Sarasota wealth manager Aimee Cogan climbs high in a male-dominated profession.
By David Ball
Quick. Picture a financial adviser in your mind. Did you conjure up a man in a crisp suit and tie, iPhone pressed to his ear and eyes glued to a suite of computer monitors and Bloomberg terminals? That description might fit most, though certainly not Sarasota's Aimee Cogan, who has climbed to the top of a competitive and male-dominated industry.
Cogan, a founding partner of The Bellwether Group at Morgan Stanley, is a rising star in the world of high-net-worth wealth management, and not just in Southwest Florida. She is a top producer among Morgan Stanley's 16,500 financial advisers, and Bellwether is recognized as one of the firm's elite teams, capturing the richest clients and biggest profits.
Cogan says she's faced new problems being a woman in this industry. "It's very much a male-dominated field, for sure. But for women, there are some good things if you are successful. I can tell you when I go to Barron's top 1,000 [advisers] conferences, I don't have to wait in line for the restroom," she jokes.
That may change soon. Firms like Morgan Stanley are aggressively looking to hire more women in the face of demographic realities. "Close to 67 percent of the wealth in the U.S. in the next 10 years will be controlled by women. It's just a natural demographic of the aging population," says Cogan, 42, from her office on the 11th floor of One Sarasota Tower. "It's a tremendous field for women. There are not many of them, but they are in strong demand."
Cogan earned her degree in finance from the University of Florida, worked at SunTrust in Sarasota for 12 years and regularly was one of the bank's top five financial advisers nationally.
Today her reputation has expanded outside her company. In April, she was named to Financial Times' list of top 400 advisers in the U.S., one of just 17 advisers from Florida. In June, Barron's named her to its list of top 100 women financial advisers in the U.S., and its list of top 1,000 advisers overall—for the third time. She is Barron's highest-ranked adviser in Sarasota.
The Bellwether Group's other founding partners, Richard Williams and Scott Rockwell, were both competitors before Cogan recruited them to form the group in 2009. Together, the trio makes up the core of Bellwether's investment team. (Bellwether also includes Cogan's husband, Chris, who joined in 2010 with business, real estate and private equity experience. Melanie Barber and Linda Mikos assist and manage the office.)
"My first interaction with Aimee was when I was at Bank of America and she was at SunTrust and her client needed a loan for an airplane," Rockwell says. "She didn't hesitate to call me, a competitor at a different firm, to try to get a deal done for her client. That says a lot."
Veronica Brady, a former SunTrust colleague who now is a senior vice president for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, says Cogan was client-focused like few other advisers.
"I remember a strategic idea to do interest rate swaps on commercial credit, and Aimee was very good about how and when to use that type of strategy for her clients," Brady says. "She was well aware of how they could benefit a client's portfolio even though it might be outside of the usual stocks and bonds."
Cogan has used this approach of "truly knowing your clients," she says, to define The Bellwether Group and its niche. Instead of each team member advising hundreds or even thousands of clients, as is typical at private banks and big investment houses, the entire group advises only about 70 wealthy families.
Those clients are in constant communication (if they choose) with Cogan or with her partners and they can be as hands-on or as hands-off with their money as they want.
"I like to have a lot of input, and she tailors [your portfolio] to your needs and stays ahead of the curve," says Margaret Wise, a client of Cogan's for the past few years. Wise has had many advisers in her 25 years in Sarasota and says there are some good advisers and bad advisers locally.
"You weed the ones out who don't return your calls, who don't listen to you," Wise says. "Aimee listens. I think women listen more than men, and they are more comfortable saying, 'What do you really want, what direction do you really want to go?'"
Cogan's clients usually carry at least $5 million in net worth, although the group partners with another Morgan Stanley adviser for clients down to about $1 million. But Cogan says it's more about finding the "right fit" than focusing on a wealth minimum.
"You could have a client who is getting ready to sell their business and they might only have $500,000 in a 401K right now, but they would benefit greatly from us," Cogan says. "Then you could have someone with $100 million or above and they say they want to run their own portfolio and have all their money inside of their one asset class, like foreign currency, and we might not be the right answer for them."
Bellwether has clients from around the globe, though most have ties to Southwest Florida. The firm's services range from investment and portfolio management to estate planning to tax issues to business acquisitions and sales to family trusts and inheritances. They've even made dentist referrals, as many new clients are arriving in Sarasota after selling a business or retiring from other parts of the country. Cogan says they're seeing a big influx of wealth from places like California to Florida to avoid state income taxes but maintain a similar lifestyle.
"Our structure of being six on a team supporting a group of 60 to 70 clients is our value proposition," Cogan says.
This year, Barron’s Magazine indicates that the group is on track to record just under $700 million in assets under management. That puts Bellwether in the top 1 percent of producers in the firm, and Cogan herself in the top 2 percent.
But her biggest contribution to her firm may be as a leader, particularly among other women financial advisers, says Arnold “Bill” McMahon, Morgan Stanley divisional director for the South and Midwest. McMahon points to Cogan’s work on Morgan Stanley’s Women’s Business Exchange Steering Committee as well as the firm’s elite Financial Advisors Council as leadership examples.
"She's a terrific role model in terms of how she has built and managed her practice," McMahon says. "For us, to leverage [Cogan] to help attract female talent outside the firm into Morgan Stanley is a big benefit."
Whether a woman or man, success for any top-flight financial adviser starts and ends with delivering results for clients. Cogan says today's interconnected financial world means that results are often the product of strong communication between her and other professionals. One such professional, Tampa tax attorney David Koche, works with dozens of the area's top wealth managers and says Cogan's top-ranked reputation is well-deserved.
"You oftentimes meet someone who ranks in the top 50 or 100 [Barron's] advisers, and you think, 'How the hell did that person get that rank?'" Koche says. "But it's obvious with Aimee. You'd be hard pressed to meet someone who brings a better blend of people skills, intellect and personality."
Why wealth advisers will be targeting women
$7 trillion in consumer and business spending is done by women in the U.S.
2/3 of consumer wealth in the U.S. will belong to women in the next decade
85 percent of purchases are made by women
60 percent of all personal wealth in the U.S. is held by women
51 percent of all stock ownership in the U.S. is controlled by women
40 percent of U.S. private businesses are owned by women
1.3 million women earn more than $100,000 in annual salary
Women 50 and older have a combined net worth of $19 trillion