David Hou is one of the top wealth managers in Los Angeles. He leads a team that oversees more than $5 billion in assets for 250 high net worth families. Hou, who heads one of 10 teams at Merrill Lynch's private banking and investment group, maintains one of the highest performance records in the industry. He sticks to portfolio managers that invest in vanilla stocks and bonds, many of them value-oriented. When the tech bubble burst in 2000-2001, Hou's clients eked out respectable returns at a time when the majority in the industry lost money. The group's asset base has jumped 30 percent in the past four years.


Question: How did you get into wealth management?
Answer:
In 1992, after I graduated from UCLA's Anderson School, I got to Goldman Sachs in a funny way. I was planning to go to work for Merrill Lynch's investment banking division in New York. I had a friend in business school that suggested I check out private wealth management. I had no idea what it was, but I was intrigued. I've always been interested in investments and investing. Since high school, I had bought stocks in companies on my free time, but it wasn't something that I thought of making a career out of. What was intriguing to me was working in the investment side of the business and doing it in my home city of Los Angeles. I really saw wealth management as a way of having more control over my career. If you go into investment banking, there's really one career path. You go to New York, work there for five years, and that's the main place to make a successful career unless you can relocate later. For me, I was raised in Southern California and I wanted to live here. I never realized there was this side of the business and you could do it in an entrepreneurial way.


Q: Why did you jump ship and join Merrill Lynch?
A:
I left Goldman Sachs in 1997 with our whole team. What happened was, the investment business about 10 years ago was pretty simplistic. Most of the brokerage firms had what is called "closed architecture," that is, you only use the proprietary internal products of your own firm. The problem with that is, you'd have one or two great money managers and the rest were just so-so. After a few years, my clients would ask me to get rid of the poor-performing managers and find better outside managers.

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