Leo Stevenson of Merrill Lynch is named one of Forbes top wealth advisors in America

At the mountaintop

Leo Stevenson has been named to the Forbes “America’s Top Wealth Advisors” list for his work as managing director of wealth management at Merrill Lynch’s Wyandotte office.

Stevenson, a Wyandotte native and Grosse Ile resident, is managing director of wealth management at Merrill Lynch. It was his second year on the Forbes Top 250 Wealth Advisors list, which is based on a number of criteria. He is ranked as the number one financial advisor in Michigan among non-independent firms.

Forbes is a national magazine. The ranking is based on an algorithm of qualitative criteria that weighs factors like revenue trends, assets under management, compliance records and industry experience, along with encompassing best practices in the agency approach to working with clients, among other items.

Stevenson said he works with his clients to understand their concerns and priorities, developing wealth management strategies to help them as they work toward their goals, focusing on retirement along with personal and business planning.

Stevenson also has been named to Barron’s list of Top 1,200 Advisors six years in a row. He has trained more than 300 Merrill Lynch financial advisors nationwide on practice management, while making the Downriver area one of his primary focuses.

In fact, his seminars designed to help people manage their finances “so they can retire and potentially live out their dreams” have been presented to several thousand people in the region. A recent seminar attracted more than 200 people – clients and potential clients – at Crystal Gardens in Southgate.

“At the seminars, we talk about the options people have when they’re investing and what to expect – how to get paychecks for their entire lives from the money they saved,” he said.

The Clients

“I have 12 people who work with me in Wyandotte,” Stevenson said. “What differentiates us that we go beyond fulfilling the financial needs of our clients. We take a very keen interest in their personal lives.

 “We just don’t sit with our clients and talk numbers,” he said. “It’s really about a holistic approach to everything in our clients’ lives. We’re there for them. We assist them. People see that difference in us. They see that we truly care.”

Gary Martin, who worked with Stevenson when both were at BASF in Wyandotte, called him “a very good friend and trusted advisor.”

 Most of Stevenson’s new clients now come from word of mouth.

“They tell their friends about us, which is really cool,” Stevenson said.

Local Boy Makes Good

 Stevenson grew up as the youngest of three children in his parents’ Wyandotte home at Ninth Street and St. John’s. He said his father was in a stock club.

“I was a little weird in that I enjoyed looking at company financials when I was 10 years old or so,” he said. “My love for this industry and profession actually started when I was 12. I’ve invested my entire life.”

As a pre-teen, Stevenson bought his first stock in an auto supply company known as Hayes Albion with money he made delivering the Detroit Free Press. He still has the stock certificate in his office. He continued investing, researching different companies and products that he saw being used.

“Growing up in Wyandotte, I didn’t have my first new bike until I was 13,” he said. “I bought it with paper route money. I didn’t get my first new baseball mitt until I was 17. Fifty years ago in Wyandotte, we had hand-me-downs. It was all right. Nobody knew any different and everything was good.”

While attending Roosevelt High School, Stevenson would occasionally help a business class instructor by teaching investing. He was already so knowledgeable. He graduated high school in 1974 and went on to earn a finance degree in 1978 from Michigan State University.

He went to work as an accountant at BASF and then at a Division of Molson Brewery of Montreal when the Canadian firm bought the accounting division. He worked his way up the ranks to become director of international marketing. The division was eventually old off to Lever Brothers, a much larger company in The Netherlands.

Bullish on America

Stevenson’s career changed 25 years ago when he went to work at Merrill Lynch.

“I felt that there is a real need for individuals that worked all of their lives, paid off their house, sent their kids to college, saved in their 401Ks and then realized they have a nice nest egg and need help in managing it so they can retire and hopefully live out their dreams,” he said. “My whole goal when I meet with someone is to understand what they want to accomplish and what their dreams are and then attempt to help them achieve their dreams using my knowledge of financial markets.”

Stevenson and his team provide client services, managing portfolios and investment returns, following 35 different metrics. He said the data helps determine asset allocations among their clients using his staff’s more than 100 years of combined experience.

Their client services are more than investing. The team also helps with estate planning, insurance needs, credit, retirement planning and mortgages, plus their personal needs.

“We’re always looking out for our clients,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t guarantee investment results, but we’re very data driven and use our experience to help us make decisions.”

 A dozen years ago, Stevenson purchased the big metal bull that rests outside the Merrill Lynch office on Biddle Avenue. The bull was the creation of metal artist Keith Coleman and was outside River’s Edge Gallery down the street when Stevenson made an offer that was accepted.

The bull – a famous corporate symbol of Merrill Lynch – was relocated in September 2007 as part of an elaborate ceremony that celebrated the grand opening of the new office. Stevenson said the city agreed to close Biddle on a Friday night. There was a large banner proclaiming Merrill Lynch was “Bullish on America.” The Roosevelt band performed patriotic songs and several chorus groups sang as a 1930 John Deer tractor pulled the several hundred pound bull to its new home. City officials and several thousand people were in attendance.

The office is in a building that was created in the 1800s, starting as the Arlington Hotels. The site has had many inhabitants over the years, most notably Armstrong Clothing. Before Merrill Lynch could move in, workers had to shore up the foundations, walls, ceilings and roof to preserve it.

“It was very close to being demolished,” Stevenson said. “Now, it’s home to a national company on a prime corner of Wyandotte’s Downtown, which is pretty cool. There’s a landmark bull and a landmark building.”

Does he have any general advice for investors young and old? “Starting to save as young as possible is important,” Stevenson said. “If someone saves $2,000 a year for 30 years and can earn 6 percent compounded on average, they will accumulate over $150,000. For older investors, we are living longer and are much more active in our older years. Having a sufficient nest egg as we age is important for personal wellbeing.”

Community Involvement

One of the factors Forbes considers when selecting its Top 250 list is community involvement. Stevenson said he and wife of 12 years Marie enjoy giving to others. Marie is a teacher in the Wayne Westland Schools. The couple’s interests are wide ranging.

Stevenson has been part of the advisory board at the Salvation Army and helped start a soup kitchen in Wyandotte. The couple are major supporters of the Kids Talk program at The Guidance Center. He is active with the Pallottine Fathers Mission, is president of the Grosse Ile Golf and Country Club and is vice chairman of the Wyandotte Downtown Development Authority.

“We really appreciate what he does for our organization,” said Major Brian Reed of Salvation Army Downriver. “He’s a very humble guy who wants to give back to the community. He likes the Salvation Army mission and really supports everything we’ve done.”

Stevenson consistently comes through for the Wyandotte American Legion and Auxiliary. He purchases the food for the post to serve after the annual Wyandotte Independence Day Parade. He made a sizable donation so the post could hold a 100th anniversary celebration tribute, which is scheduled for November 9.

“I think Leo is just amazing, to be honest with you,” said Auxiliary Unit President Cari Salamon. “He is cordial. He’s inviting. He’s always been there whenever we needed him.

“Leo has always been an asset to the community and to American Legion and to your life in general. He’s just a nice guy.”

The Stevensons have endowed $200,000 for Roosevelt graduates and $100,000 in scholarships for Grosse Ile graduates attending Michigan State. Like her husband, Marie Stevenson is a graduate of MSU. Two of their six children are also Spartans.

“We’re so blessed that giving back has to be second nature to us,” Stevenson said. “If we can help other people out, we’re very fortunate to be able to do that.

“Growing up in Wyandotte, it’s really been an honor and privilege for me to have my office in Wyandotte. Our office has been here 20 years now. Wyandotte has always been a very strong community. All 13 of us in this office are very happy to be associated with Wyandotte. Every day, I see friends coming to the office, stopping by to say hello. It’s really a neat situation.”

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