Morgan Stanley’s Susan Kingsolver: How Deep Relationships Power My $2.6 Billion Practice


Morgan Stanley

advisor Susan Kingsolver, a 39-year industry veteran, insists on having quarterly meetings with each of her clients. “You find out who’s getting married, who’s having a baby, other life changes, and the things they are going through,” says the New York-based advisor, who manages $2.6 billion with a team of eight. “It’s just a good way to have a touch point with people.”

Speaking with Barron’s Advisor, the 75th-ranked female advisor nationally, explains that in-depth relationships with her wealthy clients—the average account size is $20 million—are one of the keys to her career success. She shares her highest-conviction investment ideas and reveals how she maintained business continuity following major surgery. Finally, she dispenses some unvarnished career advice for young advisors.

Where did you grow up, and how did you get into wealth management? I was born in New York; we lived in Virginia, and I went to high school in Chicago and then ultimately moved to the West Coast for college. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley. I got into wealth management kind of by accident. In 1978, after graduation, I started at Kidder Peabody in San Francisco, and I worked in private placements and limited partnerships.

After a management shake-up in New York they asked me to move to New York, where I made sure all the subscription documents were correct and submitted in a timely manner. But that was a really pretty horrific experience: It was 12-hour days continuously for a few years. 

Later, I was basically given carte blanche from the CEO at the time, Max Chapman, to interview in various areas. He knew I wanted to make a transition. So I looked at trading, I looked at futures, I looked at all different areas, and I basically just decided that I wanted to be my own boss. So I took a job as a financial advisor, and I haven’t looked back. I was the crazy cold caller just climbing my way up. And then I just got lucky with one big account, and the pressure was off a little bit. It was an institutional account, and they basically were executing a large position and I got to handle the transaction. That was exciting. But it was tough in the beginning. I moved to Smith Barney in 1989.

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Fast-forward to today: Who are the clients that you typically serve? I have a lot of clients in the biotech area. I just fell into that area and met a lot of the biotech community. I call it the biotech mafia in New York because everybody knows everybody else. There were a lot of very large liquidity events that were very lucrative, and I just enjoyed learning about the businesses. One of the things we pride ourselves on is the fact that we have multigenerational relationships. We serve four generations in one family of a biotech entrepreneur.

Biotech stocks have taken a beating over the past couple of years. How is the mood in that world? It’s pretty horrific. I mean, some clients were able to raise money, and they have got enough to get by for two years. But despite the advances in biotechnology, it’s just been a really bad year. So I think everybody’s hanging on.

What would you say is a unique facet of your practice? Well, we service the heck out of our clients. We basically do everything for them. Whether it’s investing or helping them get a mortgage or insurance, we try to cover every aspect of their financial needs. We’re very responsive and we get back to people in a very timely manner and we connect them with resources that they need. We really service the heck out of clients and we’re very proud of that.

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What’s on your clients’ minds right now? The geopolitical situation is a concern for a lot of people. The volatility in the markets bothers people a lot. So do higher rates, although I think we’re kind of at the peak and will possibly see rates come down next year. Inflation took a lot out of people. There are just a lot of moving parts. I mandate a quarterly call with all my clients, and that’s where we take their pulse, that’s where we get a sense of how they’re viewing the world. And then I give them my opinion, and normally I have a very strong conviction.

When did you start insisting on quarterly meetings with clients? We always have. I think clients really enjoy it. You find out who’s getting married, who’s having a baby, other life changes, and the things they are going through. It’s just a good way to have a touch point with people.

Where do you see good investment opportunities right now? Some of the areas where we have the highest conviction now are things like infrastructure, water purification, robotics, and artificial intelligence. We’ve done quite a bit of alternative investments for clients who meet the right criteria and are qualified from a net-worth standpoint. We typically look for something different in an alternative investment to bring to the table. But right now, we’re de-emphasizing private equity, just because there’s so much dry powder out there.

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How are you accessing infrastructure investments? Are we talking individual stocks, or the private market? We access them through private equity, and also there’s an ETF that we’ve been using in clients’ portfolios.

What are you telling clients who are worried about market volatility? Well Mike Wilson, our chief investment officer, feels like we’re definitely still in the secular bull market, so I emphasize that with clients. I remind them that we didn’t invest for the short term; we invested for the longer term. There’s resiliency in the economy, and one of the things I’ve been telling people is that right now in the world, the U.S. is the best house in a bad neighborhood, so you want to stay invested. We’ve also been buying Treasuries, and we have a little bit of a cash cushion in case we do get a pullback.

Are your clients anxious about the sunset of the Trump tax regime at the end of 2025? It hasn’t been brought up. There are a lot of questions that arise if you’ve got a new administration after the election next year. Those are more front and center, versus what will happen in 2025.

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What are two or three pivotal decisions that you made over the course of your career? Well, I think my transition to Smith Barney in 1989 was a key decision. Their platform and open architecture have really given me a lot of opportunity. [In 2012, Morgan Stanley took control of the Smith Barney brokerage business following a period of joint ownership with Citigroup.] Also, I used to do both institutional and individual investors, and about 20 years ago I made the decision to exit the institutional business. It just wasn’t as profitable, so I passed my book on. And that was really critical in enabling me to focus on individual clients.

You’re in the process of bringing in a five-person team, bringing your team to a total of eight. What prompted the combination? What’s behind that decision? Well, I had major back surgery six years ago. I wanted someone to be able to take over my book. And so that was the genesis of it. And a very close friend of mine used to be on the other team. She’s now retired, but that’s how I got to know them and to get a comfort level. We all get along great, and it’s just a nice fit.

Could you say a bit about your surgery, and how you maintained business continuity during that period? Yes. I ran seriously for 25 years, including doing triathlons. So I beat myself up pretty well. My spine was a mess, and it had deteriorated to a point that I had to do something about it. I was lucky to have a remarkable, world-renowned surgeon. I was out for about two months after the surgery, but it was only about two weeks until I logged back on and was able to communicate with clients. Clients came over and visited; they were very supportive.

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Who was in charge during those two weeks? My partner, Jane Rav.

Did you ever consider building out a really big team? No. It’s hard for me to grasp how you compensate people in different roles and keep everybody happy when you have a big team. Obviously, you can put them in certain positions and then you can measure the results, but that’s not how I want to spend my time.

How do you handle tax management in your clients’ portfolios? The majority of our clients have a tax-management overlay on their portfolios; we pretty much do that with everybody who’s of significant worth. They have a whole team that just monitors their accounts and is constantly looking for opportunities to offset gains with losses. We can talk to this team about what we think they should be doing, but otherwise, it’s kind of on autopilot. So for the most part with those clients who have a tax management overlay, we don’t have to have those tax-loss harvesting conversations at the end of the year.

Over your tenure as a financial advisor, what are some big mistakes you’ve seen wealthy people make? One is not being adequately diversified, or even overconcentrated. We’ve also found that some clients are reluctant to talk to the next generation earlier about their wealth and to educate them about managing their finances and budgeting. Another mistake is enabling them too much; that’s one thing I find a lot. Educating the next generation is something we really enjoy doing. 

At one point we actually did a next-gen program: Eight women advisors pooled our resources with a little help from some sponsors and hosted a dinner and then a full day of educational content including such things as a marital consultant who discussed prenups and other things to be aware of. We had close to 100 attendees.

What are your business goals for the next few years? Just growing the business and working with my clients, which I really like. I’ll work with my clients for as long as I can. It’s really fulfilling to help clients grow their wealth and to help them with virtually every aspect of their financial planning, investment management, mortgage insurance, and retirement planning, to name a few areas.

What’s your advice to young people who want to have successful careers in the industry? I think it’s really hard to start right now with do-not-call lists and everything. You’ve got to be prepared to work very hard and preserve a good work-life balance because it can be very stressful. It’s a fulfilling career, but it’s a lot harder than it was when I started in the business.

I’m curious about how you recharge outside of work given your health history. I presume that the triathlons are behind you. I work out with a trainer three days a week. I do a lot of walking and am on my Peloton bike three times a week. In all, I try to work out about six days a week.

Have you read any interesting books lately? Yes, Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. I loved it. Also, Barbara Kingsolver is my distant cousin, and she recently wrote Demon Copperhead, which is an incredible book.

Thanks, Susan.

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