Mercer boosts female leadership with new hire

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One of the fastest-growing RIAs in the country, Mercer Advisors, has boosted the percentage of women in its leadership ranks to almost 40% in the past two years. Most recently, it has tapped industry veteran Martine Lellis, former chief operating officer of RIA Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros & Blayney, as its new head of human resources.

Lellis will play a key role in a firm that has inked 30 acquisitions in the last three years, growing to $17.5 billion in client assets, it says, from $10 billion in 2017. (Mercer’s SEC Form ADV reports $10 billion, which the firm says is due to lags in processing acquisitions). Her former firm manages $3.5 billion.

Lellis is tasked with “making sure that we are one of the best places to work, if not the best place to work, in the wealth management industry,” CEO Dave Welling says.

Mercer Advisors CEO Dave Welling and Martine Lellis, the firm's new head of human resources.

During her 17 years at SBSB, Lellis helped engineer the buyback of her firm from its former owner The Bank of Montreal and formally mentored numerous women advisors, many of whom she remains in touch with today.

“I think it’s very important for women like myself, who are in leadership positions, to be a role model for others,” she says. “Having diversity as a priority is something I will keep an eye on.”

Since Welling took the top role at Mercer in June 2017, he has hired or promoted five women into its 13-person leadership team, which is composed of the firm’s C-suite executives and others who set strategy for the firm. The group includes Lellis; Karen Lee, chief strategy and marketing officer; Samantha Elder, who heads up human resources for the firm’s leaders; Kara Duckworth, managing director of client experience; and Laura Combs, a managing director.

Welling and Lellis have known each other professionally for 10 years. During her time at SBSB, the RIA custodied with Schwab where Welling worked at the time.

In August, Lellis left SBSB without another position lined up -- her first break from employment since college. For five months she traveled and spent time with family. Her personal sabbatical included 21 days in Australia and New Zealand.

“It was truly freeing,” she says. “I’ve never really had the freedom to travel and relax without the stress or the weight of business problems on my mind. ”

During this period, she got in touch with Welling. In contemplating her return to the workplace, Lellis says she knew she wanted to work for a rapidly growing firm with a dynamic culture. Not only did the firm offer an array of services including financial planning, tax planning and estate planning, but Welling also showed a commitment to hiring women into leadership roles.

Currently 45% of Mercer’s client-facing advisors are women. The firm also holds retreats for its women advisors and events for women clients and prospects.

Welling is honest about his initial struggles with making gender diversity a priority. In 2017, he attended an all-women panel at the Tiburon CEO Summit about the amount of wealth women in the U.S. are poised to inherit and the importance of having the right mix of women in a firm and among its leaders to handle the shift.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘I’m confused and I don’t know what to do next,’” he recalls about initially feeling blocked at how to diversify.

“Change is hard, right?” he says. Ultimately, he thought about the challenges his wife faced as a working mother pulled by demands at their home, their kids’ schools and at her job.

To better support mothers, Mercer offers flexible working hours.

“Flexibility or the ability to control their hours is very important for these women,” he says. These advisors, he adds, “are expected to serve those clients extremely well, but having that be from the hours from nine-to-five isn’t the requirement.”

The fact that Welling chose to prioritize the issue inspired Lellis to join Mercer, she says.

“Dave having that philosophy here was a great pathway for me to see,” she says. “I hope that I can be part of that change we are seeing in the profession.”

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Gender issues Gender discrimination Diversity and equality M&A Practice Management Resource Center Mercer Advisors Dave Welling