“I am ADD,” says Kevin Peters, “so having 16 balls up in the air at one time doesn’t seem abnormal to me.” That’s apparent over the course of a day spent in the financial adviser’s office at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, in suburban Purchase, N.Y., as Peters places a seemingly endless series of calls to clients. He and his five-member team advise some 350 families with combined assets of $2.7 billion. The broad strokes are the same—they’re all loaded; they hate taxes—but every client’s details are different. On Oct. 3, several want to move income into 2012 to avoid potentially higher rates next year. One is buying a stake in a pro basketball team. A few just want to talk.
Their business is increasingly important to Morgan Stanley, which in September agreed to buy out Citigroup’s half of their jointly owned Smith Barney brokerage. Analysts see the steady fee income and low risk of the rechristened division as essential to balancing the bank’s riskier investment banking and trading operations. The need for consistency makes an asset out of Peters’s ability to take the long view and points to what a wealth manager actually does all day.
Peters, 54, can’t predict the stock market. What he can do is talk—laying out options, steering you away from bad ideas, making sense of a tangled financial universe. He must know the ins and outs of taxes, trusts, stocks, bonds, estate planning, and, most of all, people. Throw a dart at his list of clients; he can tell you about any of them at length. “I would probably know their kids, how much they have here, their age, their goals, when was the last time I saw them, their hobbies,” Peters says. “I think I’ve just been very lucky that I do remember, literally, almost everything I hear.”