HomeLife InsuranceHow Morgan Stanley Wows Its Ultra-Wealthy Clients

How Morgan Stanley Wows Its Ultra-Wealthy Clients

Data published early this year by Cerulli Associates shows “complex” and concierge-style services that cater to specific client needs are becoming increasingly important for advisors seeking to compete for ultra-high-net-worth clients.

Access to such services outweighs personal relationship factors when it comes to bringing clients on board, according to Cerulli’s study. At the same time, 35% of high-net-worth individuals polled said they had begun a relationship with their primary advisory provider because of either the services or the client experience on offer, up from 28% who said this in 2017.

Valerie Wong Fountain, head of family office resources partner and platform management at Morgan Stanley, told ThinkAdvisor in a recent interview that these findings match closely with her recent experience on the job. In fact, Wong Fountain’s role includes leading the firm’s division dedicated to this need, Signature Access Lifestyle Advisory, and she argued that the strategic importance of her team’s work for Morgan Stanley’s overall success in the UHNW space shouldn’t be underestimated.

Wong Fountain described Signature Access as a bridge between Morgan Stanley’s financial planning services and a well-connected network of professionals and third-party service providers who specialize in the distinct needs of this client base. These range from support with health and security issues to travel and concierge services; asset management for tangibles like real estate, jewelry, aircraft or yachts; executive coaching; bookkeeping and bill-paying; elder care services; and more.

“Signature Access serves as the connection between clients’ financial plans and the challenges that touch every aspect of their day to day lives,” Wong said in the interview.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: You have almost 20 years of experience at Morgan Stanley. How did you come to be leading this part of the business? Were you always focused on the UHNW segment?

Valerie Wong Fountain: No, actually not. I grew up in California and I went to the Wharton School at UPenn, where I studied finance and accounting. Naturally, it was a next step after that to go to Wall Street and work for Morgan Stanley. It was a really fast-paced environment, and I got to engage with incredibly smart and interesting people.

I joined initially in the sales and trading business before moving through a few different roles, including being an ETF product manager. I also traded on and ran our international ETF trading desk, and I traded on our total return equity swaps desk as well.

From there, I was given the opportunity to interview to work for James Gorman. At the time, he was still the co-president of Morgan Stanley. They were looking for a right-hand man or women to support James — a bit of a nebulous job description admittedly — but I ended up getting the role.

I came to see pretty quickly that many of the characteristics that make people successful on the trading floor also apply to firm leadership and management. A big part of it is really about being able to think quickly on your feet and being able to execute and deliver on the firm’s objectives. So, I became James’ first chief of staff and I stayed on with him after he was announced to succeed John Mack as CEO.

Later on, I made a stop as a co-head of our private capital markets business, where I focused on raising private forms of capital, and then later I was asked to move into this role. That was in 2016.

Before we speak more about Signature Access, can you tell us a little more about what the experience was like working for James Gorman during the period after the financial crisis?

It’s interesting. I would say that, coming out of the financial crisis, the healing period did take a lot of time — more years than many industry leaders had first expected. Here at Morgan Stanley, I would say that there was just a tremendous amount of gratitude to John Mack for the way he guided us through the crisis.

There was a feeling that he had done so much to help save Morgan Stanley and the firm, and when James became the new CEO, we certainly were looking to carry on that sense of optimism. Coming out of that period, there were opportunities to continue to build on and clarify our core strategy.