There are two lessons Mike LaMena learned early in life: (1) the value of recognizing when you have made a mistake, and (2) acting boldly to correct that mistake, even when it entails a measure of embarrassment.
He was in his junior year of high school and scouting for the right college to launch his life in earnest. He had never even traveled outside his native state of New York, except to cross the border into Canada for a couple of soccer tourneys, until he started to explore university systems — a research expedition that took him to South Bend, Ind., and the hallowed corridors and lecture halls of the University of Notre Dame. LaMena immediately fell in love with the campus and all the school represented, imagining himself becoming a member of the Fighting Irish family.
He was accepted into the freshman class, only to find concerns about money weighing heavily on his mind, so much so that he convinced himself to turn down the offer and instead enroll at one of the State University of New York campuses. It didn’t take long for him to feel like it was a mistake to walk away from Notre Dame.
To LaMena’s credit, he ate some humble pie by contacting the Notre Dame admissions office to alert them to his change of heart. Fortunately, the acceptance letter was still in force and LaMena headed to South Bend to great effect.
“Notre Dame had a huge impact on my life,” he recalls. “It expanded my horizons in a tremendous way. I actually met my wife at Notre Dame; we were best friends for four years and then got married a number of years afterwards.”
LaMena could not have known during his high school financial deliberations that he would spend the bulk of his career in the wealth management space supporting advisers who worked every day to help clients achieve their financial goals, but he found in financial services a dynamic industry that has taken him from 14 years at Morgan Stanley, to his stints at Hightower Advisors and Bronfman Rothschild, and now in his current role as CEO of Wealthspire Advisors, the 14-office, $12 billion RIA.
All of that happened after LaMena did a year of service as a volunteer high school teacher at Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx. He still relishes the impact he was having on the young people he was teaching.
So why isn’t LaMena teaching today? There’s a story behind that — and many other stories that, cumulatively, have shaped LaMena’s life and career.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell a 25-year-old Mike LaMena?
Don’t feel like your career needs to be a straight, linear progression defined only by escalating promotions. Embrace the opportunity to explore a diverse set of work experiences.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Focus time and energy on the things you can impact and influence, and don’t waste effort on the things you can’t control.
Best piece of career advice you ever received?
Growth occurs when you get outside your comfort zone. Lean into opportunities that push you outside your comfort zone.
The Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you.
I was an English major undergraduate.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Spending time with my family
What is your biggest regret?
No regrets. I believe in owning all the decisions you make and looking forward.
What is your most pronounced characteristic?
If the most recent year were set to music, what would be the first cut on the soundtrack?
“Bluebird” by Miranda Lambert, for the optimism the refrain captures when confronted with challenges: “And if the whole wide world stops singing / And all the stars go dark / I’ll keep a light on in my soul / Keep a bluebird in my heart.”
What book might people be surprised to find in your bookcase or iPad?
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
You started your career at Morgan Stanley. Tell us about your time there.
I was at Morgan Stanley for about 14 years and worked in a variety of operating roles in the wealth management space. In 2008, I had the opportunity to go to Hong Kong, when Morgan Stanley was looking at restructuring the way it ran its wealth-management business in Asia. The opportunity was eye-opening to me because it was a blank sheet of paper to design an optimal platform for wealth managers, and it showed me how much innovation was occurring outside the walls of a big firm like Morgan Stanley. The assignment was very entrepreneurial — an opportunity to build something from the ground up. After that experience, I just could not shake two things: One was the desire to do something entrepreneurial, and two was that you could build a better platform for advisers to serve their clients.
You left Morgan Stanley to join Hightower Advisors. How did that transpire?
I got connected to Elliot Weissbluth, who was the CEO who launched Hightower with Dave Pottruck and a few others. Elliot was looking for somebody to join and scale the organization through people, processes and technology, and I had done a lot of diverse operating roles on the business, operations and technology side at Morgan Stanley, and was looking for an opportunity to be in a COO role. Because of my experience in Asia, I was intrigued by the opportunity to move to the independent RIA space and do something entrepreneurial. I decided to make the leap and join Hightower. I think I was employee number 102 and had a great experience there scaling that business, getting exposed to people like Elliot Weissbluth and Dave Pottruck.
Dave Pottruck has a glittering background as former CEO of Charles Schwab & Co. What stood out to you about working with him at Hightower?
One was his passion. You couldn’t be around Dave for more than five minutes and not realize that if he was engaged and interested in something the passion just flowed. The other thing was his humility. Dave is bigger than life in some ways, but also willing to have very honest, open, frank conversations about the challenges in his career, where he made mistakes and learned from it. To have somebody like him in the chairman’s role willing to be so transparent was great.
Same question regarding Elliot Weissbluth. What stood out to you about working with him?
Elliot was unbelievably dynamic and had a vision and an ability to motivate people to charge up the hill. I learned a tremendous amount from him. He had an unbelievable ability to project a vision, be charismatic in communicating that, and get people excited about the journey and the mission we were on. He and I were very complementary in that he was big picture in his vision and strategy, and I was all about turning that vision into an operating paradigm that made it happen. It was exciting. I very much enjoyed working with him.
After about seven years, you left Hightower to join Bronfman Rothschild, which became Wealthspire Advisors. Explain that progression.
I started to get an itch to do something different, and part of that was that I had been the No. 2 at Hightower for a long period of time. When I got connected to Bronfman Rothschild, what excited me was its fully integrated model, where all advisers were working cohesively in a team-oriented way to deliver something more consistent. The brand was built around that. I also joined, in part, because the CEO of Bronfman at the time, Neil Simon, was looking for his replacement because he was interested in pursuing a new chapter outside of financial services, so I knew coming in I would take on the CEO role in a reasonable period of time. Things moved pretty quickly and, after just a few months, Neil stepped away to focus on a political campaign, and I was tasked with leading Bronf-man Rothschild.
What was Bronfman’s story?
The firm had a history of organic and inorganic growth through M&As. Even though we were a $6 billion RIA, it still felt, in many ways, we were subscale, and I was very open to the idea of strategic partnerships and strategic combinations. The filter for me was always putting pieces together that would create value for our team members and clients.
How did the subsequent merger and creation of Wealthspire come about?
It turned out one of our advisers in the mid-Atlantic was involved in an industry study group with Eric Sontag, the COO of Sontag Advisory, and every time they bumped into each other they started talking about aspects of the business, whether it be investment philosophy or culture, where they saw consistency. That led us to have a few exploratory conversations, and the deeper we dug, the more conviction we had that putting Bronfman Rothschild and Sontag Advisory together would be of value. With the backing of NFP, an insurance brokerage and our parent organization, we merged Bronfman and Sontag in March 2019.
What is the story behind the Wealthspire name?
We knew the Bronfman Rothschild brand was going to go away; we looked at perpetuating the Sontag brand, we looked at derivatives of NFP, and we decided we needed a brand that really conveyed who we are to our clients and what motivates us. Ultimately, we arrived at Wealthspire. The name is meant to convey our client’s aspirations, hopes, dreams and goals, even their fears — all of the things that motivate them and us every day.
How was the name conceived?
It was a great process. Jill Cockerham, our head of marketing, and I worked together. We hired a third-party creative agency and then Jill did a fantastic job canvassing people throughout Sontag and Bronfman as well as some of our stakeholders at NFP, really dug deep on the values, the things that we felt the brand needed to represent, and then we started to identify names. The name that kept coming back to the surface and really capturing who we were was Wealthspire.
Let’s get back to you and your beginnings. Where did you grow up?
Liverpool, New York, just outside of Syracuse.
After graduating from Notre Dame, how did you begin your post-graduation life?
I had a desire to give back, and I wasn’t sure how that would manifest itself, but I ended up doing a year of volunteer work as a teacher in the Bronx through the Marist Brothers organization. I lived in a converted convent connected to a church with three Marist brothers and another volunteer. It was an absolutely fantastic experience, but what led me to explore financial services was my struggle with my personal perception that teaching was not a meritocracy, where the best teachers were rewarded for being the best teachers. It was more about the number of years you were in the system. Before I would commit my life to education, I wanted to explore an alternative career path that I felt offered a greater level of meritocracy. That ultimately ended up being financial services, and over the course of a weekend, I went from an unpaid volunteer with a stipend of $125 a month teaching ninth-grade English to working at Morgan Stanley in their private wealth management department.
What did you find at Morgan Stanley?
I was working with incredibly talented people, and I was learning and growing every day. I am a naturally curious person, so what I lacked in terms of educational background in finance or accounting, I made up for with curiosity and hard work. Every time somebody put something in front of me, I absorbed it like a sponge. What I loved about the private wealth management business was it was diverse and had a great deal of breadth. I never wanted to be a mile deep and an inch wide, I always gravitated toward things where there was a diversity of intellectual discourse and a breadth of opportunity. I found a canvas where I could explore a lot of different things, and it’s how my career started to develop.
What characteristic contributed most to your success?
Definitely curiosity because I came into an industry without the background, and I don’t think I would have been successful without embracing learning.
Can you identify a time you failed and learned a lesson from that failure?
Definitely. I got into a phase where I was running a number of marathons and found, consistently, I would get to the finish line and feel like I had worked hard but had left some fuel in the tank. There was one marathon in Quebec City in Canada where I went out and ran faster, and during the first half of the marathon ran faster than I intended and ultimately ended up really slowing down about mile 18 or 20. There was an odd satisfaction that I had absolutely emptied my tank and failed. I had set the goal of running the fastest marathon I had run, fell well short of that because I went out too hard and bonked, but the satisfaction was having gone all in and failed. I think there have been countless times in my career where I go back to that lesson and realize that you can play it safe or you can be a little bit bolder. That has always stuck with me as an experience that led me to being bolder and not be afraid of taking bigger risks.
When are you most productive?
I am definitely a morning person. I am a fan of 6 a.m. flights. When I was commuting back and forth between New York and Chicago, my alarm would go off at 3:15 in the morning on Monday, I would be out the door at 4 a.m., I would get to La Guardia by 5, be on a 6 a.m. flight, land at Midway and be in the office in Chicago when the local Chicago people were arriving to work. Once you get into that sustained habit of early mornings, it is tough to break, so I am an early morning person, and I’m most productive then. I like to get things done early, before the uncertainty and chaos of the day starts.
Who gets hired at Wealthspire? What do you want to see and hear from an applicant during interviewing?
Enthusiasm and passion for the business because you can have all the technical skills, but if you don’t have the desire and willingness to apply it, we are not going to get results. Also, if you are not collaborative and you don’t want to be in an ecosphere where there is an open exchange of ideas, and you instead want to operate in a vacuum, you are not going to find success here.
What is the first thing you do after arriving at the office?
Sit down, take a deep breath and then focus on how I could bring positivity to the organization.
You have an almost two-hour commute to the office. How do you use that commuting time?
I take Long Island Railroad into the city, so being on a train gives me an opportunity to be internet-connected and run through email, organize myself and identify the day’s priorities. I used to be hyperconnected, I would get on a train or plane and get on wi-fi, but the last few years I have intentionally not logged on. I try not to be tethered to my email and the inflow of inquiries. Instead, I use that time to reflect on a bigger picture topic that I needed to think about strategically, or something that requires more focused time and energy. I found that commuting was a chance to get big blocks of time that are hard to carve out otherwise.
Did you have a mentor?
I look at the experiences I have had working at Hightower and now leading Wealthspire, and they never would have happened if one of my bosses and mentors, Jerry Camera at Morgan Stanley, hadn’t pushed me to take an ex-pat assignment in Hong Kong. That experience led me to get excited about doing something entrepreneurial and in the independent RIA space. Jerry saw potential in me and wanted to force me out of my comfort zone. He had experience working in Japan, where, figuratively and literally, he was dropped into a foreign environment, a lot of the relationships he had were no longer there, and he had to figure things out differently. He grew through that experience and wanted me to have the same experience. I never would have left a large firm like Morgan Stanley for a startup like Hightower if I hadn’t taken the risk to go and work in Hong Kong on that project. So, Jerry was a great mentor to me, and there have been countless others at various points in my career that have pushed me out of my comfort zone, and that is where the greatest growth occurs.
What was the turning point in your career?
When I made the decision to move to the middle-office infrastructure side of the business. That was huge because it opened up a whole set of experiences that were right for me at the time. It tapped into my desire for breadth, it enabled me to explore how all the pieces were put together, which naturally lead me to embrace chief operating officer roles.
Then there was the decision to leave Morgan Stanley, despite all the great experiences and people there. Making the leap to do something entrepreneurial was scary, but also validating, because it allowed me to recognize that, after finding success in a big firm like Morgan Stanley, the skill set I had developed translated and gave me confidence.
What is Wealthspire’s target client base?
We are deeply in the high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth segment. We have got a couple of dedicated internal trust and estate attorneys that link us into family office–like capabilities in terms of multigenerational asset transfer.
Where will the firm’s future growth come from?
Our plan is to continue to grow the business organically and inorganically.
You have 14 offices now. Are you planning to establish more?
Absolutely. Our aspiration is to be a national-scale RIA. We definitely have geographies we would like to be in, but we are not going to pick the first team that we can get. It’s all about quality. We have to find the right teams with the right cultural and business fit. We are never going to trade expediency and growth over quality. It has got to be quality first.
How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
With family. Being the father of three amazing daughters who all play multiple sports, that frequently means a lot of time on soccer fields, lacrosse fields, basketball courts and at track meets.
First choice for a new career?
How do you want to be remembered?
As a loving husband and father who had a positive impact on the lives of people I connected with throughout my life.
Mike Consol (email@example.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.