Rockefeller Capital is buying a $1.4 billion Chicago wealth firm as it eyes more deals in a cross-country push

  • Rockefeller Capital Management is buying a Chicago-area wealth management firm that oversees some $1.4 billion in assets, the firm said on Tuesday. 
  • Whitnell will join Rockefeller's family office business, led by former longtime Goldman Sachs executive Tim O'Hara, and will add a book of clients that includes corporate leaders.
  • New York-based Rockefeller, led by the former Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch wealth executive Greg Fleming, has expanded aggressively into new US markets since launching in 2018.
  • Rockefeller has now formed a partnership with Whitnell's parent company Associated, a regional bank headquartered in Wisconsin, where it will refer clients for mortgage lending in that region. 
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Rockefeller Capital Management, the financial services firm with origins in the famous New York family's oil fortune, has aggressively poached financial advisors and leaders from the largest Wall Street firms across the US since it launched three years ago. Now, it's cementing its presence in the Midwest with its latest acquisition.

The firm, which is privately held, said Tuesday it would buy Whitnell & Co., a wealth management firm based in the affluent Chicago suburb of Oak Brook that manages $1.4 billion in assets. Whitnell serves business owners and families with "deep roots in Midwestern soil and values," its website says, touting its base that includes multi-generational clients.

Rockefeller is buying Whitnell from Associated Banc-Corp., the Midwest regional bank holding company, and through a newly formed partnership will refer clients to Associated Bank for mortgage lending in that region. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"For me, to acquire a firm that has deep roots in the local market with experienced advisors is ideal," said Tim O'Hara, president of Rockefeller's family office business, in a phone interview. 

The deal, expected to close in March, highlights the level of wealth management deal volume that executives and analysts anticipate will continue this year after a flurry of combinations.

The current pipeline and early activity of registered investment advisor (RIA) combinations suggest that "2021 has the potential to be yet another record year for the industry," said Mark Bruno, managing director at ECHELON Partners, a wealth management industry-focused investment bank and consulting firm.

While deals between RIAs are common, Rockefeller's acquisition is unique for its own high-profile leadership team that is leading the charge.

Its chief executive is former Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley Wealth Management executive executive Greg Fleming, a prominent Wall Street figure known for his leadership during the great financial crisis and, as the Wall Street Journal coined him, "Derek Jeter's banker." He has reached into top-tier firms and wealth managers, namely UBS, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch, to poach executives and advisor talent since its 2018 launch.

Read more: Greg Fleming's $43 billion Rockefeller Capital has hired 19 adviser teams from top wealth firms in 7 months. Execs lay out where it's focused next.

Talks between Rockefeller and Associated started in the second half of last year. Initially, the firms held discussions about forming a mortgage-lending referral partnership, and then considered Whitnell as part of that deal, O'Hara said.

One distinctive part of Whitnell that drew Rockefeller's interest is its financial planning and advice services for corporate executives, offerings O'Hara is intimately familiar with from previously running Goldman Sachs's Ayco arm, which specializes in such services. Those services mark a "growth opportunity" for Rockefeller's family office, he said.

Rockefeller's cross-country push

The Whitnell acquisition is part of Rockefeller's Midwest expansion, and O'Hara is eyeing similar deals. He told Business Insider that he is holding preliminary talks with other firms that Rockefeller may end up taking on. 

"I will look to acquire RIAs in certain locations where we are not. Chicago was ideal as the epicenter, essentially, of the Midwest for us," O'Hara said.

Over time, his business may look to expand into markets including Texas, Florida, and Southern California, he said.

Each member of Whitnell's 25-person team, which includes three financial advisory teams and three senior client advisors, will join Rockefeller's 134-person family office division. That division caters to clients who tend to have at least $50 million invested, though there is no concrete minimum.

Rockefeller has three other main business lines: private wealth, asset management, and strategic advisory services. The firm, backed by the hedge fund Viking Global Investors, managed $69 billion in client assets as of December 31.

Read more: Greg Fleming's Rockefeller Capital is building up its Washington presence by luring junior talent and veteran advisors from the biggest wealth managers

Like some other US regional banks, Associated, headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has looked to cut costs over the last year. It has taken measures including selling or combining branches, and the sale of an insurance business in 2020. John Utz, the head of corporate banking and wealth management at Associated Banc-Corp., said in an interview that Whitnell under the Rockefeller banner makes sense. 

"This is a much better fit for them, but allows us to still participate in the relationship with Rockefeller on some of the things that we could provide to them as a partner," like Associated's bread-and-butter mortgage lending services, said Utz, who is also the bank's Milwaukee market president. 

Whitnell — named after two of its three founders, Bill White and Mike Brunell, who along with Donald Kelly formed the firm in 1988 — is not Rockefeller's first family office acquisition.

In 2019, the firm bought Financial Clarity, a multi-family office based in Mountain View, California known for its well-heeled Silicon Valley clientele. Financial Clarity, which was acquired for an undisclosed amount, oversaw some $2.3 billion in client assets at the time of the announcement. 

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