Publications

- October 1, 2019: Vol. 6, Number 9

For richer or poorer: A profile of Clare Golla, Bernstein Private Wealth

by Mike Consol

Clare Golla was employed at a community development bank on the brink of closure when Bernstein Private Wealth Management contacted her about joining the firm. Based on prior conversations with wealth management firms, Golla had little interest, but she grudgingly agreed to a meeting. She was surprised to find she immediately clicked with the organization’s people and mission.

“My own due diligence suggested that this was a trusted and respected institution,” she recalls. “I made a bet on myself and signed on with Bernstein.”

That excitement was tempered when she walked into her first staff meeting and found about 50 people sitting at a boardroom table — almost all men, mostly middle age, clad in formal business attire.

“I thought, ‘the last time I saw so many cufflinks was my high school prom,’” Golla says. “I looked around and said to myself, ‘You do not fit in here.’  Then I immediately thought, ‘time to make yourself fit in.’”

Nine years hence, Golla commands a team that looks entirely different, and not only because Bernstein has adopted a more flexible dress code. The hiring model for advisers has also become more flexible, and Golla has intentionally sought out advisers who represent and have reach into markets to which Bernstein previously had limited access, those representing a diversity of professional expertise, geography, race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. According to Golla, her recent hires include a leader in Chicago’s LGBTQ community, a woman from the suburbs [not including Chicago’s North Shore], and a Nigerian native with expertise in emerging markets and “global families.”

“I am really proud of that,” she says. “These are smart and capable professionals who add expertise, perspectives and ability to forge deep connections in markets and communities that we did not have when I joined the firm.”

Along the way, Golla built a successful practice in Bernstein’s private client business and became a principal of the firm in 2016. The following year she was promoted to managing director in the Chicago office, assuming responsibility over recruiting and coaching new financial advisers.

“A critical part of my role as a director is to seek out and build a next generation of advisers,” she says.

Most recently, she added the role of head of endowment and foundation advisory services. What’s more, she is part of the firm’s global responsible investing committee, and the national philanthropy services team.

“For better or worse, I am one of those people who wants to be able to do it all,” she says.

SOUND AND FURY

By her own accounting, people have often described Golla as “intense.”

“There is a certain intensity about me,” she acknowledges. “When I start to focus on something or set a personal goal, I get serious.”

All that intensity can sometimes spill over, Golla admits, pointing out that she has also been known to have a “short fuse.” She adds, “I hold myself to a high standard, and I expect everyone around me to do the same.  Sometimes it’s justified.  Sometimes it’s just me being impatient.”

Golla’s loquacity and conviviality, however, do much to belie there is any fury in her chemistry.  Regarding loquacity, Golla points to the Myers-Briggs assessment she took many years ago pegging her as “a way-off-the-charts extrovert.” Regarding conviviality, in addition to the countless social and charity events filling Golla’s calendar, she and her husband also enjoy socializing and traveling with other couples.

Travel happens to be one of the few activities on which Golla spends liberally. Africa is a favored continent.  She has visited twice, aided by the Bernstein policy of giving its employees a “refresh period” every five years, during which they are given two extra weeks of vacation and are encouraged to use the time in its entirety, rather than piecemeal, and to “get off the grid” so the respite is truly an opportunity to disconnect and refresh.

“It’s like a mini-sabbatical,” she says.

During one of those respites, Golla and her husband Adam joined two other couples on a trip to Tanzania, which included hiking to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

She returned this past spring to another corner of the continent with Adam and their two daughters — Morocco via southern Spain.

“The Sahara Desert was absolutely amazing,” she remarks, “and it could not have been a more dramatically different experience than Tanzania.  I would love to get back to that continent.”

A third trip to Africa — South Africa this time — is on Golla’s bucket list.

RUINED FOR LIFE

After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and no idea as to what to do next, she signed on for a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or “JVC”.  Getting her start working in a series of homeless shelters in return for a minimal stipend, Golla thrived, at least professionally, as a social worker serving families in need.

“There’s a tagline that has stuck with me along my entire journey in terms of family, career, aging — and that’s ‘ruined for life.’ Once you live and work for a sustained period with people who are truly impoverished and voiceless in our society, you can’t just forget that experience.”

Golla was quickly promoted into management at a local social services agency in her early twenties, putting more than a dozen people under her purview. Several of these individuals were immigrants who were far more experienced and accomplished professionally in their countries of origin, but who had landed in these roles for a variety of reasons that had diverted them from their original paths.

“I was terrible,” she confesses. “I had no professional management skills or true experience whatsoever, and that was part of the reason that I went back to school.”

That would be the University of Chicago, where she earned a master’s in social work, studying nights over the course of a few years.

“Interestingly, while I was there, I realized that I didn’t want to be in social services at all.  I wanted to help people and to effect positive change, but I hadn’t yet found the right platform.”

It was that background and passion for helping others that got Golla excited about joining Bernstein during a time when the organization was just starting to embark on thinking about building what it now calls “purpose-driven portfolios,” which are ESG (environmental, social and governance) focused. Her clients span what she calls the “philanthropic spectrum, from ultra-high-net-worth families committed to giving back to their communities, to nonprofit organizations raising money to support their respective missions.”

When asked about national trends in philanthropy and giving, Golla cites a recent Giving USA report.

“Religious causes are still the most popular nationally, followed by education, though both of those categories have been declining. On the rise are healthcare, environmental causes and giving to various international causes. Nationally, giving by individuals was down by 1.1 percent from its 2017 level of $292 billion, and when you adjust for inflation the decline is 3.4 percent. That is a huge concern for organizations,” she cautions, “especially because individual dollars often give charitable organizations much more flexibility around what you can do with the money compared with government and foundation grants.”

Another trend Golla sees is less emphasis on retaining private foundation assets in perpetuity, and instead using those resources to make an immediate impact that donors can experience in their lifetime.

NOT A MODEL FOR ALL RUNWAYS

The most recent title Golla added to her portfolio, head of endowment and foundation advisory services, immediately brings to mind the so-called endowment model of investing, and its heavy reliance on illiquid alternatives and real assets. While acknowledging the benefits of the much ballyhooed endowment model, Golla points out that its celebrated successes — including the Harvard and Yale university endowments — have been recorded at institutions with billions of dollars to invest and steady capital inflows, giving them the luxury of locking up large percentages of their portfolios in illiquid long-term investments.

“There are pros and cons to any investing strategy,” she says. “We provide value as a strategic partner to organizations that perhaps don’t have a fully staffed investment team or even a dedicated CIO.  We serve in that capacity, as a direct extension of the finance team, meeting the organization where they’re at in terms of risk tolerance, liquidity needs, fee budget, mission alignment of investments. The traditional ‘endowment model’ may not work for many of these entities.”

Whether building portfolios for institutional or individual investors, Golla says their financial analysts are paying close attention to the current economic environment. Their conversations with clients are revolving around a few different issues, including the size of the client’s investable assets, the potential risks to liquidity, the interest rate environment, and exposure to asset classes that diversify their portfolios. The objective is to both improve client returns while dampening volatility.

THE YIN TO THAT YANG

Despite her willingness to spend on passions such as travel, Golla is otherwise an inveterate saver. She and husband Adam live what she describes as a relatively modest lifestyle.

“We sock money away for the future,” she says. “My daughters and I are fans of thrift and consignment shopping — great for the bank account and for the environment.”

She comes by her thrift honestly, having experienced the 2008 global financial crisis. Golla had two small children and was working at a community development bank in hard hit neighborhoods when the crisis struck. Meanwhile, husband Adam, a futures trader who had been the family’s primary breadwinner, found himself facing unprecedented industry disruption and needed to make a career shift.

It was about that time Bernstein reached out to Golla and offered her a position that alleviated the financial stress.

Financial stress and even deprivation are situations Golla became intimately acquainted with during her years as a social worker.

“The biggest misconception about poor people is that their circumstances are somehow their fault,” she says. “There is a lot of implicit blame placed on poor people in our society. Having now lived, worked in, volunteered at, supported, and served on multiple boards of directors of organizations in challenged communities, I’ve gained just a little bit of perspective on the challenges that low-income people face from the time they wake up in the morning. Just basic transportation — such as to look for a job — it becomes a question of how they’re going to find the money to pay for it, or the money to get their kids fed.

It has been Golla’s good fortune, and the good fortune of the destitute, that many of her clients express gratitude for the financial situation they have been able to achieve, and seek to give back to the disadvantaged in their communities.

For richer or poorer, Clare Golla has found a way.

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter
@mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

 

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