At nearly $30 billion in annual revenue, Zurich-based UBS Group AG is one of the largest wealth management firms in the world. So for a financial industry executive, getting handed the keys to one of its branch offices is a big deal.
For Theresa Bursey, UBS’s recently appointed St. Petersburg branch manager, it’s also a historic occasion: She’s the first woman to run the firm’s St. Pete office, which has about 45 employees. And at 37, she might be the youngest too — but don’t equate with that with inexperience.
Bursey, a New Jersey native, has been with UBS for 15 years. She joined the company after she finished her undergraduate degree in business administration from Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. She spent the bulk of her career in Manhattan, working for UBS Asset Management before transitioning to UBS Investment Bank. In 2016 she was named assistant Florida Gulf Coast market head, based in Tampa.
One person not surprised by Bursey’s rapid ascent within the organization is UBS Florida Market Head Greg Kadet. “She’s got fire in the belly,” he says. “She’s very determined and confident but also humble and open to feedback, learning and trying new things.”
Kadet describes Bursey’s confidence and energy as her “jet fuel,” but he adds that in the three years they’ve worked together, she’s evolved from a “Let’s get it done”-type of executive to being more “strategic and thoughtful.”
Bursey’s rise as a leader has not gone unnoticed, even outside the organization. For example, she’ll be a featured speaker at the popular Florida Women’s Conference in Tampa in November, where she says she’ll discuss “women taking a seat at the financial table and increasing their financial confidence.”
The Business Observer recently spoke with Bursey about her career track and leadership and management skills.
Q. Your educational background is in marketing and management, not finance. Why did you think UBS would be a good fit for you?
A. My father-in-law was an executive with Paine Webber. He turned me on to the business and the opportunities that were available, and I did my best to just try to take it in and see if it was for me. When I entered the business, it was at a point where it was transitioning from a brokerage style, where people bought individual stocks and bonds, to more managed money, where it was a fee for the solution. And it was a pretty critical time for advisers because they were entering into the unknown. For me to be a part of that was what drove my fire and passion — I was going to be part of a change that was happening in the industry.
Q. Having grown up within UBS, did you look to role models in the organization to help hone your leadership skills, or do you consider yourself more of a natural leader?
A. A little bit of both. I do consider myself a natural leader. I think if you spoke to people along the way that I worked for and who knew me in high school and college, one thing that they always said is, "We know you're going to do great things." I was a competitive dancer growing up. So confidence, being part of a team and leadership were always ingrained in who I was. But 100%, I have had multiple role models that I've looked up to in UBS. I would say probably five or six, and the number keeps growing. There are always people whom you look to, and you say, "I want to be that person." And you try to pull out qualities that are true to who you are, and then you ultimately develop your voice and who you are in your own words.
Q. What are your greatest strengths as a leader?
A. Wanting to see the good in everyone is where I start. I'm a glass-half-full woman. Being a really good listener and then being thoughtful about an approach going forward is what makes me unique. One other thing that Greg and I had talked about when I started working with him was my ability to go with my gut and make decisions and not be worried about whether there are negative consequences that would come with it. That’s one thing that’s important for leaders, and it can hold people back if they don't have a strong core feeling about something and are afraid to go for it.
So mistakes and failures don’t bother you?
We're all going to make mistakes. We're all going do things and say things that might not be the right thing. As long as we learn from it, it's fine. But I encourage the next generation, the people that I mentor and work with, to be true to themselves and don’t be afraid to make a bold decision.
Q. You’ve come quite far in your career at your age, but that also means high expectations. What leadership and management skills do you need to work on to continue your rise within UBS?
A. One thing I continue to work on, and I've gotten a lot better at, is listening to understand as opposed to listening to take action. People don't always want you to take action. As a young leader, you always feel like you need to prove yourself, but proving yourself is getting the promotion. Understanding and knowing that people need somebody to listen is super important. And because I do have a passionate, strong personality and core values, I need to continue to be open to other people's perspectives. It’s something that I'm always working on. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I have the self-control to do that because it helps me make better decisions.
Q. What has been the most significant leadership test of your career to date?
A. When I made the transition to the UBS Investment Bank. I had been part of such a dynamic group at the asset management company, but I knew it was time for a change. So I made one of those bold decisions, going to the private bank. And I'll be honest. I thought: "I'm done. My career is over." I've gone into this black hole; nobody knows I'm here. I had to work so hard to maintain my relationships and my network. It was like a separate job for me because I felt like I was in a part of the organization that just wasn’t as much of a focus.
Q. What did you learn from that experience?
I decided I didn't want to be a road warrior anymore. I had my first child when I was working at the private bank, in Manhattan, and I was on the plane every week, leaving my family. I said, ‘OK, how do I take this skill set that I’ve developed from all my previous roles and utilize that?' And I decided I wanted to be a field leader. So I started to explore different positions and got a job as the assistant market head in Florham Park, N.J.
“One thing that I continue to work on, and I've gotten a lot better at, is listening to understand as opposed to listening to take action. People don't always want you to take action.” Theresa Bursey, UBS St. Petersburg
Q. After making that transition and getting back to your home state, why did you uproot yourself and come to Florida?
My husband and I had always seen ourselves living in Florida. But I met with my current manager at the time because I was nervous about moving to Florida for a position that I already had in New Jersey. And he told me, "You need to leave work right now, and you need to go home and talk about it with your husband." And then he says, "I'm going to tell you one thing: The biggest mistake that people make is that they sit on the bench too long because when somebody calls you and offers you something, take it. That’s how you make gains in your career, and pushing yourself outside of the comfort zone always yields awesome results — and you can do it." And he gave me the confidence. … It was scary, and we left all of our friends and family behind, but no regrets.