Bankers Aweigh

For Boston’s burgeoning private banks, client service means more than giving Junior a lollipop. (A Caribbean fishing trip is more like it.)

It’s no secret that Boston is a moneyed town, with recent studies reporting that just about one in 20 families is worth a million dollars or more. What’s less well known, though, is how this local abundance of high rollers is fast attracting a new species of manager to handle their money and indulge their every whim. Private banks catering to the rich are steadily hanging shingles in Boston, pulling out all the stops for a chance to work with the city’s multimillion-dollar babies.

“You’ve got the financial services industry, private equity, hedge funds, and the whole biotech space,” says Marc White, managing director of JPMorgan’s private bank division in Boston. “There’s a significant increase in both wealth and competition.” In March, Merrill Lynch opened a local private banking branch, joining fellow heavies Bank of New York Mellon, which recently relocated its private banking division here, and Boston Private Financial Holdings. Also getting in on the act are wealth-management boutiques like Wilmington Trust, which in July bought Boston-based Bingham Legg Advisers as part of its growth strategy.

Because private banks aren’t regulated the way conventional banks are, it’s difficult to determine exactly how many are now in the city. But the cutthroat fight for every million means plenty of pampering for Boston’s wealthy, as banks hustle to provide the kind of concierge touches they love. “Someone may like NASCAR, the next might like French wine, the third one, horse racing,” says Dave Floreen of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. “The really good client manager is going to be very focused.”

In other words, box seats at Sox games won’t cut it. Private banks are loath to divulge their tricks to the average nine-to-fiver, but there are rumors of fishing trips to the Caribbean, family retreats in Vegas, and even the management of silver-spoon kids’ allowances. One retired executive chose the firm that promised him a golf vacation. “We played Butler in Chicago,” says the exec’s friend Allen Michel, an economics professor at Boston University. “It’s almost impossible to play there.”

Most private firms also offer exclusive seminars on how to make more money, and JPMorgan goes so far as to run biannual retreats for clients’ children, coaching them on ways to preserve the family fortune. Pack your Louis Vuitton: The next gathering is in November, in Prague.