Community conversation: Kristen Bauer, CEO Laird Norton Wealth Management
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‘Let’s take a journey together.’
Kristen Bauer’s life changed when she met Tim Cavanaugh while working as director of finance at Medallia HealthCare in Seattle. She was in her mid-20s, had spent five years at Arthur Andersen, and was now working closely on business issues related to health care programs with Cavanaugh, an executive at Providence Health Plan.
Cavanaugh was impressed with Bauer’s business skills and financial acumen, so much so that he recommended her to his father-in-law, the famed money manager George Russell of Russell Investments, who was thinking about opening a family office and looking for someone to run it.
Bauer, now the CEO of Laird Norton Wealth Management in Seattle, met with Russell in 1998, and although she was only 28, got the job.
“He said let’s take a journey together,” Bauer recalls. “He also said ‘let’s have fun.”
Along with Cavanaugh, Bauer began the daunting task of building a single-family office from scratch. She found investment management at an ultra-high-net-worth level “incredibly complex.” Bauer quickly mastered it, however, and made a point to “translate” the arcane world of asset management to family members in plain English.
In 2004, the Russell family office opened its doors to other wealthy families and became Threshold Group. Bauer was its first employee, heading client services and eventually becoming president.
Bauer proceeded to help build Threshold into one of the country’s premier multifamily offices, offering such standard services as investment and tax management, estate planning and family governance, but also becoming an industry leader and innovator in impact investing and financial education.
By 2016 Threshold had reported over $3 billion in assets under management and a stellar national reputation, but Bauer realized the firm needed a partner if it wanted to be an industry leader.
“The bar was getting higher,” she says. “Family offices were evolving and expectations were increasing to keep up with technology demands and the need for greater scalability.”
Seeking a firm with national reach, a sophisticated platform and a compatible culture, Threshold reached out to New York-based Tiedemann Advisors and the two RIAs merged in 2017.
Bauer stayed on as a managing director heading Tiedemann’s Pacific Northwest division, earning the praise of CEO Michael Tiedemann for her “positive energy” and ability to “relate to her clients across generations.”
Tiedemann was hardly alone in noticing Bauer’s accomplishments. Following a nationwide search last year for a new CEO to lead Laird Norton, the Seattle-based firm recruited Bauer to take the helm in April 2020 — just as the coronavirus pandemic was shutting the country down.
Bauer quickly expanded the firm’s technology resources and initiated an education campaign that included both market reports and briefings from infectious disease experts.
The pandemic also proved to be a proving ground for workplace changes that impacted women, in particular, Bauer says.
“Covid taught us a lot,” she asserts. “We saw women take the brunt of the responsibility and we learned how to support mothers and create flexibility that lays the groundwork for the workplace of the future.”
'We're in a very personal business.'
Bauer has made diversity, equity and inclusion a top priority, along with sustainable investing, for Laird. She hired a consultant to help the firm assess where it stands on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), including hiring and culture internally and promoting racial and gender equity in the community.
Balancing the roles of being a mother and a professional in the corporate world is a challenge Bauer is familiar with, having “really struggled” with it herself. “It can be a little exhausting being the only woman in the room,” she says. “I had to grow to feel confident that I had a voice, that I mattered.”
Looking ahead, Bauer says it’s critical that the financial advisory business “creates space for other voices.” As for Laird Norton, Bauer didn’t waste any time expanding the firm’s footprint. Last December, eight months after arriving at the company, she helped engineer a merger with Filament, a local rival, creating a $7 billion regional powerhouse in the UHNW advisory market.
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About Charles Paikert
Charles Paikert has been writing about the financial advisory industry since 2004. Paikert has been an editor for Investment News and Financial Planning and currently contributes to Family Wealth Report, RIABiz and Barron’s. He has also written about the industry for The New York Times and Reuters and has moderated panels at numerous industry conferences, including Schwab IMPACT and Invest. Paikert is the co-author of Madness: The Ten Most Memorable NCAA Basketball Finals.