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Posted: June 22, 2009

Executive edge: John Lester

Bear markets are no match for UBS chief, who has found courage battling kidney disease

Lynn Bronikowski

John Lester’s career and life started on the same day – July 10, 1986.

That was the day he landed his first job – at the prestigious Boettcher & Co. – freshly armed with an MBA from the Daniels School of Business at the University of Denver.

It also was the day the Greeley native who had been plagued with kidney disease since his undergraduate days at DU got a phone call from University Hospital. They had found a kidney match, bringing to a close exhaustive dialysis treatments.

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Photo by Todd Nakashima

“That kidney lasted 17 years, and I’ve been through several bear markets and a couple more kidney transplants since,” said Lester, who would go on to head UBS Wealth Management for Colorado – today overseeing management of  a $7 billion portfolio and 200 financial advisers working in seven offices statewide.

In 2001, his kidney began to fail, and despite undergoing dialysis treatments three days a week for five hours each day, he was driven to continue  working.

“In an environment of disappointment and despair, you struggle with a lot of things when you’re ill like that, and you need to have successes,” said Lester, 47.  “To me a lot of my successes came from my work. In fact, some of my best successes were during that time.”

From 2003 to 2004, while awaiting a kidney transplant, Lester managed to maintain his top-rated performance within the Western region for UBS.

“And I became a better manager,” he said. “When you go through something like that, you become a lot more grounded from a perspective of importance. You have greater ability to empathize with others and recognize that everyone carries a burden of some sort or another. And it’s OK that sometimes those things get in the way of our business.
“I felt like I was coming to work and adding value when it would have been very easy to sit at home thinking about myself,” he said.

Lester acknowledges that he’s well paid and enjoys golf and country club memberships. But he says his greatest joy on the job comes from what he calls his “psychic income,” managing and being around people – even in these tough economic times that in April meant laying off 19 financial advisers and four support staff in Colorado. In all, UBS laid off 1,500 in the U.S. and 8,000 worldwide.

“We’re not in a depression; we are calling it The Great Recession,” said Lester, whose company brought in clinical psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud of Los Angeles to help give direction.

“Some of our advisers were taking it upon themselves that it was their fault,” Lester said. “But Dr. Cloud talks about when you go through a crisis, you go through ‘learned helplessness’ in which you blur what you can and can’t control. The blur becomes pervasive and permanent that things are not going to get better so we had to spend a lot of time getting our own people thinking differently before we could effectively get our clients right.”

Staff recognized they couldn’t control wild swings in the market, but they could control how hard they work and how they talked to clients.

“Our clients already know the market is down 45 percent and how it got there. We don’t need to tell them that,” Lester said. “So we ask them how they’re feeling. It’s a worry-based conversation, and we talk to them about how we’re going to get out of it.

“And that is a completely different way than we’ve ever had to do business before,” he said. “Inherent in our conversations is empathy.”

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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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