When your youngest team members feel empowered to pick up the phone and tell you what they’re thinking. When you expand family leave and introduce flexible time off during a pandemic. When you add 28 new team members at the exact same time your peers are laying people off.
Those are the signs of a Luminary.
Jeff Pierce, CEO of Wipfli Financial Advisors, has been awarded a Luminary award for executive leadership by ThinkAdvisor. The award program, in its inaugural year, represents achievements by advisors, firms and executives serving the financial planning and wealth management industry.
The Executive Leadership category honors leaders who demonstrate results and innovation in overall business growth, practice management, client education and more. Executives were selected for adding value “in ways other firms aren’t.”
Pierce’s team nominated him, in part, for his response to the pandemic. As COVID closures came into play, Pierce prioritized personal conversations with every one of the firm’s 90 team members. Touchpoints included small group coffee chats, monthly town halls and some kind of one-on-one connection with each individual every month — all virtual, of course.
“Without good people, we have very little to offer our clients,” said Pierce. “I wanted to convey from day one that I was here to have conversations peer to peer.”
Pierce says it’s not uncommon for one of the firm’s early 20-somethings to reach out. They’re sharing concerns, ideas and, sometimes, complaints.
“Those conversations drive me,” Pierce says. “I enjoy when I get those phone calls. It’s important that people know I genuinely want to hear from them and strive for a culture of continuous improvement.”
From consultant to leader
Pierce is no stranger to progress. He spent the bulk of his career as a consultant, what he refers to as “a student of the industry,” traveling from firm to firm, helping to solve issue areas and learning a lot more along the way.
The insight he gained as a consultant meant that, despite the pandemic, Pierce continued to champion key benefit shifts, including an expansion of the firm’s leave policy, which includes flexible time off and paternity leave.
But why push ahead with those kind of benefit enhancements in a time of such uncertainty? Why not revisit after the pandemic has passed?
“At the end of the day, if it’s the right thing to do, you should do it,” Pierce said.
Proof in the pudding
Strikingly, under Pierce’s leadership, Wipfli Financial did not follow the same path as many other firms that slashed staff and pay. Rather, Wipfli Financial had just one employee separation in 2020, attributed to a planned reorganization of the support teams for Wipfli Financial and its affiliate Wipfli LLP.
In fact, from March 2020 to May 2021, the firm added 28 new employees, with more since. Some of those were what Pierce calls “opportunistic hires.” In other words, Wipfli Financial wasn’t specifically looking for someone to fill those roles, but when good people were looking for new opportunities, the firm wasn’t about to stand by and wait.
Wipfli Financial did not cut pay except for the firm’s principals, who took a 5% cut for three months. “As owners, we participate in the upside, so it’s important to stand by our front lines and bear the weight of challenges like these,” Pierce said.
By year end, thanks to the strong market rebound, the firm’s wider associate group had not only received their planned merit increase but a second round of increases as well, and bonus pools were funded in excess of 100%.
Meanwhile, Wipfli Financial continued to grow, opening offices in Denver, Colorado, and Boseman, Montana. By July 2021, the firm announced it had reached a milestone of $5 billion in assets under management.
For Pierce, part of that growth can be attributed to opportunities afforded by COVID-19. He believes Wipfli Financial stepped up where competitors didn’t, reaching out to existing clients and past prospects alike.
“We were engaging with our clients and making sure we answered any of their questions and provided a sense of security that they were going to be okay,” Pierce said. “As we started to emerge (from the downturn), we saw an opportunity to keep in touch with prospects too. And what we found was that their current advisors weren’t picking up the phone.”
What talent woes?
You can’t pick up a trade publication these days without reading about the challenges firms are having attracting young talent. Wipfli Financial is one of the few with an employee base that’s 75% under age 40 and 48% women.
Katie Cullen, the firm’s chief strategy and innovation officer, who led Pierce’s nomination, says the firm’s talent trends stem from messages and expectations that come from Pierce.
“When you’re allowing people to show up and be the best version of their authentic selves, and that comes from the top, that’s something special,” Cullen said.
In the financial planning industry, it’s typical for young talent to be hidden away in a back office for years. But at Wipfli Financial, the youngest professionals — right down to the interns — are intentionally put in front of clients on a consistent basis.
“It goes a long way in their development, building trust and creating engaged employees,” Pierce said. “People feel very connected to the work they do and proud of it.”
Beacon and benefactor
As you can expect, Pierce says the idea of being seen as a luminary is “humbling.” And yet, it’s exactly what his career has been building toward for years.
“People always used to ask me, ‘When are you going to write a book on how to build the best practice?’” Pierce says. “Well, I’m here at Wipfli Financial, applying those lessons.”
So what does this particular luminary see ahead? Pierce points to continued consolidation, 24/7 digital, 24-7 client service models and access and strategic growth — plus a deeper alignment with Wipfli LLP’s private client group to provide clients with integrated, seamless services.
As the industry moves forward, Pierce hopes to be more than a leader for Wipfli Financial: “If I’m doing something right, I’m hopeful I can contribute to the broader industry as well and give back to the whole financial advisor community.”
To be eligible for ThinkAdvisor’s Luminaries Award, leaders must have demonstrated achievements in diversity and inclusion, thought leadership, executive leadership or dealmaking/growth. Wipfli Financial did not pay for Mr. Pierce to be considered.
For the full ranking, please see ThinkAdvisor’s Luminaries Class of 2021. The award discussed herein is not indicative of future performance or representative of any client experience (positive or negative) with Wipfli Financial.