Head to Head: Jeff Erdmann, Merrill Private Wealth Management

A conversation with Jeff Erdmann, founding partner of The Erdmann Group at Merrill Private Wealth Management

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May 29, 2024 | 25 minute read

About this episode

In a new episode of Head to Head, Jeff Erdmann (Founding Partner of the Erdmann Group at Merrill Private Wealth Management) joins Co-Heads of Distribution Kirsten Pickens and Ryan Robertson to discuss how childhood dyslexia helped him launch a multi-billion practice, why he hires “partners” instead of “employees” and how he balances family, mentorship, career and philanthropy.

“It’s about connecting with people and finding a connection point. Allowing them to talk about themselves. My rule number one is I never want to speak more than 30 percent of the time in a conversation. [I want to be finding] what matters to them, letting them talk about it and having a deep impactful conversation. And then obviously taking a complex situation and simplifying it for them and then giving them an outcome.” —Jeff Erdmann

About Jeff Erdmann

Jeff is the founding partner of The Erdmann Group, a distinguished wealth management team based in Greenwich, Connecticut. He began his Merrill career in 1984 and has garnered national recognition as a leading financial advisor. He is the only advisor to have been named #1 on Forbes “America’s Top Wealth Advisors’ list for eight years running – 2016-2023 (Published annually Aug – Oct. Rankings based on data as of Mar 31 – June 30 of current year). Barron’s has recognized Jeff as one of America’s Top 100 Financial Advisors from 2004-2023 and the top advisor from Merrill on the list from 2009-2023 (Published annually Mar – April. Rankings based on data as of December 31 of prior year). In addition, Jeff was honored with the esteemed Bank of America Corporation’s David Brady Award in 2017, recognized for client focus, philanthropy and overall commitment to his company and community. In 2019, The Erdmann Group was ranked #1 Private Wealth Group by Barron’s Magazine and has remained in the Top 10 since (Published annually in April. Rankings based on data as of December 31 of prior year).

Transcript excerpt:

Kirsten Pickens: Welcome to Head to Head, a podcast by FS Investments, where we get personal with the people of financial services. I’m Kirsten Pickens—

Ryan Robertson: —and I’m Ryan Robertson. We are the co-heads of distribution at FS Investments, and together, we sit down with some of the brightest minds, innovative thinkers and thought leaders in the financial services industry.

Kirsten Pickens: Today we’re excited to welcome Jeff Erdmann, Founding Partner and Managing Director of the Erdmann Group at Merrill Lynch Private Wealth Management. Jeff is the number one advisor in the U.S. on the 2023 Forbes Top Wealth Advisors list – having been ranked number one now eight years in a row. He’s also been ranked on the Barron’s Top 100 Financial Advisors list since its inception in 2004. So how does the number one advisor in the country close business? From a borrowed suit to managing over 12 billion in assets under management, Jeff shares his lessons from almost 40 years of record setting leadership in financial services.

Ryan Robertson: In this episode, Jeff talks about how childhood dyslexia helped him launch a multi-billion dollar practice, why he hires partners instead of “employees” and how he balances family, mentorship, career and philanthropy. So, let’s get started. We’re excited for you to hear our conversation today.

Kirsten Pickens: Jeff, welcome to Head to Head. Thank you so much for being here. Ryan and I are honored to be able to sit down and have a conversation with you. So, thank you.

Jeff Erdmann: Glad to be here. My pleasure.

Kirsten Pickens: Absolutely. As the number one financial advisor in the country for the last eight years, a lot of the industry has heard from you. They’ve heard your story, they’ve been inspired by you, you’ve mentored thousands, but it all had to start somewhere, right? And so when I think back to some of the articles that have been written about you, I love the Barron’s article that was written in 2009 titled “From a borrowed suit to $8.3B.” Now, I know you’re a lot higher number than that today, but let’s go there. How did it all start for you?

Jeff Erdmann: Well, I had two gifts when I started. One is I did start the industry with a PhD. I was poor, hungry, and driven or desperate. You can put a desperate or a driven on the D, whichever you want. And I think another advantage I’ve had in life, which I always love to talk about, is I was terribly dyslexic as a kid. And for a large part of my life, I thought everyone was smarter than me. And what I’ve learned in my thirties and forties with three dyslexic boys is that dyslexia has nothing to do with how smart you are. But the gift it gave me is, I think what dyslexics do really well is (a) they park their ego at the door and (b) they figure out and surround themselves by people that have skill sets that they don’t. And I feel really comfortable around people that do things better than I do, and hopefully I’m complimenting what they do in a different way. So, that helped me a lot. And I think starting in a strange city, not knowing a soul at age 22, was an advantage because I really did feel as though I had my PhD and it was a dog fight. And back then in the 1980s, our business was about numbers. It was a game, it was a contest. It wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as we are today.

Ryan Robertson: So at what age did you recognize or were you diagnosed with dyslexia and how do you work through that or how did you work through that to become successful?

Jeff Erdmann: Well, first of all, dyslexia is a tagline everyone likes to give on themselves in the last 10 or 15 years. But look, I had to real trouble in school as a young kid, and again, I was very fortunate to come from a great family and my parents really believed in education. And so what we know today is it’s very easy to navigate if we just retrain our brain on how we decode. So look, everyone’s got a chip on their shoulder, and that just happened to be mine, and it’s been really positive for me.

Kirsten Pickens: But you always knew what you wanted to do, is that right? I was reading your article about when you played lacrosse in college and there was a nice story written about you from I think some of your classmates saying how you were destined for Wall Street. You knew what you wanted to do. Is that accurate?

Jeff Erdmann: Well, I had to figure out the hard way. So, I was a hustler as a kid and had different businesses. I started camps for kids and painting businesses like everyone else.

Kirsten Pickens: In college?

Jeff Erdmann: In high school.

Kirsten Pickens: In high school!

Jeff Erdmann: And then I remember sitting down with my uncle who was a top headhunter in New York City, and again, we didn’t have the internet obviously, and his secretary typed out… I was trying to get a summer internship for my sophomore year in high school, and we typed out letters to Procter & Gamble, Clairol, all the great sales marketing programs out there and I think we sent 38 letters. I think we got 15 responses. They were all no thanks, and no one else bothered to respond. And I called my parents’ stockbroker at Paine Webber and said, “I hear they have things called cold callers.” And I mean, I was desperate. I needed a job. I’m like, “I need a job now.” And I cold called the branch manager of the Park Avenue office at Paine Webber and I kept bugging him for day after day after day. And he finally said, “God, you are a pain in the butt kid. Come on in, I’ll talk to you.” And I went into the interview, he had suspenders on, slicked back gray hair and he was like the quintessential Wall Street guy. This is in 1983. I said, “sir, look, thank you for taking the time to see me. I need to tell you something first. I’m not like a great math whizz or great Wall Street guy.” But I said, “I really think I’m a good connector with people.” He looked at me and he said, “kid, let me give you some advice. Your lead statement to me on Wall Street that you’re not good with numbers is not really a great marketing statement.” But he said, “but I like you and I believe you.” And believe it or not, he set up a deal and he gave me the New York City phone, which was this thick, and he put me in the back closet of the Park Avenue office and he paid me 50 cents per lead. I was cold calling on Hubbard Real Estate Limited Partnerships in New York City. And if someone said, “sure, send me a brochure”, I got 50 cents.

Ryan Robertson: Wow, and that was in ‘83?

Jeff Erdmann: That was in summer of ‘83 or ‘82. Well, let me tell you something. Any idiot can say, “Hey, can I just send you something?” So after the first week you realized even at 50 cents I was being overpaid because I cleaned out all the brochures in the office and then I got a raise to $6 an hour. But that’s how I got started in the business.

Kirsten Pickens: That’s awesome. Good story.

Ryan Robertson: We launched this podcast for lots of reasons, but one of the reasons, main reasons is we really wanted to shine a light. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve traveled the country for 25 years, talked to great financial advisors like yourself and we really just wanted to shine a light to the best of the best to hear what makes them tick or what gives them insight. So there’ll be a lot of people listening to this that are probably really young and wanting to think about being an advisor. Can you just continue and talk a little bit about 1983 and how the business was then as compared to what it’s like today? What are the differences that exist today versus what it was like then?

Jeff Erdmann: The model back then was you get in early at 7:45 in the morning and you listen to the morning call. Every Wall Street firm had a morning call and at Merrill Lynch there was a big round table down on Wall Street, a guy named Chuck Seti ran it. He had all the analysts there every morning and our business model was, we had access to information every morning that the public didn’t. Because there wasn’t CNBC, there wasn’t the internet, there was the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. And so we would listen to analysts. And example I’d give is, I remember one morning, Lucy Painter was the analyst on Baxter Travenol, and I come in, I’m a young kid, and she says, “Baxter Travenol is coming out with a new syringe. It’s going to add 30% profitability, stocks at $23 a share. We think it’s worth $30.” That’s step one. Okay, I have information. Step two, go to my desk, get out the phone book and start calling complete strangers I don’t know and tell them that I have a good idea that will make them money. Step number three is, they say yes, hopefully, and then I say, “great, let me write the ticket.” I have to run down the hall and put it in, and then they call it down and hopefully I’ll get a confirmation back in the next hour. And then I’ll need to come out to your house and pick up a check or if you come by the office. And by the way, that’s a $282 commission for the $500 shares. And so back then it was access to information others didn’t have. That’s completely wiped off the table now because information’s a free commodity. It was calling complete strangers you don’t know and selling them something which is completely unprofessional and inappropriate today. And number three, charging a fat commission for that process. So the business has completely changed. Now it’s so much more about deep relationships, understanding what matters in people’s lives, giving them outcomes to the important things in their lives, like educating their children, deferring taxes, getting better performance and being a family steward for them.

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Headshot of Kirsten Pickens

Kirsten Pickens

Co-Head of U.S. Distribution

Ryan Robertson

Co-Head of U.S. Distribution

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