Putting A Private Banker At Your Service

Once the exclusive domain of Rockefellers, DuPonts, and Mellons, private banking is no longer targeted just to the Old Money set. Not that such venerable institutions as U. S. Trust and Bessemer Trust are setting up outposts of their baronial offices in shopping malls. But private bankers are in hot pursuit of a new type of client: entrepreneurs and corporate executives. While some of the banks still want $5 million to open an investment account, others take $250,000 or less.

Today, private banking is the high end of one-stop financial services. Apart from attending to a host of mundane details, private bankers help clients with tax and financial planning, investment management, investment banking, and innovative loan financing. The cost of belonging to these exclusive clubs varies widely, with additional charges for extra services.

EYEING EARRINGS. There are also little fringe benefits, such as getting theater or hockey tickets. U. S. Trust will wire you money if, say, you spot a $50,000 pair of earrings in Hong Kong. But more often, the special service comes in financial transactions. A private banker at Bank of San Francisco flew to New York on a red-eye flight to get papers signed in time for a critical deadline. A securities analyst at Bessemer wrote a research report answering a client's questions about a stock that wasn't on its recommended list.

Harold Commings, president of Media Barter Associates in New York, takes full advantage of the services at Chase Manhattan's private-banking division. His business of swapping products for media space or airtime has him traveling constantly. He uses Chase, whom he has named a co-executor of his will, to advise him on investments and short-term cash management. "I'm too busy to check my bonds every three months and to clip coupons," says Commings. "I'd rather play golf."

Commings speaks to his private banker weekly and boasts of her doggedness in getting a letter of credit delivered when another bank was dilatory. "She sat on the phone, calling them every hour. She didn't let that guy breathe until he came through," he says. (Chase private-banking officers earn merit raises based on the quality of their service.)

TAILORED FEES. The universe of private banks is almost as diverse as the services they perform. Katharine Donohoe, head of private banking for the American Bankers Assn., estimates that some 350 specialized private-banking institutions--either independent boutiques or subsidiaries of other banks--plus 5,000 community banks have first-name relationships with the local nabobs. Their target clients: the 1.8 million households that PSI, Tampa-based researchers, calls "the wealth market." That category includes corporate execs earning at least $100,000 a year, entrepreneurs whose companies have book values of more than $250,000, and households with a net worth of $1 million, excluding home value.

Fees for the privilege of private banking depend on the services you use. Separate fees are usually charged for performing custodial services, acting as executor of a trust, filling out tax forms, or paying bills. Generally, if you have an investment-management account with the bank, the annual fee will be about 1% of the money under management. Prices on loans and other services are often competitive with what regular customers are charged, although your "relationship potential" may lead to the fees' being waived or lowered.If you don't get special rates, the bank may make up for it with special privileges. When borrowers' paychecks don't qualify them for standard loans, private bankers may make unsecured loans, or secured loans backed by out-of-the-ordinary assets such as artwork or coins. Unconventional loan structures may also be used. Morgan Guaranty Trust says it arranged a private placement with five institutions of a $140 million personal loan backed by the owner's shares in his public company. "This was one of the first private placements for an individual," says a banker involved in the deal.

Flexible repayment schedules can also be arranged. U. S. Trust makes balloon loans with no monthly payments to carry executives from this year's bonus to next year's. Or perhaps you need cash to exercise stock options or pay the Internal Revenue Service in a hurry.

Donald Stephens, chief executive officer at Bank of San Francisco, tells of an executive who fell in love with a house and wanted to buy it quickly to avoid paying a capital-gains tax on his last house before the grace period expired. But he couldn't get a mortgage because he was between jobs and couldn't show a steady paycheck. Because the executive had left his former company with a golden handshake, the bank gave him a six-figure bridge loan instead of a mortgage.

The personal touch can also pay off in peace of mind when it comes to investment management. Because they don't pay commissions, clients needn't worry that their banker is after personal gain. The average 1% fee affords clients unlimited trading, and the bank pays any commissions. But many clients continue to use their regular brokers, while the bank gets securities transferred and paid for, collects dividends, and does the bookkeeping.

As eager as such bankers are to please, the most common failing is lack of coordination among different parts of the bank. The expertise may be there, but clients may not get it because of turf battles. "At chain banks, if you need something from someone other than your banker," says Stephens, "many times you are walking in mud."

It also makes sense to choose a bank that is looking for customers in your income bracket and with strengths in the services you are likely to use. Clients suggest calling the head of private banking first and requesting a 30-minute interview. "If you meet the bank's financial minimums, and you don't get a responsive answer," says one, "I would move on."

BENDING RULES. Personal chemistry is critical. Bankers must inspire confidence as being knowledgeable, service-oriented, and around for the long haul. After all, private-banking relationships should go on for decades. Bankers Trust manages trusts set up more than 60 years ago.

Donald Barry, senior vice-president at California's Security Pacific National Bank, says his hardest job is telling prospects they aren't eligible. But many customers who don't keep the minimum balances become clients anyway. The need for steady fee income is a strong motivation for banks. PSI figures half the accounts in existence do not meet the institution's stated eligibility requirements.

If your net worth doesn't open the door, your bright prospects may. Or you could offer to bring your account up to the minimum once you see how the bank performs. After all, when you pay for select service, you want to be sure to get your money's worth.

      Institution              Minimum*            Personality
      BANK OF  $                250,000         Young, hungry, advocate for new
      SAN FRANCISCO                              money
      BANKERS TRUST           2 million         Safe, old, big; yearns to be J. P.
      BESSEMER TRUST          5 million          Understated class, old-money
      CHASE MANHATTAN           250,000          Big-city slicker aiming to be small-
                                                 town personal
      CITIBANK                  250,000          Massive global operation trying to
      PRIVATE BANK                               be more things to more people
      GOLDMAN SACHS           5 million          Wall Street savvy, but a novice in
                                                 private banking
      HARRIS TRUST              250,000          Solid, a bank your mother could love
      J. P. MORGAN            5 million          White-shoe firm loves big money,
                                                 complex deals
      NORTHERN TRUST          1 million          Midwestern version of Bankers Trust
      SECURITY PACIFIC        1 million          In sync with Southern Californians
      NATIONAL BANK                               who have arrived
      U. S. TRUST               250,000          Under its old-line exterior beats
                                                 the heart of an ambitious banker
      *Cash and investment assets
      DATA: BW
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