In the Office with Jeff Ransdell
By Rebecca M. Knight
Jeff Ransdell was on top of Mount Rainier when his company, Merrill Lynch, was sold. Ransdell, who at the time led Merrill’s best-performing office, based in Boca Raton, didn’t hear the news right away; cell reception on the mountain is spotty. But when he came back down days later, Ransdell—who grew up in the mountains and challenged himself to summit Rainier—had a full voice mailbox, and his phone was ringing off the hook. Merrill, which had been an independent company since 1915, had been bought by Bank of America for roughly $50 billion—a deal reached on the same fateful Sunday in September of 2008 that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection.
“It was sad,” he says. “It was like losing a loved one.” (This is a man, mind you, who has the Merrill bull logo tattooed on his right ankle.)
He borrowed the jet of a friend he was hiking with and flew overnight from Seattle to Florida, arranging to have a suit delivered to him at the airport so he could go immediately to the office and address his employees. He hadn’t slept in four days. “They were scared and didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. For the next three months, Ransdell immersed himself in the ins and outs of the Bank of America deal. His mission: to determine whether the sale that humbled his once-proud firm was, in fact, right for Merrill’s employees and customers. He decided it was. “I came away feeling that this was the next evolution for Merrill,” he says. “Our industry is changing very fast. The market is demanding different things.”
Long-term wealth planning, for one. Whether it’s starting a trust for grandkids, buying a yacht, launching a business, or taking a company public, Bank of America Merrill Lynch is, he says, a veritable one-stop shop. (Before the BOA purchase, Merrill was primarily a brokerage.)
Today Ransdell, who is the managing director and market executive for Southeast Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Wealth Management Division, oversees 2,000 employees across Florida and the Caribbean, and a P&L of $2 billion. His home market, with its base in Miami, does a sizable business with ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) individuals, who have assets of more than $10 million. (About 30 percent of clients in South Florida fit this category.)
Ransdell, 43, grew up in a tight-knit family in Colorado and Minnesota, the oldest of three children, where his father was a chemical engineer. He spent his boyhood summers working on his grandfather’s cattle ranch in Lamar, Colorado, a small town in the southeast corner of the state.
“I would not be where I am today if it had not been for those summers,” he says. “When you’re on a ranch, there’s no one to hold your hand. If something breaks down, you need to figure out how to fix it.”
As a teenager, he started a DJ company that performed at high school dances and weddings. Ransdell later launched a health club chain and an activewear clothing line but sold these businesses after graduating from the University of North Dakota.
Ransdell, always good with numbers, had studied finance/international finance and quickly landed a job with Merrill Lynch. He remembers feeling that the break was “too good to be true.”
“The financial services business is very entrepreneurial,” he says. “You have your own clients; you make your own hours. The only person who is holding you back is yourself. I had an opportunity to build a business with this great brand name behind me and get paid to do it. I just had to work hard.”
Ransdell’s savvy and doggedness—he regularly works six or seven days a week (a commitment he describes as his “competitive advantage”)—got the attention of his bosses, and he was quickly promoted.
Today, his territory, which includes Florida, Alabama, Southeast Georgia, and the Caribbean, as well as nonresident clients in Latin America, represents total assets of $142 billion. UHNW clients hold about 30 percent of those assets.
Merrill’s wealth management business is the largest in the South Florida market, with $1.8 trillion in assets under management and growing. Much of the new demand comes from a rising class of homegrown entrepreneurs and an influx of Brazilian, Mexican, European, Russian, Venezuelan, and Argentinean clients who’ve settled in the city over the last several years and who serve in their home countries.
“These clients have taxation issues, currency issues, investment issues. It’s not any more complicated; it’s just different,” he says.
Ransdell says that while the financial crisis and recession have had an impact on the way the very rich approach their investments, he is reluctant to draw any conclusions about particular strategies and styles. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, he says. “It’s not about municipal bonds or alternative investments. Those things may or may not apply to your life plan. We spend our time trying to understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish. We want to know where you’re at and where you want to go. And we want to help make that plan a reality.”
photography by gary james