A road to success is never a straight one. One has to go through multiple hurdles, failures, and undulating movements to reach their destination. Those who work their fingers to the bone and have desired persistence coupled with unwavering passion and considerable ingenuity are able to make it. Bruce Munster’s story has been the similar one.
Bruce is a Principal of the Munster Freeman Group, an advisory practice within Merrill Private Wealth Management in Century City, CA. Bruce is entrusted with nearly $3 billion and has been instrumental in driving the success of many entrepreneurs, professional entertainers, professional investors, heads of investment banks and private equity firms. His clients trust him to address their personal wealth management concerns related to M&A transactions. Not only this, but he has also garnered several honors as a financial advisor.
Bruce has earned all this prominence and trust in the wealth management industry with his diligence, ingenuity, shrewd finance acumen, and personalized approach.
In our endeavor to find “The 10 Most Influential Leaders in Wealth Management, 2021”, we caught up with Bruce to unveil his journey and how Munster Freeman Group forms the foundation of its clients’ financial strategy.
Below are the highlights of the interview:
Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Merrill Lynch. What challenges you had to face to reach where you are today?
Everyone faces challenges in life. My story is no different. I was blessed to grow up with two loving parents who reminded me that we were always ‘Rich with Love’. My Dad, Bruce Sr., managed a local distribution center, and my Mom, Kris, worked as a waitress for grocery money. It was Central California in the 80’s, and I had no clue how big the world was, but that was ok. I didn’t know it at the time, but I met the love of my life, Therese, at 16 in the hallway outside of my calculus classroom at Clovis High School. I was a good student and a good wrestler, which created the opportunity for me to study engineering and wrestle at Cornell University. My oldest son Samuel was born over the spring break of my freshman year. Therese and I were married the summer after my sophomore year, and I realized getting an MBA after graduation would be tough, so I decided to pivot to the business school. I graduated with a degree in Business Management & Marketing in 1997 and drove back to California with Therese and Sam sleeping in the car. We barely had enough gas money after putting a deposit on a small apartment in Sherman Oaks. My second son Bruce Jr was born a few months later, and I learned there was a grace period for health insurance at my new job, so the cost was not covered. We struggled greatly in the early years, as it was not easy supporting a family of four in Los Angeles on a small salary.
Things began to look up when I started at PaineWebber (now UBS) in June of 1999 as a financial advisor trainee. I joined a team with two veteran advisors and was assigned to call people to attend their financial seminars. After the first year, I realized that I could try to work harder, or I could find ways to work smarter, so I began searching for better ways to reach clients. One day I accidentally called a billionaire who liked what I had to say and invited me to meet with him. I listened and learned about his family office and about all the people who worked for him. This experience inspired me to develop a business plan to replicate the service model of family offices, which I called the ‘Personal Team Benefit’. My thesis was that all high-net-worth clients needed comprehensive financial services coordinated with their tax and estate lawyers and CPA. Now I just needed more clients!
In 2002, after losing an RFP for a stock option plan to a discount firm, I went back to the company to pitch my Personal Team Benefit idea. My then partners told me it was a stupid idea and a waste of time. My alternative was more cold calling, so I took the risk and pitched the deal anyhow. I was given the opportunity to offer our services to a group of appx 150 executives. It was a tipping point for me as I completed 78 financial plans and earned 72 new clients over an 18mo period. But toward the end, I met my first big client who had grown a small family cosmetics business ran out the back of a pharmacy in Manhattan into a powerhouse brand which they sold to a large global brand. The account of the new ‘big client’ was almost as big as the 72 executives. It was a ton of work, and the client had a lot more needs than the typical client we served, but there was no comparing that work to handling 72 accounts.
While the business continued growing, it was becoming increasingly harder to manage. We added more staff, but I was working 12+ hours a day, and everything seemed like a fire drill. In April 2007, I proposed that we transition clients to other financial advisors in the office to focus on serving only larger households. When this idea was rejected, I knew it was the right time to make a change.
In September 2007, I accepted a position at Morgan Stanley and started my own team with David Freeman. We brought appx $350M of AUM. We adjusted our client’s asset allocations at the end of 2007 and incorporated risk management strategies, so our clients (on average) were down only single digits in 2008 and back in the black by May of 2009. My daughter Haifa was born that May and it marked the beginning of a new chapter in our life.
Around the same time, the US Government ran the first trillion-dollar deficit in 2009, so I got curious about the deflationary experience in Japan and, after careful analysis, concluded that ballooning deficits would cause interest rates to remain ‘Lower for Longer’. A local magazine, C-Suite Quarterly, published my thesis, and I got some fascinating feedback from multiple market luminaries. I discovered a new passion for writing and began to deliver regular market commentaries. From 2011 to 2015, nearly every Friday, I wrote the ‘Quick Update’, which recapped all of the conversations we were having on our desk and was emailed to a few hundred people, with the goal of being both insightful and witty. Somehow my missives found their way to people all over everywhere.
By 2015 we had grown the team’s AUM to appx $1.1BN. We were succeeding by most measures but were frustrated with losing mandates for larger clients to firms who offered commercial banking and trust services. We also had no support for wealth structuring needs, and lending was a continual challenge. We had always admired industry leaders like Eric Gray, Rebecca Rothstein, Richard Jones, and Reza Zafari, who remain among the most successful advisors at Merrill Private Wealth Management and the industry at large. I spent time with management at Merrill as I wanted to work alongside the best but was hesitant to make a change. Ultimately it was Bank of America’s Los Angeles Market President Raul Anaya who helped convince me to ‘take the leap of faith and change jerseys’. I was 39 years old when I joined Bank of America and Merrill and was humbled to see the news of my move, a retail advisor in Woodland Hills, was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, Fox Business, and the LA Times.
We embraced BofA’s ‘One Bank’ philosophy where they coordinate client coverage with specialized commercial and investment banking teams. I quickly learned that working together gives us the power to help our clients accomplish great things. Since joining, we have worked with our teammates to provide treasury and credit services for our client’s middle and upper-middle market companies (revenues of $50M to $2BN+). Our firm has helped them raise capital to expand, provide acquisition financing, and advised them on IPO’s. We have also helped clients finance buildings, big boats, and even a sports stadium for a professional sports team.
The Munster Freeman Group now manages nearly $3 billion in client balances. In 2020, we were recognized by Barron’s magazine as one of the top 50 Private Wealth Teams in America. Our clients include some of the most successful people in their respective industries and are generally first-generation wealth creators. They are an impressive and diverse group, with nearly half immigrating (like my wife Therese) to the U.S.
Enlighten us on your approach to wealth management and how you have made an impact on the wealth management industry.
As a Christian, I believe God has given each of us gifts, and mine is to help empower my clients to have a greater impact on the world. We have worked to incorporate Biblical wisdom to guide key decisions in our clients’ financial lives. Our experience is that wealthy clients are best served when their private wealth advisor coordinates with their CPA and attorney. If they are preparing for a deal, for example, selling or recapitalizing their business, then we also need to coordinate with the investment bankers. In our experience, it is rare to find advisors who possess a similar skill set to service significant clients.
In addition to our work with clients on exit planning, our colleagues within our Chief Investment Office and BofA Global Research have been particularly helpful in idea generation and investment guidance. We regularly speak with and host calls to educate our clients with luminaries such as our colleagues Niladri Mukherjee (Private wealth equity strategist), Haim Israel (Head of Thematic Research), and Michael Hartnett (Chief Investment Strategist). Over the years, we have also built relationships with iconic leaders at top firms.
Beyond exit planning and investment management, over the last 10 years, we have become knowledgeable across all types of wealth structuring techniques. Significant clients need guidance on how best to structure their assets for income and estate tax purposes. Working with our partners at Bank of America Private Bank, we have helped clients transfer assets out of their taxable estates.
As for how we’re making an impact on the wealth management industry, I believe sharing best practices with my peers and continually providing feedback to our asset management partners and Merrill’s management team has been impactful. Whether serving as a national representative for Merrill’s peer-to-peer Advisor Growth Network (AGN) or speaking at industry conferences, I enjoy leading training sessions on many topics, including wealth structuring, philanthropy, and alternative investments. I have also mentored and partnered with many young advisors over the years in support of their professional growth.
Our lives are a series of choices and experiences. At 46 years old, I have lots of ideas about the future of wealth management and how to continue enhancing the client experience. God willing, I will be empowered to continue my mission to help my clients and peers over the next 25 to 30 years.