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Ascent UHNW Business Aims for Next Level of Wealth Management

Michael Cole has big dreams for the ultra-high-net-worth business he leads at U.S. Bank. He wants the business to do for wealth management what Starbucks does for coffee.

His goal, he says, is to take the business of serving the ultra-wealthy to a higher, “experiential level.”

“We looked around the industry and didn’t find anything like that,” Cole said of his vision for a new kind of ultra-high-net-worth wealth management provider.

Since he launched Ascent Private Capital Management less than two years ago, Cole has been busy translating that vision into reality. He opened four new facilities in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle and Cincinnati that he hopes will become “destination locations” for wealth management customers. The ultra-sleek facilities feature client offices, family rooms, learning labs, libraries, and even catering kitchens.

Cole described each of the facilities as a private club, university, wealth management shop and boutique hotel all rolled in one. “There’s nothing like these spaces anywhere,” Cole boasted during the recent sit-down interview.

Last year, Ascent used the facilities to host several hundred events for clients, including family meetings and a talk by family wealth expert and author James Hughes in Denver that was video simulcast at all locations.

“The idea behind it is to build a destination location where clients can come and interact among their family and interact with others,” Cole said.

Regardless of whether the facilities turn into the “destination locations” Cole envisions, the business appears to be making headway in a competitive space that many banks and trust companies are trying to tackle.

In less than two years, Ascent has accumulated $5.3 billion in assets under management and attracted 56 clients with an average net worth of $200 million. In a relatively short period of time, it established four regional teams, each with nine to 10 client-interfacing professionals, as well as a national team of more than 30 wealth experts with backgrounds in everything from law, accounting and risk management to organizational psychology and genealogy. 

Observers have taken notice. Earlier this month, the business was recognized by Private Asset Management, an industry trade publication, as the “Best Private Wealth Manager Newcomer” in an awards ceremony in New York City.

U.S. Bank hired Cole in 2010 to build a dedicated business group to serve ultra-high-net-worth clientele. He had the credentials and experience the bank was looking for, having built out similar businesses for other banks. He created a family office for the Merrill Lynch Trust Company and then built the Family Wealth Group and Wealth Planning Center at Wells Fargo, which subsequently became Abbot Downing.

While U.S. Bank was a fantastic retail bank with a great name and a great reputation, it had no brand equity in the ultra-high-net-worth space, according to Cole. “We knew we needed to do something that would give us brand equity and also be a differentiator,” he said.

As Cole sees it, wealth managers need to provide more than traditional wealth management to win in the super competitive ultra-high-net-worth space. “Wealth is more than money,” he said repeatedly. “The vision behind Ascent that we started was to build a wealth management firm that didn’t just manage wealth but helped our clients manage the impact of wealth.”

Ascent’s services in “wealth impact planning” revolve around getting family members to think and talk about how they can use their wealth to make a positive impact on their communities and more broadly the world, Cole said.  The services might include, for example, helping families better communicate and work together across generations to identify shared values.

“There’s a movement in the industry in that direction,” Cole said of the growing focus on managing the impact of wealth. Still, he felt that Ascent has taken the thinking further than anyone else in the industry because, he insisted, “we believe in it deeper.”

“I think we built it out to an extent that doesn’t exist in the industry,” he said. “We think we’re sort of breaking new glass in terms of building a wealth management business that looks at not just the wealth—and maximizing that wealth—but how to have an impact with that wealth in the things that matter most to our client base.”

FOR MORE: U.S. Bank’s Aggressive Wealth Management Plan

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