It can be surprising what a phone call and a casual coffee meeting can mean to a person’s professional career.
Take Kristen Bauer as an example. She was managing director for the northwest region at Tiedemann Advisors when her phone rang. On the other end was a representative from an executive search firm attempting to interest her in the CEO’s post at Laird Norton Wealth Management, a 56-year-old wealth and advisory firm — with significant investments in real estate and operating companies — founded by two high-net-worth families to serve families like their own.
The executive search rep received a less-than-enthusiastic reception from Bauer, who was comfortably and successfully ensconced in her current role, where she had been working for the Russell family, from the prodigious Russell Investments lineage, until their organization, The Threshold Group, was merged into Tiedemann Advisors, where she worked under the leadership of nameplate founder Michael Tiedemann (featured on the cover of the August 2017 issue of Real Assets Adviser).
“I had a great amount of respect for Mike Tiedemann and what he is doing at the organization,” says Bauer. “I was really happy with my role at Tiedemann.”
So much so that she turned down an interview but did agree to a coffee meeting, not even passing her resume to Laird Norton out of concern it might falsely signal interest in the job. Rather, she wanted to show respect and appreciation to the people from Laird Norton and communicate how honored she was by their interest. Attending the coffee meeting were Laird Norton CEO Jeff Vincent and board chairwoman Lisa Brummel.
As she sipped her Seattle’s Best Coffee (its Post Alley No. 5 brew) and listened to them articulate their vision for the organization, Bauer was surprised to find herself gravitating from curiosity to interest in the position.
“They painted a picture of where they wanted to go as an organization, and it was such an inspiring long-term vision of helping families use their wealth as a source of positive impact in the world,” she recalls. “I got incredibly excited about the opportunity and then transitioned out of Tiedemann, which was very difficult after 21 years of working with some of those families. But I am still very good friends with all of my old clients, along with the folks at Tiedemann.”
ARTHUR AND GEORGE
Bauer did not start her professional life with a penchant for financial services; rather, she followed her academic peers into the accounting business, joining the Big Eight (at the time) accounting firm Arthur Andersen.
“That really set me on my path,” she says. “It was a great way to start my career, and a great organization.”
And it likely would have been an abiding career path for Bauer. Then George Russell came knocking in 1998, looking to turn Bauer into the first CFO of the Russell family office. At the time, the Russell family was selling Russell Investments and looking to establish its own family office. That family office eventually became Threshold Group, with Bauer serving many roles during the growth of the firm.
“I fell in love with the private wealth industry,” she says. “It really was wonderful happenstance to meet the Russell family.”
Bauer was only 28 when the offer came but was undeterred and unintimidated by her youth and relatively limited experience.
“George Russell told me, ‘I know a lot about investments, you know a lot about accounting. I know nothing about wealth as it relates to me personally for my family, but wouldn’t it be great if we could learn together.’ He taught me lessons that stick with me every day,” she says.
One of the memorable statements he made to Bauer was this: “We all serve somebody. You may serve me, but I serve a board and my clients. Once we recognize that, we can do it with more honor and respect for each other.”
Bauer says the statement transformed how she thought about her role and how to go about serving others.
Another lesson imparted by Russell: “Do everything as though it is going to end up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. There is no gray in integrity, it is black and white.”
Besides Russell, another major influence in Bauer’s life was her paternal grandmother, who she calls one of the “most courageous people she ever met, a woman who never shied away from adventure.” Born in 1912, in her mid-20s she and a couple of girlfriends drove a Model A or Model T from Nebraska to Mexico during an era when women simply did not act on such flights of fancy or escapade.
“No cell phones and probably no payphones — no nothing,” says Bauer. “Up until she died at just shy of 100, she was always up for an adventure, no matter what it was. I think I get a little bit from her.”
Bauer served as lead adviser for the Russell family from the start and grew The Threshold Group’s asset base. In time, though, the Russell clan wanted to relinquish its role as owner and operator of the organization in favor of becoming clients.
“Their goals and objectives changed as they started moving down generations,” Bauer explains.
In that pursuit, The Threshold Group began soliciting interested parties and the suitor that most impressed and offered the best cultural fit was Tiedemann Advisors, both for the Russell family and their organization’s employees and clients. Interestingly, one of the bidders was Laird Norton Wealth Management, giving Bauer insight into the organization a couple of years prior to its recruitment of her as CEO.
The Laird Norton family history is rich. Two brothers and their cousin began a Midwestern milling and manufacturing business in 1855. The Laird and Norton families partnered with Fredrick Weyerhaeuser in 1900 to help form The Weyerhaeuser Co. Some 67 years later the Laird Norton Trust Co. was founded to manage the families’ assets, and in 1979 it began accepting outside clients. In 2004 the trust company merged with investment adviser Tyee Asset Strategies to eventually become Laird Norton.
FROM BOEING COUNTRY TO BEND
Kristen Bauer was born in Everett, Wash., a city made famous as one of the Boeing Co.’s aerospace manufacturing hubs, but early in life her family relocated to Bend, Ore., a playground for lovers of the outdoors — with its whitewater rafting, fly fishing, skiing, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, etc. You can count Bauer among the fanciers of outdoor activities.
“We lived a very modest lifestyle, and I spent a lot of time outdoors,” she says. “We did a lot of hiking. My dad was on ski patrol so that we could ski, and my mom started a gymnastics academy in our backyard, so I played around with gymnastics too. I was outdoorsy and athletic with some grit.”
Even today, Bauer walks or hikes almost daily.
Father was CEO of a civil engineering firm, smart and driven. It was from him, she suspects, her facility with mathematics was inherited. Mother was a teacher and an empath who always recognized the positive attributes in others. It’s from her that Bauer learned emotional intelligence. The combination of those technical and emotional skills proved formidable for Bauer as she moved into her professional years.
But first came her collegiate years as a University of Washington Husky. Her move from the small community of Bend to metropolitan Seattle was an education in itself (“I felt like a fish out of water”). She immediately joined a sorority, Delta Delta Delta, commonly known as Tri Delt, and jumped fully into college social life. Bauer had already developed a zeal for beer as, in addition to it outdoors reputation, craft-style brews are another thing at which Bend excels. Her favorite maker is the Deschutes Brewery, and her favorite brew is Fresh Haze.
She was elected president of Tri Delt during her junior and senior years, while still graduating with cum laude honors. She also helped the football team in its recruiting efforts — meeting with families, leading tours of the campus and its facilities, discussing academics, and introducing them to instructors. She still has season tickets to Washington Husky football games, sitting alongside some of her sorority sisters.
“I was really into school,” she remarks, “and trying to manage all the different aspects of college life. Being in a sorority, we did a lot of community work.”
Bauer’s two daughters, Mason, 22, and Lulu, 20, are now in college, the former at the University of Colorado majoring in environmental studies, the latter at Boise State University studying business and sustainability. Both girls share their mother’s interests in the outdoors and adventure.
HUMAN AND VIRAL MILESTONES
Auspiciously, Bauer accepted the position at Laird Norton on March 3, 2020, which she remembers vividly because it was her 50th birthday. Unforeseen, though, was the COVID-19 pandemic about to make its ominous spread. By her start date of April 20, COVID had shut down most societies and economies. What Bauer considered a challenging new position turned out to be even more arduous, taking over a remotely operating team of mostly, to her, anonymous professionals and clients.
“I was really tested in starting with the team that was fully at home, having never really met any of them in person, having not met the clients in person,” she explains. “It transformed how I think about people and the human aspect of what we do and the relationships we have. It’s not so much about money management, it’s really about understanding human nature. We are in the relationship business, and the only asset we have at Laird Norton are our people. The six weeks between accepting the job and the world shutting down seriously transformed how I was approaching this role.”
Even today, the firm is not fully officed, with some team members spending just two or three days per week in office. Bauer is looking to push office attendance higher through a “magnet” approach rather than a “mandate” approach.
“We are making it a place where people want to come by giving them reason to be here,” she says. To that end, Bauer and her colleagues have created a committee dubbed The Workplace Opportunity of the Future that is testing new workplace models.
There is much at stake.
“We are an apprenticeship model. You can’t learn how to serve families intentionally by going to school, so there is a lot of apprenticeship work to be done, and we’re trying to make sure we have mentors and teams here in the office so it’s a place where our young people are thriving.”
One outgrowth of the COVID shutdown and Bauer’s inability to get in physical proximity to her team was a Friday email to the entire firm, a practice she continues. The contents of that weekly email can range from reflections on the week past and showcasing the firm’s values to the sharing of photographs and updates.
“I write it myself. It’s a labor of love.”
ART STILL HANGS AROUND
Though she never used her art history studies professionally, Bauer’s education in the field was not for naught. She remains an art fancier and is a close friend and No. 1 client to a budding artist named Alex Spiekerman.
“I have quite a bit of her art in my house,” she says, with an emphasis on abstract and avant-garde oil paintings.
While art history fulfilled the creative dimension of her personality, the university’s Foster School of Business, where she earned a degree in accounting, catered to her passion for all things numerical. It was during business school that Bauer saw peers go to work in the accounting business and she decided to follow suit, joining Arthur Andersen at the start of her senior year.
The Andersen years proved fruitful, until George Russell made his approach, changing and expanding the trajectory of Bauer’s career.
OPTIONS OPENED AND CLOSED
Laird Norton Wealth Management was founded 56 years ago by the Laird and Norton clans — seventh generation Midwest families who, combined, number more than 500 members. It started as a trust company serving just those two families, but it started taking on other families in the 1980s with a focus on multigenerational wealth management. Mergers with Seattle-based Filament and San Francisco-based Weatherby Asset Management, spearheaded by Bauer, boosted the organization’s AUM to more than $14 billion, and 190 staff members in four offices working on behalf of more than 750 multigenerational client families and institutions in 37 U.S. states and nine countries.
The mergers were intended to add to Laird Norton’s scope of services. Bauer says there are no other mergers currently on the firm’s radar.
“The current focus is more on organic growth, but I also think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for inorganic growth,” she says. “We have really patient capital with the Laird and Norton families.”
Patient capital, organic growth, opportunistic acquisitions — these are among the tools at Bauer’s disposal for taking Laird Norton to its next station in organizational life.
That’s assuming her phone doesn’t ring with another offer to take the helm of an ever more prodigious private wealth player. But, given all she has put into action at Laird Norton, and her allegiance to the firm’s families, chances are high that Kristen Bauer won’t bother — not even with a casual coffee meeting at Seattle’s Best.
Mike Consol (email@example.com) is senior editor of Real Assets Adviser.