When Peter "Tony" Guernsey was approached in 1997 by an executive search firm to open a wealth management unit in New York for Wilmington Trust Corp., he was skeptical.

"We were told to build an asset management firm in New York from scratch off of a bank from Delaware," he said. "We knew it wasn’t going to be easy."

Three and a half years later Wilmington Trust has gone from a regional banking company, which had gotten 75% of its wealth management assets from people who live in Delaware, to a nationally recognized wealth manager with $36.9 billion of assets under management, 4% more than a quarter earlier.

In addition to its 45 Delaware bank branches, the financial services holding company has 15 dedicated wealth management offices in other states (one of them in New York). Three more are to open this year, in Atlanta, Nashville, and Baltimore.

Using experienced wealth managers and an open-architecture approach to investment products, Guernsey, the president of Wilmington Trust New York, says he has created the model for how Wilmington Trust intends to expand its wealth management unit into other regions. "We have gone from nothing, from scratch, to a $2 billion unit. We are bursting at the seams here with staff, and we are growing."

Last year, while the markets slid, Wilmington Trust’s business in New York grew 157%, and its overall wealth management revenue grew 7.3%, Guernsey said.

At Salomon Smith Barney’s investors’ conference in New York last week, Ted Cecala, Wilmington Trust’s CEO, said that the growth was spurred by record new business in private client financial services and the opening of high-net-worth offices in California and New Jersey. Those offices, according to Guernsey, closely follow his New York model.

Cecala expects fees to account for half of Wilmington Trust’s operating revenue this year.

Wilmington Trust’s successful operation in New York began when Guernsey hired away a small group of wealth managers from UBS Warburg and his old employer, J.P. Morgan & Co.

Once the staff was in place, the next step was to bring in top products from a range of providers, Guernsey said.

Wilmington Trust bought two asset management firms in 1998: Roxbury Capital Management LLC of Santa Monica, Calif., and Cramer Rosenthal McGlynn LLC of New York.

The combination of a variety of products and experienced wealth managers gave Wilmington Trust a base in New York. In 1998 the company built on that base and began expanding its wealth management unit nationally, opening offices in Florida, California, Nevada, and New Jersey.

In each region it which it opens an office, Wilmington Trust employs the same strategy — gain a foothold there by hiring experienced wealth managers, and then keep growing.

"We want to hire people that have been doing this for 15 years or more," he said. "Age is a benefit in this line of business."

Burton Greenwald, a Philadelphia asset management analyst, said institutions must have a balance between experienced wealth managers and talented young staff.

"Firms have to hire and also grow their own in order to grow successfully," he said.

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