Willy Gamalero began his career as a banker at Wells Fargo, working on the bank's lending side. He then moved to Wachovia, but at that point, he says he realized that what he really wanted to do was "be like Steven Keaton," the father in the iconic 1980s sitcom Family Ties who "just wanted to help people."
Corny or not, that desire to be of service to others led Gamalero to leave the world of big banks and take a position four years ago as financial advisor at the little Madison County Community Bank, an independent one-branch operation in the town of Madison, a small semi-rural community located some 50 miles east of Tallahassee in northern Florida.
"I got started in banking on the corporate side," says Gamalero. "What got me excited about a little community bank was the personal touch."
But the move to Madison County Community Bank meant starting from scratch. Not only was there no book of clients for him to take over, there was also no investment program at all. "I was hired to start a program," he says. And even there, he had to start from scratch. "I only had a Series 6 license when I was hired," he says. It took me six months to get my Series 7." During that time, the bank paid him a salary, which it has continued to do as he builds up a book of clients. "Eventually, we'll start reducing the salary and adding commissions," says Gamalero."
The bank, founded in 1999, only has $98 million in assets, and the county it serves has only 19,000 people. With the major employers being a state prison, local schools and a Nestlé's bottled water plant, there aren't that many high-net-worth bank customers to start with, and Gamalero says his clients' average investment, as a result, is in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. "I have a few people with $1 million accounts — old money." Gamalero says, adding that he tries to treat every client with the same degree of attention. "There's no investment that's too small for me," he says. "Besides, you never know if that person who brings in a $1,000 ticket won't later inherit $1 million."
He adds, "I haven't had that happen but I did have one person come in and invest $1,000, and then later they got a $111,000 death benefit, which they brought in to invest because they liked how they were treated initially." In that situation, he says, a grandmother had passed away and left $350,000 to a brother and sister. Both the siblings came in with their money. "I got some of it on the investment side, and the bank got the rest, which was put into CDs and money market funds," he says.
His goal as an advisor, he says, is "to put as many sticky pots in a customer's hands as we can."
Meanwhile, Gamalero isn't just sitting at his desk meeting with clients and prospects. For four years, he's been active in the community's United Way fund-raising program, and was chair of the local board for two years. During that time he oversaw a big rise in contributions during a tough economic time. Recently he was nominated to the seven-county Big Bend regional board of the organization.
Gamalero is also part of the Relay for Life Committee, an event of the American Cancer Society, which organizes an all-night walkathon at the local high school track. Gamalero is also a middle school tutor, where he is currently mentoring a young boy who had been having social and academic difficulties. "It's really rewarding to see him graduating and going on to high school. It's a really cool thing," he reports, sounding like a proud parent.
In addition to his current role as president of the Kiwanis organization (motto: Serving one child at a time"), the 35-year-old Gamalero, who is the father of two boys, ages 5 and 7, also regularly coaches football and Little League baseball.
But it doesn't stop there. Gamalero is also a youth leader at his church, and handles the finances for the K-8th grade private school that his sons attend. "There's a lot that I've had to say no to," he admits, "because once you say yes to one thing, people come to you asking you to do something else. But I love doing these things."
Not that all that volunteer work is bad for business. "I never do any prospecting for business in my volunteer work," says Gamalero, "but it does help you to build a client base. It all comes back to relationships. When you are out there helping out in the community, you build up trust, and people feel confident that they can go to you. They just show up."
Despite his strong Southern accent, Gamalero actually hails from California, is a newcomer to Madison and is married to a local girl. His wife, Melissa, born and raised in Madison, works locally as a part-time dental hygienist. "Don't laugh," says Gamalero, "but in a small town like this, people like to know who you are. It helps that they know that I have family here, that I am here to stay, I'll always be here, and that they don't have to hit a zero on the phone 12 times in order to reach me."
It also helps that he's basically the only game in town when it comes to investing money.
"There are five banks along one mile of Main Street here, but we're the market leader. And there's no other bank-broker. There is an Edward Jones broker, but basically people here have the mindset that they want to put their money where there is FDIC insurance." That's great from a competition perspective, but it can be lonely too, he admits. "I'm kind of an island to myself here." That's where being part of the Sorrento Pacific platform helps, he says. "I do get sent by the bank to Sorrento conferences, and there I meet people I can get in touch with when I need to."
Gamalero doesn't just rely on walk-ins to build his client base. He has worked with tellers and other bank employees to actively promote the bank's investment program and boost referrals, and once a quarter he also conducts seminars or lunch- and-learn sessions.
"Sometimes it's just 'Come learn about our investment program,'" he says, "and other times it may be an IRA session or a market information seminar. One of my best seminars was on 529 educational funds and IRAs. I actually got a few accounts from that one."
His investment strategy is simple and straightforward. "I subscribe to the three-bucket strategy: conservative assets in short-term CDs, money market funds and bonds, moderate assets in fixed-income annuities and mutual funds, and an aggressive bucket of individual stocks, growth funds, REITs and ETFs," he says.
If a customer is conservative, he'll go with equal portions in each bucket. "Of course, it also matters whether you're talking about a small investment or $1 million," he adds. And then, too, some clients just have their own ideas. "I had one woman come in with a small amount to invest. I proposed a conservative strategy, but she said, 'I like that third bucket!'" He accommodated her. He does some more complex investments, too, like a covered-call strategy for one client. "My book is small enough that I have the time to handle investments like that myself," he says.
He's also working to land the business of some of the old family wealth in the community, and to manage the accounts of more of the bank's board members. "With the wealthier people, there may be some prejudice against handing money over to a local guy instead of to a big broker in Tallahassee," he says, "but I'm starting to make some headway."
He reports that one board member with $2.5 million in assets came in recently and said, 'Okay, Willy, here's my portfolio. Look it over.' I'm looking, and will develop a plan, and hopefully that will turn into something." He adds, "I don't need all that money, but I'd like to have a piece of it."
Long-term, Gamalero, who has $18 million under management at present, hopes that he can "realistically get to a $40 million book."
In the meantime, he says he is happy with the way things are going: Growing slowly and steadily.
Name: Willy Gamalero
Bank: Madison County Community Bank
Location: Madison, Fla.
TPM: Sorrento Pacific Financial LLC
2011 production: $87,765
2010 production: $62,296
2011 AUM: $15.2 million
2010 AUM: $11.3 million
No. of branches: 1