Sitting with Bob McCann in his impressive office in Weehawken, New Jersey, facing a panoramic view of the Hudson and the New York skyline, it’s hard to argue with this statement. The chief executive officer of UBS Wealth Management Americas (WMA) and a member of the group executive board of UBS AG, McCann has a résumé that would intimidate many established professionals, not to mention a recent college graduate with a ballpoint pen and a Dictaphone.
This considered, I’m amazed at how down-to-earth Bob McCann is. When he walks into a room, you’re put at ease. Our photographer, Kit DeFever, mentioned his surprise when McCann greeted a security guard by name, and the guard called him Bob. He’s straightforward and open when discussing his views, political or philosophical, and downright tender when he talks about his two daughters, 20 and 22, and their hopes for the future. He is deeply committed to his philanthropic work and speaks passionately about his focus on education.
Before taking his current post at UBS, McCann spent twenty-six years at Merrill Lynch, where he was most recently vice chairman of Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., and president of Global Wealth Management. When I speak with him on July 6, it’s the 28th anniversary of when he began working on Wall Street. “It was a Tuesday in 1982,” McCann remembers. “When I came to New York, I started to hear more about the Irish community, started having more interest ... A couple of my aunts have indicated that we were a family that didn’t talk a lot about our Irish heritage. When I pressed [family members] on that, it seems to be the conclusion that it was a family where it was thought, ‘We’re now American.’ So I can tell you that growing up, my Irish ancestry wasn’t mentioned a lot or talked much about.
“My involvement in Ireland didn’t really start until 1997, 1998, and it started for the most New York of all reasons. It was about business. A friend of mine [and fellow Wall Street 50 honoree] Kip Condron asked me to buy a table at The American Ireland Fund dinner in New York, and I did because he was a friend and a good client. But through that, I started to develop friendships in the Irish-American community, with Loretta Brennan Glucksman and [Ambassador] Dan Rooney, who’s from my hometown of Pittsburgh.”
McCann’s great-great-grandfather came to Scotland from outside of Belfast around 1850. Family research suggests that he heard of work in Western Pennsylvania when mills were being built in Pittsburgh, and immigrated to America. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that McCann visited Ireland on a golfing trip. “I remember it perfectly. It sounds like it’s out of a travelogue or something, but what I remember first is just how green it was. It really does strike you. I had no idea. From the sky, I remember wanting to understand all the walls that were up and what they represented. I couldn’t get over the value, in a host of ways, an Irishman puts on owning property.”
Through his involvement in The American Ireland Fund since 1998, McCann has found an excellent outlet for his philanthropic focus on education and intercultural communication. “At one board meeting for the Ireland Fund, they made a comment that religious prejudice shows up in people as young as six. It became clear to me after I did a little bit more research that we have to get the kids young. So one year that I was the honoree at The American Ireland Fund dinner in New York, I wanted the proceeds of the dinner to go towards educational activities. It was great; it was the biggest dinner we ever had and we raised $4 million. We built a grade school in the North dedicated to integrated education. I’m just fascinated with the topic of integrated education because to me, it hits on all the things I care about. It touches on education and it also touches on understanding differences and learning to appreciate differences.
“Through another contact that I had at another time of my life, I met Gary Knell, the president and CEO of the Sesame Workshop. Having two children, I remember Sesame Street being on TV in our house all the time, and I found out through Gary that it’s a lot more than just keeping your kids entertained; it’s about education. Sesame Street had been in about 106 different countries but they never could crack Northern Ireland. So I introduced Gary to Loretta Brennan Glucksman [Chairman of AIF] and we thought that that could be a good project. We filmed 20 episodes of Sesame Street in Northern Ireland. They created two Muppets in addition to the ones that are more well-known, a Catholic and a Protestant Muppet, and they tell stories of understanding and respect and forgiveness through the Muppets to the kids. It’s good stuff.”
A member of the executive committee of the board of directors of The American Ireland Fund, McCann is also involved with the Northern Ireland Mentorship Programme, along with U.S. Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland Declan Kelly. The Programme aims to develop Northern Ireland’s promising future business leaders and entrepreneurs while strengthening the links between Northern Ireland and U.S. business. “I have a lot of respect for Declan. He’s likeable, he’s smart, he’s energetic. He and Dan Rooney, and [President] Mary McAleese’s husband, Martin, started talking about the need for programs that would give people focus, show people that the world is a big place and there’s a way to be – I don’t want to say a way out, because that sounds like the only alternative is to leave, but the world’s a big place and there are opportunities out there, and you can go off and learn and then come back to Ireland. Although I’ve spent more of my time in the last year or so working on issues in the North, I care about all of Ireland. I kind of sit silent when people from the North position themselves as a better place for business than the South. I don’t disagree, but they know how I feel and how I feel is that I want to see all of Ireland succeed. I thought that we could create an opportunity for successful young people who have shown potential to come to the U.S. and work for a great company with the idea and commitment that they would go back, whether they start their own company or work at a big one. And I also think that if we pick the right 30 people, they’ll all touch other people’s lives.”
McCann’s philanthropic work in America is similarly focused on empowering young people to thrive. “I always say the two things that really have allowed me to succeed were that I came from a great family and I had education,” he says. “I can’t do anything about somebody’s family, but I can try to make it possible for them to access education.” At his own alma mater, Bethany College, McCann has founded the McCann Learning Center and the McCann Investment Fund, as well as serving as vice chairman of the board of trustees and as chair of the college’s investment committee. The learning center provides support for students with learning disabilities or other difficulties, and the investment fund is based on a course that McCann took in graduate school, at Texas Christian University, which involved managing actual money in the stock market.
He is also a member of the advisory board of the No Greater Sacrifice Foundation, which funds the education of children of military personnel who have been wounded or killed. “I was never in the military, but I've come to develop a very healthy respect for military people and the sacrifices that they make. To me it’s not about politics, it’s not a statement about how I feel about this war or any other.”
With the amount of time Bob McCann spends on philanthropic pursuits, it’s stunning to recall that he expends the majority of his energy heading a top investment company in what is still a trying economic time for our nation. “The economy is better than it was a year ago, but I think it’s still fragile,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a long, slow recovery and there are going to be fits and starts in this recovery. The last three years have been very hard on people in all kinds of ways and I think their confidence has been shaken. Their confidence in the U.S. economy, their confidence in our place in the world, how they invest and where they invest.” McCann, a self-described pragmatist, exercises a delicate balance of optimism and specific criticism in most of his views. “I think we’re going to come through it; I still believe in this country powerfully. The very same things that have allowed us to succeed for the two hundred and thirty-four years we’ve been here; those qualities are still in place but we’re being tested in a way that we haven’t been in quite some time, at the same time that we’re fighting two wars, so the country is being challenged in a host of different ways.
“I think financial regulatory reform was necessary; it was appropriate. The process to get here at times has been too politically charged. I don’t like to see people trying to divide and conquer; you can’t have financial regulation that’s driven by popular politics at the time. … I think it’s also important to note that in the end, regulatory reform will always have gaps. What fills the gaps is leadership. It comes down to running the companies, running the institutions in the United States, behaving and leading in the right way. Regulation will tell you what you can and can’t do, but leadership answers the question of what you should do. And what we need right now in the industry that I’m in, I would argue in big business period, we need leaders that are going to step up and lead in an honorable way. We have to earn back the trust of our clients, of our employees, of our shareholders, because, let’s face it, we let some people down. We have to earn that back. And I think the firms that do earn it back will be the firms that will have a competitive advantage into the next 10-20 years. Because it’s a challenging time, but progress is being made and there’s more to be made in the future.”
It’s clear that McCann refuses to see institutions, from Wall Street to the American government to the Catholic Church, as faceless and uncontrollable beings to be blamed for America’s challenges. He believes that good leadership by individuals in positions of power can overcome the most daunting of issues on large and small scales. Some of this philosophy comes from his two years under the mentorship of David Komansky, former chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch who grew up in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants and Irish Catholics. “There was a time in my life when I was trying to decide what direction to go. I was 33 years old. I’d been a trader up until that point in my life, and I loved it, I loved the action, I loved the markets. I had taken on some management responsibilities. I was a producing manager, and my definition of managing at the time was that I yelled louder than other people on the trading floor. Komansky worked with me over a two-year period and he helped me cross the bridge from being a producer, but one largely responsible for myself, to being a leader and an executive and being responsible for other people, and the joy and frustration that can come from that… I lost my temper on the trading floor, and he said, ‘Leadership is a privilege, not your right.’ I think all of us have to remember that people don’t have to follow, so we need to treat people in a way that they want to follow, and to create a vision for them to want to follow. Then we also need to explain to them where they tie into that.
“One thing that we have to fix, and we have to fix this quickly: big institutions have failed us. It isn’t just companies. Government leaders have failed, sports stars have failed. I’m Roman Catholic; the Catholic Church has failed people. Wall Street, big banks – organizations that are an important part of the cultural fabric – have failed people. Whether it’s how the pope leads or how the president leads, when people are given positions of responsibility and influence, whether you are a professional athlete or you’re running a business … People turned their children over to the church and the church violated that trust. People put their money in banks and we violated their trust as an industry, and we’ve got to fix that. We’ve got to do the right thing.”
For McCann, doing the right thing in his industry means empowering clients to reengage in their financial planning and restoring their confidence in investments. His vision for working towards this goal is personal, and probably at odds with how many consumers imagine the priorities of investment agencies. “I think the biggest thing we can do is taking the time to really get to know our clients and understand them,” he says. “Clients don’t want to be sold products. Clients want somebody who can sit with them in a room and get to know them inside and out, talk with them and figure out their hopes, their dreams, their fears. And then work with them to come up with a game plan for them as to how they’re going to live their life and how they’re going to invest their money. You know, many decisions in life have a financial element. Life isn’t all about money, but let’s not be naive. To make many of the big decisions in life that you want to make, you have to be aware and understand what your financial position is. … the mistake that you make as an industry is when we sell people things. I’ve always felt that products are just the building blocks that we use. What we’re really trying to do for a client is get them in a position where they understand what they have, they understand the risk of everything they own, that there’s a game plan with the client, with the client involved with the financial advisors to execute it.
“I have a saying that I use here internally, that most big decisions are made at the kitchen table. My kitchen table is bigger than the one I grew up with. But the fundamental act of sitting down as a family to talk and decide things is still happening. And I think the best financial advisors in the world have a seat at the clients’ kitchen table. Sometimes it’s in a kitchen, sometimes it’s in a boardroom, sometimes it's in a restaurant, but it’s a position of trust that they hold you to. We need to do that all the time and we need to have more people do it. People had a life-changing experience in the last couple years. They thought they were in a certain place in life financially and then all of a sudden the markets and the world changed and they were in a very different place than they had been. It’s very important that we understand that trauma and the impact that it had on people, and help them reengage. Because you can’t put your head in the sand and just walk away. A lot of people quit opening their statements, quit being willing to make decisions, and as a human being I understand that. But it’s our job as an industry, it’s our job here at UBS to help people start to reengage, and that’s what we’re doing.”
With his personal approach, determination to bridge differences and fervor for learning, Bob McCann seems like the kind of leader we need.
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