Brian Urkowitz, Merrill Lynch managing director and head of Global Transactional Client Services: "The most important thing is to look at how things are done and ask why, and whether they can be done more efficiently."
As managing director and head of Global Transactional Client Services for Merrill Lynch, Brian Urkowitz is responsible for service delivery across the firm's Global Markets and Investment Banking Services unit. In addition, he oversees the Global Equity Financing middle office functions, which provide operational support to the Prime Broker, Exchange Member Clearing and Stock Loan businesses.
How did you come to specialize in Operations?
I started out at Salomon Brothers, working in its Branch Office Operations Training Program. The program was designed to create managers for their institutional offices across the country, and consisted of classroom training and operations functions rotations. When I finished, I wound up in the internal consulting group working on projects to improve the sales-support strategy. It was a great start because through the project I met lots of people throughout the organization.
When the person who headed the group moved to Merrill, I went along with him. The nature of the work was such that I met senior team members of the Operations group. It was a nice jump start to my career.
Then, I got sent to London to help manage the futures client-service team. At the time, we were implementing a new system. I went there to work on systems, but got management experience. Because of the consulting-like nature of the group, I felt I needed an MBA. Merrill encouraged me to return to school and said I could come back when I got my MBA.
I went to the Tuck School (at Dartmouth), and on graduating went to work in Merrill's portfolio trading operations group. At the time it was a small group, but now it's a huge part of equity trading.
Next I ran the equity derivatives operations group. This was an interesting time because the area was becoming regulated and I was able to help design systems for being a regulated business. A year later, I had a great meeting with my boss about what I was going to do next. I wanted to go to a smaller place to see a more holistic picture of operations. There was an opening in Tokyo, so I went to manage equity operations in Japan. It was a great assignment because the business environment was changing. We were merging our retail and institutional businesses. The equity business was becoming deregulated. Also, working overseas I got to meet with senior people when they came to the region.
I then returned to the U.S. to run the product development team I had started with. A little later, I got the responsibility for the custody functions - we manage $1.6 trillion, and process several million transactions a day, and eight million client accounts. Next, I managed the operations that support our prime brokerage business, and still look after that team today. Most recently we put an emphasis on quality client service, and I run the functions that provide client services for traditional debt and equity businesses.
What's a typical day like for you?
It usually begins with 30 minutes of catch up on e-mail or a morning meeting. There can be conference calls with other regions. Today, it was with Europe about business growth. Our business is growing quickly and we have to better understand the impact direct market access has on operations.
Then, I had breakfast with our summer analyst program from Dartmouth. As an alumnus, I was able to arrange for a group of undergraduate students to work here. For the next hour and a half, I had a client services management meeting. This session gathers the global Client Service team together to discuss strategy and client issues.
I'll spend about an hour and a half catching up on calls and e-mail. I'll have an hour meeting with the team to review metrics about clients and vendors, data that will tell us how about how we interact with our clients, what goes well and what needs improvement. Next, we'll have one-to-one meetings with each client service functional head about controls. We have a monthly sit-down to review our outstanding payables and receivables. At 4 p.m., I reviewed the technology efforts for our prime broker business. Later, there's a conference call about a specific client request.
How does your role now compare with those earlier in your career?
The biggest change is that, earlier in my career, I knew every transaction my team was involved in. I could give guidance to the group on trades. Now, I'm at a point where I don't worry about specific transactions unless things go wrong. Instead, I worry about what the business will want in the next six months or year, and whether we're positioned to deal with it. I worry about capabilities.
Until recently, the challenge of an operations manager was to do things cheaply without sacrificing controls. More recently, clients have told us operations is an important factor in how they decide to do business. They want us to do it at the right price, but with greater concern about service. That acknowledgement by clients and management has made our work a high priority in the company. So, the changed emphasis on the importance of operations is a great thing for our business.
What advice would you give to junior staffers or students?
The most important thing is to look at how things are done and ask why, and whether they can be done more efficiently. Any big brokerage house has many processes that are 10 or 20 years old. They work very well and are very reliable. We rely on our junior team members to critically analyze processes and recommend improvements, or to engage senior managers to make necessary changes to increase our level of quality. It is important to always question whether or not there is a better way to do something. Ask yourself whether you can solve a particular client problem differently.
Any thoughts on reading people should do or groups they should join?
A great industry organization is the Securities Industry Association (SIA). It has a variety of committees that look at different issues facing the securities industry. For a while I served on the Securities Operations Division. By following groups like this and reading newsletters, you can keep track of changes in the industry. It also helps you to see what's being driven by firms asking for change. It's important to stay abreast of outside events. Another good source of news for Operations professionals is the Institutional Investor newsletter Operations Management.