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February 2010
Building a Legacy
By Heather Head

     “If you focus on the client and do the right thing, everything else just follows from that,” says Britt Byerley,vice president and Wealth Management Advisor for Merrill Lynch.

     Byerley and partner Gary LaBrosse, first vice president. and Financial Advisor, live and work by that code, creating a new definition of partnership both for themselves and their clients. From scratch 30 years ago, to more than $190 million in assets under management today, LaBrosse and Byerley have built a legacy for their Merrill Lynch Wealth Management group on the basis of building partnerships—and legacies—with their clients.

 

A Rich Experience

     Upon entering LaBrosse’s office for the first time, a potential client feels instantly welcomed and comfortable. Soft-spoken and dignified, with white hair and monogrammed shirts, LaBrosse radiates an air of reliability and experience as he extends a firm handshake.

     Next to him, Byerley wears stylish high heels and a warm smile, and speaks in animated tones about her love for her customers, whom she repeatedly refers to as being “like family.”

     Both partners participate in every client meeting, which is where their commitment to service begins. “When a client leaves our office,” explains Byerley, “they know they’ve had two sets of eyes and two sets of ears. There’s a comfort level for our clients that their needs are being watched.”

     She adds that the male-female combination adds another layer of comfort. “You never know which of us the client is going to feel most comfortable with calling first, but they take comfort in knowing that we are both here.”

     And they can also feel comfortable knowing that both sets of ears have really been listening. LaBrosse explains that there is no form to fill out before entering their office, no social security number or gender box to check. Client meetings are a conversation, a time for LaBrosse and Byerley to get to know the client. They ask questions about goals and objectives, and try to understand what it is that the client wants to accomplish.

     “Our clients are all high net worth individuals, so their balance sheets may be similar,” says Byerley. “But all their lives are different, so their goals and objectives are different as well.” Byerley says it’s through understanding those differences that they are able to help their clients achieve their goals.

     Exceptional attention to client needs doesn’t stop at the end of each meeting. Every client knows that LaBrosse and Byerley are there for them whenever they need them. For instance, no caller ever reaches voice mail. Both Byerley and LaBrosse answer their own phones, and if they are tied up with another client, their assistant Julia Marble takes a message.

     And they always return calls within minutes. “I know when I call someone, I want to get a call back,” says Byerley. “Our clients can’t move forward until we answer their needs, so we want to do that immediately. They never typically have to wait more than 10 minutes.”

     They also never have to wonder when a task will be accomplished. When possible, LaBrosse and Byerley complete tasks while the client is on the phone, so they can feel confident that what they’ve requested has already been done.

     Despite the fact that they answer their own phones when they ring, LaBrosse’s office is a very quiet place. Not one of the 250 households they serve calls them during our nearly hour-long meeting. Byerley smiles as she brings my attention to that fact.

     “It’s because we’re proactive from the very beginning,” she explains. “We do get phone calls, but we’re on top of everything so our clients are never surprised.”

 

Just Like Family

     Besides calling clients when their portfolios need attention, Byerley and LaBrosse make sure each household receives a call at least once a month. They also call each family member on their birthdays, and send cards and gifts on special occasions such as graduations. They attend weddings and funerals (two last week, Byerley admits sadly), send flowers for new babies, and on the whole become a part of their client’s lives as something more than just financial partners—they become like family.

     But, of course, they do become an integral part of the client’s financial business as well. “One thing that distinguishes us,” says LaBrosse, “is that we get to know the CPAs, attorneys, and other professionals who play a role in our client’s lives.”

     If they don’t already know a new client’s CPA, they make a point to meet him or her face-to-face. This allows them to stay abreast of every element of the client’s financial life, and to hold their hands through all their life stages—retirement, college, and estate planning, for instance.

     Finally, adds Byerley, they celebrate with their clients during good times, and reassure and guide them through tough times. Thanks to the LaBrosse-Byerley conservative growth approach and their proactive communication with clients, none of their clients is suffering too much from current economic conditions.

     “We’re not day traders, and we don’t work with day traders,” explains Byerley. “We’re in this for the long term, so we’re not scared by inevitable ups and down in the market.”

     Ultimately, the proof of success for their “like family” approach to partnering with clients, is in their extremely high client retention. When LaBrosse began with Merrill Lynch in 1980, he had to build his client base from scratch. “And some of those original clients are still with us,” he says. As a result, they have serviced multiple generations of the same families through births and deaths, weddings and graduations.

     “Because we service them so well, we become part of their families,” says Byerley. “When someone in a client’s family achieves something great, like retirement or getting into a college, they call and they share that with us. We see them around town and become a part of their day-to-day lives.”

 

Mutual Assets

     While LaBrosse and Byerley’s focus is partnership with clients, the foundation of that approach is their own partnership. LaBrosse has been serving clients for Merrill Lynch for his entire 29-year career, but he says the past 9 years—those spent in partnership with Byerley—have been the most productive and fun. Byerley, who has likewise spent her 12-year career with Merrill Lynch, is equally delighted with the quality of their partnership.

     It began in 2000, when LaBrosse was approached by a principal in the company and asked to consider a partner. “I knew I needed a financial planning specialist, and I had looked for years for someone that I would feel comfortable with and who worked as hard as I did,” explains LaBrosse.

     “I was asked who I would pick as a partner, and I immediately suggested Britt. They said, ‘Well, there are a lot of people who want her to be on their team,’ and I said, ‘Well, just give it a shot,’ and it worked out.”

     As if to emphasize their strong connection, Byerley is smiling throughout his retelling, and as he says, “it worked out” she is already saying, “It worked out great.” She adds, “I had to go through the motions of talking to everyone else about partnering with them, but I’d already made up my mind. I knew from the very get-go that  I wanted to work with Gary. No one cherishes his clients as much as he does.”

     Since then, they agree, not much has changed about their commitment to each other and to their clients. “It’s very easy to come to work with Britt every day,” effuses LaBrosse, “She’s the best partner I could ever imagine.”

     “We benefit so much from each other,” agrees Byerley.

     Like their commitment to clients, their partnership extends beyond the office. Byerley describes Gary: “He’s Uncle Gary” to her children. Because they can’t both be gone from the office at the same time, the families don’t vacation together. But they do nearly everything else—carpool, spend holidays together, and even live close to each other.

 

Company Benefits

     It’s no accident that LaBrosse and Byerley have spent their entire careers at Merrill Lynch. The company Web site emphasizes client needs and objectives, and the same personal touch that LaBrosse and Byerley live by.

     In addition, the company offers a nearly 100-year history of stability, along with a comprehensive assortment of research tools and investment vehicles. Despite some close shaves during the mortgage crisis of the past few years, Merrill Lynch has remained strong and is now fully backed and wholly owned by the financial security of Charlotte’s largest financial institution.

     With over 20,000 brokers and $2.5 trillion under management, Merrill Lynch is the world’s largest brokerage. Headquartered in New York, the company was purchased by Bank of America in 2008 and now employs over 60,000.

     LaBrosse and Byerley work from the Charlotte SouthPark office, which employs 82. Their partnership operates specifically under the umbrella of Global Wealth Management.

     The backing of such a large and respected organization is important to the LaBrosse-Byerley partnership, but more significantly, they have remained with the company all these years for the quality of management. “Not very many people can say that they truly love the management where they work,” confides Byerley. “But we really do. Whatever we need in order to support our clients, our management is always there for us.”

     One way in which both the company and the partnership care for their clients is by becoming involved in the community and the causes that clients care about. The Bank of America Web site touts a commitment to serving communities through philanthropy, volunteerism, and supporting arts and culture, all of which are closely in line with LaBrosse and Byerley’s own commitments.

     LaBrosse is on the Business Advisory Committee for the City of Charlotte, as well as being on the CPCC Foundation Board. Both are involved in multiple charities supporting children, cancer research, and many other causes dear to the hearts of their clients.

     “Every day is a new day with new opportunities and challenges,” says Byerley. “The reason we keep going through these challenging market conditions is that we are committed to finding solutions for our clients—whether it’s leaving a legacy or providing for loved ones, we make a difference in their lives.”

     “The neatest part of our business,” concludes LaBrosse, “is that we watch our clients’ children grow up and have children, and we watch how the dynamic changes. We help them plan for college and retirement, and we help them leave legacies for those children and grandchildren.”

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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