Hell, no! He can't go! San Francisco advisers stage mutiny to save popular UBS branch manager

Caving to pressure and cultural changes, top executives reinstate the manager

May 2, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Mason Braswell

A funny thing happened after Michael Williams, a UBS Wealth Management Americas branch manager in San Francisco, found out he was going to be replaced.

His brokers didn't want him to go and they staged a revolt, with some prepared to resign if the firm followed through on its plan, sources said.

And it worked.

In a rare turn of events, leadership at UBS caved in to mounting opposition from many of the firm's top advisers and decided to keep Mr. Williams where he was.

“I've never seen anything like it,” said one veteran adviser in the office who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “I've seen a lot of guys come and go, and I've never seen a group of brokers stand unified.”

“Advisers will often tell me that the reason they're there is because of this or that manager,” said Ron Edde, chief executive of Millennium Career Advisors. “But loyalty is for cocker spaniels,” he said.

Moves are common in the brokerage industry, where managers are frequently reassigned, relocated or sometimes fired as firms keep a close watch on performance. Advisers may be reluctant to see their manager go, but it is rare for the firm to backtrack, recruiters say.

“[Firms] do what they see best for the company and stockholders and everybody else is expected to fall in line,” Mr. Edde said.

(See also: Wirehouses warm to bank channel recruits)

In February, UBS executives told Mr. Williams that he would be reassigned after the firm conducted an annual review of its performance in the division and decided to make changes in the leadership. Of the firm's eight geographic positions, the region was ranked among the lowest in terms of recruiting, sources said.

The San Francisco branch represented a key outpost and competed with other large brokerage firms such as Morgan Stanley, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo & Co. for the assets of wealthy entrepreneurs in the area.

But the same day that executives announced that Mr. Williams would have to find another position within the firm, around 20 of the 75 advisers in the branch gathered in an office to share their objections, sources said.

“It becomes a sticky situation when metrics say one thing and the human element gets in the way,” said Andrew Parish, a career consultant and founder of AdvisorHub Inc.

Many top producers at the office such as Robert Whelan, James Klein and Stephen Jakosa began placing calls to executives at the firm, including the head of the adviser group, Jason Chandler, the head of wealth management, Robert Mulholland, and Robert McCann, the firm's chief executive. They told the executives the move was a mistake, according to an adviser present for one of the conversations.

Support for Mr. Williams mounted, and by the weekend, Mr. Chandler announced that he would travel to the San Francisco office.

“People figured he was probably coming out to say you have to settle down,” the veteran adviser said. “But he undid it.”

The veteran adviser said he thought it was a testament to the way Mr. McCann, who took on his role in 2009, had worked to change the culture at the firm from being cutthroat and political to more unified and supportive.

“Usually if you make a bad management decision, you dig a hole in the back yard and bury it because you don't want to admit your mistakes,” the veteran adviser said. “But these guys came out and said 'we're going to redo it,' and they did it in an elegant way.”

Mr. Williams declined to comment for the story because he was not authorized to speak about the events publicly.

UBS spokesman Gregg Rosenberg also declined to comment, as did Mr. Chandler.

To commemorate the event, the advisers in the office went out for drinks and signed 10 large collectors' bottles of wine from Peter Michael winery, the veteran adviser said. One was sent home with Mr. Chandler.

“We told them that when Mike Williams retires, we can crack them open,” the adviser said.

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