later, BlackRock announced plans to slash 500 jobs, or 3 percent of its global workforce, citing growing market uncertainty and changing investor tastes.
BlackRock declined a request to interview Wiedman for this story.
Wiedman is the kind of executive who demands precision from his subordinates and doesn’t mind putting them on the spot. He didn’t follow a traditional path to becoming an exchange-traded fund evangelist.
A Long Island native, Wiedman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Harvard College with a degree in social studies. He went on to earn a degree from Yale Law School, and teach law at Renmin University of China and Fordham University. After stints at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and as an adviser to the U.S. Treasury, in 2004 he landed at BlackRock, the firm that would make his career.
Wiedman’s first role at BlackRock was with a group advising financial firms and central banks on capital markets issues. As Mike Latham stepped back from day-to-day management of the iShares business in 2011, Fink plucked Wiedman out of a corporate strategy position to take the reins at the ETF unit, which BlackRock bought with its acquisition of Barclays Global Investors (BGI) two years earlier.
When Wiedman became global head of iShares, the business had little more than $600 billion in assets. Now it’s a juggernaut with three times that amount. It generated $3 billion in U.S. revenue last year, more than any of its peers, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence report.
Fink gave Wiedman even more responsibility in 2016. After the departure of Amy Schioldager, a BGI veteran who oversaw stock index products, Wiedman took over all of index-investing and ETFs -- a combination that accounts for almost 70 percent of BlackRock’s managed assets.
Wiedman earned respect among colleagues for taking time to dig into the nuances of ETFs, products that track indexes but trade like stocks. In one major milestone under his direction, iShares introduced a suite of low-cost “core” ETFs. The decision drew skepticism at the time -- why lower fees, particularly on popular products? -- but proved to be shrewd as price wars escalated among ETF issuers. Today six out of the 10 largest iShares ETFs by assets are from its core series.
Wiedman has an assertive, colorful presentation style. At BlackRock’s investor day in June, in a blue-lit art deco ballroom in midtown Manhattan, Wiedman took the stage, at ease in front of the audience. Within minutes, he made several bold forecasts. He predicted the iShares business could grow to $4 trillion in assets in coming years, and projected that the ETF market as a whole could double by 2023.
The executive has also attracted attention when he inadvertently ran afoul of pay-to-play rules by donating $2,700 to John Kasich’s campaign to become the Republican presidential nominee in Jan. 2016. The move could have cost the firm $37 million in fees from Ohio public-sector clients. Although the issue was resolved and turned out to be a relatively minor misstep, the episode could be relevant for an executive looking to impress Fink.
A handful of others sit on the bench of contenders for Fink’s job. As a co-founder of the firm, President Rob Kapito is a ready heir, but at 60 he’s almost as old as Fink. Chief Operating Officer Rob Goldstein spent his entire career at BlackRock, a key player in the development and oversight of its risk software Aladdin. Mark McCombe heads the Americas business from San Francisco, while global head of active equities Mark Wiseman came on board in 2016 from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Rich Kushel sits atop its multi-asset strategies and fixed-income businesses.
“Everyone’s aware that Larry’s getting close to stepping away from the company,” said Sanders. “They’ve been doing a good job of making other executives visible.”