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Relentless Entrepreneurialism: John Lee's Story

Written by: John Pierce | Stifel

With a healthy mix of candor and transparency, John Lee has built Stifel’s western presence from nonexistent to nearly seventy offices strong in under a decade.

The most common way for a financial services firm to expand its footprint is to make an acquisition. Building a branch networkfrom the ground up is practically unheard of, but that’s exactly what John Lee has done for Stifel.When Lee joined Stifel as Western Region Director in the summer of 2007, the firm didn’t have a single branch west of Colorado. In just under a decade, he has opened 69 Stifel offices that collectively employ some 500 professionals and manage $37 billion in assets.This remarkable success was hardly a sure thing at the start. “I remember a former colleague of mine telling me, ‘Nobody can go out and build a region,’ Lee recalls. “But I kept my mouth shut and thought, ‘Just watch!’” After spending a good deal of time with Lee, it’s clear to me that he is one of the unquestionable leadersin our industry, not just because of his numbers — which clearly speak for themselves — but because he truly cares about his financial advisors, their teams, their families, and perhaps most importantly of all, their clients.

Finding a New Home at Stifel

Prior to joining Stifel, Lee spent two decades at another firm with an exceptional advisor-focused culture. When the firm was acquired by a major wirehouse, Lee knew it was time for a change. But he was uncertain about what his next step should be.As Lee points out, “My old firm was unique in the sense that people came — and stayed — for the environment.They came for the culture.” Lee was determined to join a similarly culture-first firm. He received a letter from Stifel CEO Ron Kruszewski outlining what seemed like the perfect opportunity — except Stifel had no branches anywhere near Lee’s home in California.“Ron sent a nice package,” Lee explains. “I looked at it and I thought it was a great letter. But then I opened up the book and saw that Stifel wasn’t running any offices west of Colorado and I thought, ‘Well, what a waste of time, they’re not even out in California.’ So I put the book aside, and it was only later, after others encouraged me to talk to Ron, that I picked up the phone and gave him a call.”After a one-on-one meeting at Kruszewski’s home, Lee was convinced that Stifel was the place for him. “Ron laid out Stifel’s business philosophy and said, “John, I’ll give you the keys, the toolbox, whatever you need, just go out and build me something.” Lee accepted the challenge and hasn’t looked back.

Placing a Premium on Honesty and Transparency

Lee was drawn to Stifel because of the firm’s unique character — defined by our culture, flat management structure, and client-first approach to wealth management. He’s upheld these values throughout the firm’s expansion by being honest with recruits and prioritizing transparency above all else.“The biggest challenge I have in recruiting is getting people to understand who we are – because for so many people in the industry, our firm sounds too good to be true,” he says. “But I just try to be honest about what this environment is like, what the management is like, and what the focus and culture of the firm are like. We have all the products, tools, and services advisors need to cater to their clients at a high level, and there’s no larger corporate agenda pressuring advisors to do things they ought not to be doing in pursuit of a profit.”This is not attractive to everyone, Lee admits, but that’s just fine with him. Instead of only pursuing top producers, Lee takes a broader approach to recruitment. He looks beyond the numbers to consider an advisor’s character. “I like honest, forthright folks who put their clients’ interests ahead of their own,” Lee explains. “I look for good, clean business. I like humility and candor.”For many of those who have taken the leap, Lee’s promises have held up. With his characteristic humility, Lee shares, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve hired who have come up to me after I’ve recruited them and shaken my hand and said, ‘John, I just want to say thanks for bringing me here. When you were recruiting me, I didn’t believe a word you were telling me about this firm, but everything you said about it is exactly how it is, and I really appreciate being here.’”

Looking Forward

Lee’s insistence on transparency has paid off for both Stifel and the hundreds of advisors who have fueled the firm’s growth. Though he’s made it look easy, building a region from scratch has required years of dedication, creativity, and hard work. Despite his hard-won successes, Lee is always pushing for more, always looking for new people with whom to share the Stifel story.When asked what advice he would give to his younger self, Lee replies, “Run faster. When I first came to Stifel, I had no idea what I’d be capable of doing. No matter what I do, I want more.”Lee’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious, and it comes across in the way he communicates with his clients and colleagues. His entrepreneurialspirit drives Stifel’s westward expansion, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.