Elizabeth Dennis, head of private wealth management at Morgan Stanley , is quick to credit female role models for her success. Early in her career, she closely observed how more-senior colleagues conducted themselves. Later, she studied senior women at the firm: “I learned a lot from how they balanced the personal and professional, but more importantly, just their executive presence and their ability to communicate with clients and internal stakeholders,” she says.
Speaking with Barron’s Advisor, Dennis argues for the power of representation in correcting the gender imbalance within the wealth management industry. She talks about tackling the long-term challenge to human advice from algorithms. And she discusses keys to her career success, including focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses.
Where are you from and how did you get into the industry? I’m originally from Houston, but I’ve lived in the New York area longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I went to Georgetown University and was selected for the George F. Baker Scholars Program, which is for liberal arts majors who are interested in business. That helped me pivot from what was probably a path to law school into finance. I was fortunate to have mentors who guided me toward the finance industry. I caught the bug after I did a summer internship at Morgan Stanley and have been at this firm ever since.
Were either of your parents in financial services? My mom was a commercial real estate banker. My dad started as a commercial banker and then spent the majority of his career in international and government affairs for Shell. Both of my parents were role models for me from a career perspective. They certainly helped show me work ethic and some financial acumen, but I’ve learned most of it on the job.
Where did you start within Morgan Stanley? I joined the firm in 2001, on the debt syndicate desk in global capital markets. I spent the first 14 years of my career distributing debt offerings from a syndicate perspective across a number of different products and was fortunate to do that across different regions, including emerging markets. I spent time in London and Hong Kong.
And then I made a big career shift in 2015, moving over to wealth management to run the capital markets division. After that year, I was asked to run a group called strategic client management, which is responsible for facilitating client connections across the firm. We identified synergies between wealth management clients and the institutional side of the business. And then in early 2021, I was named head of private wealth management, which focuses on ultrahigh-net-worth individuals, families, and foundations. We currently have over 600 advisors in our private wealth business. I also oversee international wealth management, which serves our non-U.S. resident clients, global sports and entertainment, that strategic client management group that I mentioned, as well as family office resources.
How would you describe your day-to-day responsibilities? What I get really excited about as the head of PWM is the fact that we’re combining the scaled resources of a global firm like Morgan Stanley with bespoke services within wealth management and creating a boutique feel for our clients.
Part of my day job is to interact with clients who are looking for advice on, let’s say, accessing individual investments into direct companies, which is something that our firm is expanding upon quite meaningfully. And then on the other hand, I might be meeting with a client who’s looking to sell their business through Morgan Stanley’s investment bank, and they need perspectives on trust and estate planning. And they have unique challenges around intergenerational wealth planning. So the client interface that I am able to do is really an energizing part of my job. I’m also managing the day-to-day businesses, the P&L of the different businesses, and the management of the human capital that we have, which is our biggest asset.
Can you talk a little bit about the growth opportunity for private wealth management and the keys to unlocking it? I’m sure as you’ve followed Morgan Stanley you’ve noticed the strategic acquisitions that we’ve made going back five-plus years at this point, starting with a stock administration company called Solium, whose equity administration platform is called Shareworks. That enabled us to think about serving participants in the private marketplace, across over 2,000 companies. And that workplace effort was turbocharged by the acquisition of E*Trade that we made two-plus years ago, in terms of serving public company participants in the workplace channel.
And so if you’re a private wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley, you’re noticing that we have the direct channel, the workplace channel and the advisor-led business, which has allowed us to grow our client base and our relationships from 2.5 million to now 17 million. We have a segmentation model where the ultrahigh-net-worth client base is being funneled into our private wealth advisors. And they are extremely bullish on the number of levers for growth that the firm is providing for them. It allows them to showcase their best-in-class advice. And they already had the skill set, because they already covered many private and public executives, for example, within PWM. Now we have more opportunities to have those conversations and to give that advice. So if you pair that with the integrations around the services that we provide across wealth management, corporate services, institutional opportunities, there’s really quite a bit of new opportunity for growth across our PWM channel.
Can you take a crack at quantifying the opportunity? At the firmwide level, I think we’ve been clear that we could over three years achieve growth in net new assets of $1 trillion. Those are numbers that are quite eye popping, but they’re also quite achievable, because of those different levers for growth that I mentioned across the different channels that we have.
What’s the biggest business challenge on your plate right now? There’s been a pretty large discussion over the years around the role of human advisor and questions around robo-advisors and algorithms: Do they take the place of human advice? And the opportunity set for private wealth advisors is one where, especially given the volatility that we’re experiencing now, our ultrahigh-net-worth services are needed more than ever. And they have an opportunity to leverage the full firm and partner with others across the firm. I just received a call from an advisor in PWM, who said, “I want to partner with another private wealth advisor, because this is a big enough opportunity that we’re stronger together, and to really engage clients using the full resources of the firm.” We think pairing this human advice channel with the broader expertise of the firm is going to be really powerful.
So the problem set that I think has been out there for quite some time is are we going to be able to charge for human advice. And especially given the volatility that we’ve seen in the market, we’re seeing a pretty significant uptick in clients raising their hand, either through our E*Trade channel or from the centers of influence that we have across our network, to say, “I need human advice.”
What do inflation and market volatility mean for your business? Our strategists have been calling for this storm for almost a year now, so we feel well prepared, and our private wealth advisors have prepared their clients. We’ve been focusing for years on planning and modern wealth tools that allow our clients to think about the risks they have in their portfolios, to prepare for a rising-rate environment, to consider the fact that there could be an inverted Treasury yield curve.
We’d paired this firmwide perspective on the volatility with the ability to translate that for our clients. What does it mean for them? How do they make sure they don’t react to markets—either trying to buy dips or panic selling? Part of our human advice model is to protect clients from having knee-jerk reactions to market volatility, to remind them that we have a long term-plan for their investments and for their holistic wealth goals that transcends any kind of short-term or intermediate-term volatility.
Do you want to share any interesting industry trends that you see unfolding? We talk a lot about intergenerational wealth transfer, and that is a huge component of what our advisors are focused on every day. But the number-one focus area for our advisors is how to build their teams in a way that helps transition their business, not only from a succession-planning perspective, but in terms of optimizing the roles and responsibilities on their teams.
We’ve put out white papers, for example, that highlight the growth of megateams—which we define as five advisors or more on a team—and within those megateams the importance of specialized roles. That’s been a long-term shift, but the focus for teams to say, “We need to have one person focusing on sales and business development, another focused on investments, a COO who is focused on running the team itself,” has created the opportunity for many of our largest teams to really be small businesses unto themselves. That ensures that our teams are becoming increasingly diverse, that they have succession planning, that they have tools to institutionalize their business. And it sets us up for long-term success.
What would you say have been three keys to your career success? I always feel like survival is, if I’m being honest, one of them. But if I had to pick three, I would say I’ve tried to amplify my strengths rather than focus on my weaknesses. And also doing that for my teams—as I became more senior, to say that if we have a portfolio of talent, we’re all going to have different strengths and weaknesses, and amplifying those strengths on the individual level will make the team even better.
The second one, and I didn’t do this for the beginning decade or so of my career, but as I became more confident in my own skill set and my place within the firm, I did take strategic career risks. I raised my hand for opportunities to cover emerging markets. I also made the big switch from the institutional business into the wealth management business. That’s something that I learned particularly from senior women that I looked up to: There are times where you just have to go for it. And it doesn’t mean it’s all the time because there are also times where you’re putting your head down and you’re doing the work and there’s not a lot of movement, not a lot of glory. But it’s important to recognize when those opportunities are available. The third thing is I do is try to have a sense of humor. With the stressful moments in the markets or in our career, it allows us all to be a bit more human from time to time.
The industry is still nowhere near gender parity. As a successful female executive, what do you think the industry can do to change that? That’s actually quite important to me, not just because it’s something that needs to happen from a core value perspective. It’s a bit more personal for me, because as I mentioned, I had a mom who I watched in her career as I grew up. And then when I first joined the firm I had women who I really respected who were a couple of years senior to me, and I sort of was able to mimic how they showed up at work. And then as I watched senior women at the firm, I learned a lot from how they balanced the personal and professional, but more importantly, just their executive presence and their ability to communicate with clients and internal stakeholders.
The importance of seeing women in those roles just can’t be understated. So making sure we’re focused on the development and mentorship of women employees and helping them feel like they have a network of people they can have real conversations with is really important.
I sometimes talk about growing up on the trading floor of the global capital markets desk and seeing a number of women who were all pregnant together, then having young babies and still working and navigating all of that. Seeing it and knowing that people are going through the same thing is critically important. All of the networking groups that we have are important, and we just got back from the Women’s Leadership Summit in Miami. It’s a powerful visual to be able to see women succeeding, and our objective is to continue to fill the talent ranks with more women.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work? I joined the board of Feeding America a few years ago, and that has energized me to think about holistic solutions to food insecurity across the nation. It’s also introduced me to a group of people who are dedicated to that effort, and that’s been very fulfilling. I’m also the sponsor of a high school student under the Student Sponsor Partners organization. I really look up to that organization for its tangible effect on high school students.
I have three children, a wonderful husband, and a dog. My husband and I just became coaches of my son’s soccer team, so we are learning the hard way how to be soccer coaches. And that’s been fulfilling.
That’s the first time I’ve heard of spouses coaching the same team. We’ll see if it works out. I’m not sure it’s good for our marriage! But we’ll see.
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