Winnie Lee – Cetera Financial Group
She arrived just a little late to weigh in on the actual transaction, Cetera Financial Group having purchased the independent financial planning channel of Voya Financial Advisors when Winnie Lee became deputy general counsel in June 2021.
But there was integration for her to oversee and ways to streamline for subsequent acquisitions, this being how Cetera brings more financial professionals into the fold and enhances its status as the nation’s second largest family of independent broker-dealers.
“From the start, I really worked closely with various teams across the organization to integrate and transition financial advisors and their clients’ accounts,” Lee tells Vanguard this past April, by now a veteran at Cetera.
“The integration and transition are equally important. You get the mergers and acquisitions done, but then you must make sure that everything that happens afterward is handled correctly and as efficiently as possible to give financial advisors the best experience and least amount of disruption to their business.”
Nearly one year later, Lee’s the go-to for M&A on the legal side. While she can’t discuss potential acquisitions, she can say how she’s expanding Cetera’s commitment to enhance the process through teamwork and technology.
Cetera refers to the network of independent retail firms encompassing, among others, Cetera Advisors LLC, Cetera Advisor Networks LLC, Cetera Investment Services LLC (marketed as Cetera Financial Institutions or Cetera Investors), Cetera Financial Specialists LLC, and First Allied Securities, Inc. All firms are members FINRA/SIPC in San Diego.
Individuals affiliated with Cetera firms are either registered representatives who offer only brokerage services and receive transaction-based compensation (commissions), investment adviser representatives who offer only investment advisory services and receive fees based on assets, or both registered representatives and investment adviser representatives, who can offer both types of services.
As Lee explains, it’s a complex and closely watched process when one financial operation absorbs another company or its assets. Prior to letter of intent, Lee works with the business leaders to ensure that Cetera is vetting the right wealth management firms. Then there’s due diligence before definitive documentation and afterward the negotiation of deal-specific terms in purchase agreements and the signing of documents. The subsequent integration and transition of financial professionals and client accounts finishes the process.
While the new financial professionals typically aren’t Cetera employees, they are affiliated with the firm’s broker dealers and registered investment advisors. They have access to Cetera’s platforms that empower advisors to deliver an Advice-Centric Experience® for their clients, helping them achieve their version of financial well-being. Cetera’s AdviceWorks platform, for example, helps advisors manage their business and better serve their clients with interactive features, digital account opening options and tools for personalized service.
Lee works cross-departmentally to utilize technology to further streamline processes. In addition to serving as the primary legal contact for M&A and other corporate transactions, she works with the business and operations teams on efficiencies and programs for attracting and retaining financial advisors.
Dibs on DEIB
Beyond the day-to-day responsibilities, Lee is interested in Cetera’s diversity initiatives. Only nowadays, she says, DEI is evolving to DEIB—the critical letter B adding “belonging” to diversity, equity and inclusion. At Cetera, DEIB is part of the team’s fabric and is integrated in all aspects of the business.
A new member of the Asian American Pacific Islander Employee Resource Group, she looks forward to sharing her experiences with others and primarily younger employees across the organization. Though they may not necessarily be lawyers, they can still count on Lee to advise on career growth and share her experience as a diverse individual in the financial services profession.
“I had mentors and, for me, it’s really important to contribute to that effort of mentoring,” Lee says. “You don’t even have to come from a diverse group to do so. In fact, the partnership and commitment from both diverse and non-diverse employees, particularly mentors, is essential to make DEIB work.”
Outside of mentoring, Lee is proud that Cetera continues striving to hire and recruit more diverse candidates that are more representative of the general population.
As for Lee, she knew from a very young age where her future lay.
“In grade school I’d sell comic books and candy, use the money to buy more and sell them, too,” she recalls with a laugh. “Archie, Spiderman, Superman, Hulk, etc. I’d get in trouble for my side business but then I’d lay low for a while and then do it again. So that was my early exposure to finance.”
Her parents were often exasperated by her, and she’d argue “about everything all the time.” When they told her to become a lawyer, she thought, “What better way to combine legal and finance?”
After graduating from the University at Buffalo, Lee enrolled in Brooklyn Law School. She honed her skills in transactional law at the New York office of Nixon Peabody for five years and took her first in-house role at Lehman Brothers Inc. in 2004, specializing in derivatives for the next three years. She’d hold subsequent positions with Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Fir Tree Partners, a New York City based hedge fund, before joining Cetera.
A New Yorker by birth, she’s stayed in the Big Apple since those undergrad years in Buffalo and shares her home with her husband and an 11-year-old son, whom she says also shows an entrepreneurial spirit, and a 13-year-old collie shepherd retriever mix. She tries to squeeze in four or five Peloton sessions a week and spend weekends at her second home in Pennsylvania’s Poconos, where opportunities abound for skiing, horseback riding, fishing and hiking.
But weekends there don’t tend to be long, not with Cetera in perpetual growth mode.
“There’s always work to do and, in a good way, I’m consistently busy,” she says. “It’s been a very dynamic and rewarding year.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer III 2022 Edition here.
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