Features

Lisa A. Gok – Cetera Financial Group 

She’s growing Cetera without pain 

It’s business as usual at Cetera Financial Group, which is how everybody prefers, but that takes some doing at what’s one of the nation’s largest families of independent registered investment advisers and broker-dealers. Growth pains are the flip side of being in growth mode, and Lisa A. Gok recalls previous booms that caused some passing discomfort.  

Lisa A. Gok | Chief Legal Officer | Cetera Financial Group 

Lisa A. Gok | Chief Legal Officer | Cetera Financial Group

“Years ago, we got complaints from some of the advisors who said they weren’t getting the service they expected,” she tells Vanguard from her Los Angeles office in April. “We’ve now got it down to a science. We want our advisors not to notice what we’re doing but to enjoy our good services.” 

A Cetera lawyer for a dozen years who in May celebrated her second anniversary as chief legal officer, the affable Gok factors in the firm’s formula for efficiency. Formerly its general counsel, she’s now in a more strategic role as a direct report to new Chief Executive Officer Mike Durbin and has much to oversee as the financial services industry consolidates with Cetera among the most prominent players. 

Vis-à-vis Cetera growing by mergers and acquisitions come more rules and regulations, especially at the state level. Cetera’s services being nationwide, compliance becomes a bigger responsibility and something smaller firms can be hard-pressed to handle, and thus, they become prospective acquirees. Then there are other small and modest firms whose long-time bosses are retiring and choosing to cash rather than plan for succession.    

So, for an operator such as Cetera, it’s a buyer’s market and one that has Gok strategizing as the firm’s umbrella widens, sometimes with unconventional additions such as November’s acquisition of what had been the Nasdaq-traded Avantax. 

Bigger and better 

That called for different protocols, Gok explaining that this was Cetera’s first purchase of a listed firm and how Avantax has since gone under private control as a stand-alone business unit with its former stockholders compensated at $26 per share. As Durbin says, the transaction ushered in a new era for two industry leaders and how it’s proceeding seamlessly. 

Lisa A. Gok | Chief Legal Officer | Cetera Financial Group 

Though Gok’s due diligence was different on this deal, she says it was sealed relatively quickly and how Avantax’s 3,100-plus financial professionals and $82 billion in assets strengthen Cetera on such fronts as tax and wealth management and investment advising.  

The previous August, Gok helped her employer close another big-ticket transaction: the acquisition of Securian Financial’s retail wealth business and trust division, which have been rebranded Cetera Wealth Management Group and Cetera Trust Company, NA. respectively, and she further positioned to counsel its growth as one of its board members. Over 900 of Securian’s financial professionals—more than 91 percent—opted to join Cetera, bolstering the acquirer’s asset holdings by $50 billion. 

“These acquisitions give us more offerings than smaller firms,” Gok says. “We’ve got additional products to offer our clients as well as state-of-the-art technology that makes us better able to buy or build.” 

Then there’s another asset from the Securian toolbox: The firm’s access to a pipeline of young talent. Securian having nurtured partnerships with colleges and universities, its executives have often been on campuses recruiting the next generation of advisors. 

Lisa A. Gok | Chief Legal Officer | Cetera Financial Group 

With Gok’s input, those partnerships expand. Cetera’s even active at the high school level with its Women’s+ Employee Resource Group joining “Rock the Street, Wall Street,” an industry initiative that teaches financial literacy to teenagers. A people person, Gok welcomes the opportunity to speak at such get-togethers and spread her commonsense gospel. 

“There are no dumb questions,” she says. “I always say that at the start. There’s so much for young people to learn about managing money and many haven’t had the best mentoring.” 

She says it is refreshing when the program arouses interest in the students. Cetera having attracted interns, she envisions them as the investment advisors of a soon-to-be future but emphasizes their need for continuing education as the financial world is ever-evolving. 

‘Lisa the Litigator’ 

Gok speaks from experience, with more than three decades in a legal career that started with 19 years of litigating with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. That prepped the Princeton University and Columbia Law School graduate for her first in-house role in 2005, a four-year stretch with Transamerica Financial Advisors. Afterward came two-and-a-half years with the public fintech and bank holding company Green Dot Corp. She became a deputy general counsel for Cetera in July 2012 and, following two promotions, oversees all legal matters. 

Lisa A. Gok | Chief Legal Officer | Cetera Financial Group 

During her early years at Cetera, she acquired the reputation as “Lisa the Litigator,” her courtroom skills having been honed while prosecuting criminals during her years with federal agencies. Courtroom time not being a company’s most productive, she focused on keeping Cetera out of litigation and lowering those costs by two-thirds.  

The financial industry being heavily regulated and Gok being a stickler for compliance, her department has expanded to 20 lawyers and 10 paralegals, and they’re never at a loss for work. Figuratively speaking, she says any new hire had better be prepared to wash windows, and she’ll show them how. 

That, of course, means minding every detail. An in-house lawyer, after all, is responsible to one client, which is the company itself. Got to know Cetera inside and out, she says. 

She’s done it well enough to win the respect of colleagues inside and outside of Cetera. In late 2022, soon after being promoted to chief legal officer, Gok won the Los Angeles Business Journal’s Corporate Counsel of the Year Award for a large private company. 

The previous two years had been taxing on in-house lawyers everywhere, what with COVID-19 shutting down offices. In Gok’s case, her responsibilities included advising Cetera’s financial professionals on administrating the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans—a task that few of her counterparts elsewhere had to assume. Then there was her introducing and mentoring Cetera’s advisors on electronic signatures that were so essential in sustaining operations. Oh yes, she also weighed in on several mergers and acquisitions—something Gok will do more of as Cetera continues its aggressive expansion. 

It’s all part of overseeing in-house legal in the financial services industry and while Gok’s been practicing law since the late 1980’s, she reckons she has years to go. There’s so much happening at Cetera and the industry, and she retains her drive. 

And why not? Her two children have recently graduated college and established their own professional lives. At home, it’s Gok and her husband, and French bulldogs named Buster and Kona.  

A Hawaiian vacation is somewhere on the calendar, a well-deserved respite. But then it’ll be back to work and probably another potential acquiree needing due diligence.  

“We’re getting better at these all the time,” Gok says. “The industry continues to consolidate, and we have the scale to grow. We get to pick from a pool of young talent that’ll keep us going long after I’m gone.”   

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring IV 2024 Edition here.

Published on: May 20, 2024

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