You can hear New York City clearly in his voice, but Gonzalo "John" Echevarria, a financial advisor with AMTrust Bank, a division of New York Community Bank, is happily ensconced in Bal Harbour, Florida, where he runs an investment program at three branches in Bal Harbour, Miami Beach and Pembroke Pines.
Echevarria moved with his family-his wife and two small kids, then 3 and 5-to Florida three years ago. It was a big financial hit, as he had to leave behind a $120 million book at NY Community Bank. And last year, his first full year in Florida, he was only up to $27 million in assets under management, less than 25% of his old level. But Echevarria isn't complaining.
"What's not to like?" he asks. "My clients and co-workers often say to me, 'You're always smiling? How come?' and I say, 'Of course I'm smiling! I'm in Florida, the sun is shining, and I'm helping people!" Of course, it helps that he was able to sell his New York home for a good price and then buy a house on the cheap in Florida's depressed housing market, he says. Plus, his kids were too young to care much about leaving their school and friends in New York. And he sees a lot of potential in his new market area.
"My whole idea," he explains, "is that if you have a vision, and my vision is that if I do what I'm good at and I'm with a company that let's me do well by my clients, I can do well. Plus the lifestyle here in Florida is better than in New York, for me and for my family."
Echevarria says he started out in retail, running a store in Queens, N.Y. that sold children's clothing. "When the big box stores came in, it finished that business off and I had to change my whole way of life," he says. But he adds that he never gave up that small-retailer approach to client service that he had learned running a store.
He hired on in 1998 as a branch manager of Columbia Federal Savings Bank, which ran branches located inside of supermarkets. Eventually he was managing four such branches. As part of that he was expected to obtain licenses required to sell mutual funds and annuities. Then in 2000, after Columbia was taken over by Queens County Savings and became New York Community Bank, he moved over to the investment side, and began working as an advisor, helping bank customers with their investments. By 2010, he had nearly 700 customers at a string of branches. "I managed to do reviews on all of them on a quarterly basis, with the help of employees at the bank," he says. "At New York Community Bank, there has never been any problem with referrals. The whole bank works as a team. That's what made it possible for me to build up a book that large and to handle that many clients."
The opportunity to move to Florida came when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. arranged a takeover of troubled AMTrust Bank in Florida by New York Community Bank. AMTrust had been battered by Florida's epic property market collapse. The new parent bank concluded there was a need to set up an investment program in the subsidiary bank's branches to help them boost business and attract more customers, and Echevarria jumped at the opportunity. "My thinking was: In troubled times like they were having in Florida, what the client needs is to have someone who can explain what they have, not what they should be afraid of."
He recalls a 75-year-old bank customer coming to see him during his first week in Florida. "He was angry at the bank, angry at the previous advisor, and angry at the market," says Echevarria. "He couldn't understand why all this had happened to him."
That customer was worth almost $15 million, as a result of selling a business, and had most of his assets in CDs and money market funds, so the financial crisis had not hurt him that much. He had, however, put $100,000 of his money into a variable annuity, and that was down by about $15,000, and he wanted out of it-and out of the bank that had sold it to him, which was AMTrust.
"I knew he was upset," says Echevarria, "so I didn't deal with his issues right away. I said he should go home and come back a few days later, along with his wife and kids if he wanted. He told me he could only bring them on a Saturday, so I arranged to come in then and meet them."
That next Saturday, Echevarria was ready at his office "with four cups of coffee" for the man, his wife his grown daughter and for himself. "Right away he was more relaxed," says Echevarria. "He started to feel confident that I was on his side. I found out that there was a death benefit in his annuity, so he wouldn't lose it-it would go to his kids. And I explained that actually, being down $15,000 when the market had dropped almost 40% wasn't really that bad at all."
Now, he says, the man has become his best customer. Not only has he been gradually moving some of his money-several million dollars-out of those CDs and money funds and into stocks and bonds, but his two children have also become Echevarria's clients. "I get referrals from him too," he adds proudly.
The experience with this early client at AMTrust, Echevarria says, while not typical in terms of the amount of assets involved, does illustrate his approach in taking over the investment programs at his three branches. "There was no fall-off in investment clients when I came in," he says, but the customers did not respond to being contacted as quickly as we had anticipated." And when they did respond, like his best client, they didn't just need one meeting to sign on with him. "It's easy to come in and sell someone something," he says. "But when you are trying to build a relationship, it takes several meetings to do it." He added, "Even my co-workers warn people, 'Just sit down with him. He's not going to sell you anything, he's just going to talk with you.' I am definitely not pushy with my clients."
Echevarria uses the LPL platform, which was adopted by NY Community Bank for its investment program. "I can use their planning tools, and can call LPL and get a feel for what we can do for a client," he says. "But really the first thing for me is to tell each new client who I am, and what I'm going to do for them. The important thing is to build that relationship to work with. Planning and talking about products comes second. There has to be a comfort level first. I always take a client around the branch office, introducing them to the bank manager and to all the staff. Then the bank becomes a family. When a client comes in to see me and discovers that I'm not in, I want them not to feel awkward about going straight to the manager."
Of course, not all Echevarria's clients are as well off as that first customer in the door. Miami Beach and Bal Harbour are both fairly wealthy communities, with a lot of comfortable retirees and "snowbirds," but Pembroke Pines, he says, is more blue collar. The bank customers there, with their significantly smaller nest eggs, tend to be more conservative about their investments, he says.
"I'll often have people come in who have less than $100,000 in assets," he says. "Like just recently someone came in who had $100,000 in savings. They had put $25,000 in a mutual fund and they were worried about that. They had also heard that AMTrust had been sold, and that worried them too. They just needed someone to hold their hand and assure them that the world was not falling apart."
He recalls one couple who came to him several years ago when he was back in New York. "They were young, and had just bought a house for themselves and their kids. They had no money to invest, but wanted advice. I talked with them, and realized they needed insurance, so I found them a $100,000 policy that just cost $14 a month. Unfortunately, not long afterward, the husband died. I can tell you, when you looked into that wife's eyes, she was so grateful that the house could be paid off! And that's what I do: find the needs, go slow, and put the customer first."
As a New Yorker and someone of Puerto Rican descent, Echevarria fits in well in southern Florida. "About 40 percent of my clients moved down here from the New York area," he explains. "And Florida also has a lot of people who moved here from South America, or from places like Cuba and Puerto Rico, so being Puerto Rican myself helps."
Echevarria sees a lot of promise in his new posting, and even if it takes a while for him to build his book back up to where it was in New York, he says he and his family are, after all, in Florida, the sun is shining, and he's smiling a lot.
Name: Gonzalo "John" Echevarria
Bank: AMTrust Bank
Location: Bal Harbour, Florida
2011 production: $625,000
2010 production: $531,000
2011 AUM: $27 million
2010 AUM: $14 million