A boutique firm may seem an unlikely venture for Gregory Fleming to helm. After all, he spent virtually his whole career at two wirehouses — Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, where he topped out as president of wealth and asset management, and president, respectively.
But a smaller enterprise with an entrepreneurial mindset is exactly what Fleming, 57, is now running. The investment banker who took BlackRock public and helped Bank of America buy Merrill’s asset management business — and helped former Yankee Derek Jeter in the consortium acquisition of the Miami Marlins — is relishing the job of recasting the Rockefeller family office into a wealth management firm, as he tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.
Offering an array of products and services for high-net-worth and ultra-high net worth clients, Rockefeller Capital Management has the welcome mat out for elite advisors nationwide. But Fleming is picky: Dovetailing with the firm’s culture is of paramount importance, he stresses.
In 2018, Fleming, who spent six years at Morgan Stanley and 17 years at Merrill, formed RCM with Rockefeller Family Services to help wealthy and super-wealthy clients with complex financial and investing needs.
The firm, of which Fleming is CEO, is owned by a Viking Global Investors hedge fund — Viking is the majority stakeholder — a trust representing the Rockefeller family, and RCM management.
Based at — no surprise — 45 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, RCM is made up of three units: the Global Family Office, Rockefeller Asset Management and a Strategic Advisory.
The firm was formed from the family office originated by John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. The philanthropic Rockefellers funded Spelman College, the University of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, among many other renowned institutions.
As for the advisory firm with the iconic name and distinguished legacy, it is reportedly offering handsome signing bonuses to top-notch FAs. All Fleming has to say about that in the interview is: “We offer competitive packages, but we’re not trying to win on the package. If the decision comes down to financial consideration, advisors should go to other firms.”
He then discusses the ideal advisor for RCM’s multi-family office and private wealth management businesses, and the firm’s expansion strategy across the U.S.
As of January 2021, it has 19 offices in 14 states, including advisors in Atlanta; Boca Raton, Florida; Dallas; Greenwich, Connecticut; Los Angeles; and San Francisco. The Rockefeller Family Office operated in New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Wilmington, Delaware, prior to RCM’s founding.
First to onboard as an employee firm, in 2018, was The Bapis Group — renamed Vios Advisors — a nine-person team that left Hightower Advisors.
RCM’s second family office acquisition — following that of Financial Clarity, based in Mountain View, California — is Whitenell & Co., a $1.4 billion wealth management and multi-family office services firm. It was a subsidiary of Associated Banc-Corp. until last month, when it became a division of RCM. In the interview, Fleming discusses what chiefly attracted him.
RCM’s asset management arm is largely focused on ESG investing, particularly ESG “improvers,” which companies have “a greater potential for generating uncorrelated alpha” versus ESG “leaders,” as Fleming explains in the interview. The Rockefellers were pioneers in impact investing.
ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Fleming, speaking from his office at home. Amid the pandemic, RCM’s well-off clients were “taking stock of their lives” and diving into comprehensive financial planning, including consideration of new investment opportunities, he said. And some were “stepping up their philanthropic efforts to help people hit hard” by the COVID-19 catastrophe. He also put in a word about plans to “upgrade” the Miami Marlins.
Here are excerpts from our interview:
THINKADVISOR: The culture of Rockefeller Capital Management is very different from that of Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley, the two wirehouses where you worked for 23 years. Please contrast the culture at those with that of Rockefeller Capital.
GREGORY FLEMING: [MS and ML] are large organizations with a multitude of businesses, so it becomes harder to be nimble and have the ability to deliver tailored solutions to clients. We’re a boutique firm with a very focused business model. Our culture is entrepreneurial. For example, when a client comes to us with a unique problem, we try to figure out how to solve it. The individual mindset is everywhere in our culture — trying to solve the problem and being able to meet the client’s needs.
Why did you think RCM was right for you personally?
When I left Morgan Stanley, I had a vison of how I thought wealth management for high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients could be put together to take care of the full range of their needs. The Rockefeller name is iconic, and the family is an integral part of what we’re doing here. So I thought, with that name and this unique business model, we could attract best-in-class people who want to help build something special — something different in what is certainly a crowded market.
How challenging is it to build a broker-dealer when hiring both private wealth advisors and investment advisors, as you are?
The brokerage business is core to what we’re doing. The brokerage model has increasingly evolved into an advisory model for the clients that we’re focused on. So I don’t think of it as a challenge; rather, it’s an opportunity to serve them in ways that are tailored to their specific needs. We have a unique model that brings family office services across our entire platform, enabling all clients to access things like tax preparation, bill pay, trustee services, philanthropy advisory, and financial multi-generational education and planning services.
When you launched RCM in 2018, your goal was to have under management $100 billion in client assets within five years. How are you doing?
As of 12/31/20, we had over $72 billion. We’re pleased with our progress.
Broadly, just how much progress have you made in general?
We think we’re carving a place for ourselves in the crowded market. We’re making good progress but feel humble about what’s stilI in front of us.
Amid the pandemic, billionaire wealth in the U.S. rose nearly 10% from March 18 to April 10, 2020, according to an Institute for Policy Studies report. That was due in large part to the booming stock market. So has the pandemic just meant business as usual for your high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients?
No. They‘re taking stock of their lives, their families, their future. They’ve found themselves with more time to do in-depth, comprehensive financial planning. Our private wealth team has been in in-depth dialogue with them on a broader basis about, for instance, new investment opportunities, reviewing estate plans, trust documents, creating strategies around the future of closely held family businesses. And while many are seeing incremental wealth creation through a robust set of financial markets, a lot have stepped up their philanthropic efforts to help people hit hard by the pandemic.
Please describe the ideal financial advisor for your firm.
We look for seasoned advisors that have a history of success in growing their practice, a strong track record of client retention, a clean compliance and regulatory background, and the type of experience and clients that would allow them to fully utilize what we’re building.
Please elaborate on that last criterion.