For a front-row seat to a "beauty pageant" in which four or five wealth advisors pitch their talents, the requirement for admission is net worth of $2 million to $10 million.


That's what it takes to enter the world of wealth management, where L.A.'s top wealth rainmakers compete head-to-head in high-powered pitch sessions.


The pageants are just one of the ways in which investment advisors get their foot in the door to meet multimillionaires. In addition to Power Point presentations and buzzwords like "alpha" and "asset allocation," wealth advisors are eager to display not just their strategies for making money, but also their most important skill likeability.


"A beauty contest, by its very nature, is like a job interview," said Wendi Doyle, managing director of Private Client Services at Lehman Brothers in Los Angeles. "It's all about getting to know the presenter."


Doyle has taken part in a few hundred beauty pageants during her 25 years in wealth management in Los Angeles and is a former managing director at JP Morgan Private Bank.


"Beauty contests can be kind of scary, because you're talking to an individual in a vacuum," she said. "And what you really want to do is address their concerns and motivations."


If Los Angeles powerbrokers think Hollywood is cutthroat, they should try becoming a heavyweight at a wealth management firm. The job involves reeling in clients with assets of between $2 million to $100 million or more, and generally catering to their whims.


Not surprisingly, Los Angeles has become one of the most competitive markets in the U.S. for wealth advisors. At least 200,000 households in Los Angeles County have assets of at least $1 million, excluding real estate. That money has to be parked somewhere and managed for the highest possible returns.


More so than on the East Coast, or even in San Francisco, Los Angeles is a city in which entrepreneurs often come into newfound wealth overnight primarily through the sale of a business or real estate. Many business owners spend their entire lives building a company, only to realize that they have little experience managing their own money. That's where a wealth advisor comes in and the beauty pageant, or pitch meeting, is their first introduction to a prospective client.


Thomas Schwartz, regional manager and a managing director at Goldman Sachs, said one of the biggest issues in dealing with wealth is the emotional attachment that clients often have to their businesses.


"Changes in circumstances are incredibly emotional and sometimes a family has owned a business for generations, and they're grappling with a lot of competing issues and objectives," Schwartz said.


Goldman, which has 30 wealth managers in Los Angeles, joins a host of other investment houses, including Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and J.P. Morgan, who believe their "sweet spot" is catering to entrepreneurs during "transition events," such as the sale of a family business.


Competition, trust
Given the fact that some wealthy people lose a great deal of money in their lifetimes through excessive spending or heavy debt, and quite a few get ripped off by trusted friends, picking a wealth advisor can be one of the most critical decisions ever.


It frequently boils down to trust, comfort level and other intangibles.


"At the end of the day, many of the beauty shows don't end up being about how good you are as a wealth manager," said Hal Harley, managing director of Deutsche Bank's private wealth management office in Los Angeles. "People often get hired because they look like Uncle Harry. But it's always nice to be invited."


Wealth advisors spend a great deal of time making new contacts among business managers and accountants, lawyers and even stockbrokers. Some get hired because a potential client is already working with their bank or brokerage firm.


"We generally find clients through referrals, through people who have a relationship with other parts of the bank, or through the tax and legal communities, who often serve as intermediaries," said Andrew Cohen, managing director and head of JP Morgan Private Bank in Los Angeles, and a former senior banker in Geneva, where he advised wealthy families in Israel and Turkey.


The role of investment advisor continues to change primarily because so many financial institutions want a piece of the wealth management pie.


Wealth advisors run the gamut from regional banks such as City National Bank, to wirehouses including Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, to companies including U.S. Trust and Fiduciary Trust International of California, to local boutiques such as Bel Air Investment Advisors.


Trust companies, unlike investment houses, actually serve as fiduciaries, or the custodian of assets for beneficiaries.


"Our business is coming back into vogue because there's a tremendous amount of wealth being passed on to generations," said Mark Lipson, regional chief executive of US Trust in California. "We have situations where a parent is leaving significant wealth and they don't want to turn it over to one of their children so they need someone to arbitrate."


Finally, there are plenty of individuals who simply hang out a shingle and call themselves investment advisors. Stockbrokers have been known to call themselves private bankers. And bankers have even started referring to themselves as investment advisors.


Whatever the name or title, the competition to capture the wealthiest clients in Los Angeles is intense.


"Everybody thinks they're a wealth manager and everybody is finding a way to get into this business," said Frank Ulf, chairman and chief executive of Covington Capital Management in Los Angeles, a boutique investment advisory firm. "But the basic rules of investing are very similar, so what it all comes down to is the relationship you have with an advisor that is built over time."


Real estate
Because there is so much new wealth in Southern California, the biggest challenges for wealth managers is twofold: finding new clients and developing a niche to differentiate themselves from competitors.


"It's a huge market, everybody knows it, and everybody's here," said Richard Byrd, executive vice president and director of wealth management at City National Bank, the private business bank in Beverly Hills. City National has a large wealth management division in Los Angeles, specializing not just in the entertainment community but also in real estate.


Byrd said California is unique because real estate has always served as a major asset for wealthy individuals, who need to borrow against their property holdings.


Borrowing tends to be an important issue for wealth advisors because many super rich individuals are highly leveraged. Others may have 30 different operating companies and need non-traditional bank debt, so they're always interested in cheap money. Firms often differentiate themselves by touting the lending products of a parent bank or investment house.


"Almost all of our clients, despite being very, very wealthy, use us for credit and they borrow money," said Donald Heberle at Mellon Financial, the parent of Mellon 1st Business Bank in Los Angeles. "Borrowing against investable assets on margin, or for other things like art, planes and homes, is a big component of what many wealthy people are looking for."

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