When Wells Fargo Co wanted to woo a big commercial banking client to its wealth management division, the company didn't take the typical wine-and-dine approach.
Instead, it did some history homework.
Wells had its chief historian, Andy Anderson, and his team in the company's seven-person family history center delve into the genealogy of the client - a multi-generational family that had a successful commercial real estate business.
Over a couple of months, they created a 200-document archive that included a photo of several of the family's ancestors working in a Cornwall, England, tin mine when they were just children.
The project, particularly the photo, helped Wells convey to the family that it cared about getting to know them and their goals, Anderson said. One of the mothers in the family was shocked when she noticed that the people in the photo were about the same age as her well-off kids.
"She sat those children right down and talked to them about what that meant, what those kids did so her kids could have a good life," Anderson said.
The experience deepened Wells' relationship with the family, which became a wealth management client.
Wells credits the family history center with helping the company attract about $4 billion in client assets last year.
Other firms that target ultra-rich investors have also increasingly been tapping into personal history projects as a way to attract clients. They say it's a meaningful way to bond with clients and their offspring, often leading families to entrust more of their money with the firm.
Ascent Private Capital Management, the ultra-high-net-worth division of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank Wealth Management, often uses personal history presentations as a way to kick off family retreats it sponsors for its clients.
Ascent hires historians to create what are, essentially, personalized museum exhibits with photographs, newspaper clippings and even ship logs. The historians also work with older family members to present stories to the larger group.
The lessons can be the spark needed to get families to talk about their financial and philanthropic goals, a purpose of the retreat, said Scott Winget, head of Ascent's Wealth Impact Planning practice.
"They begin to realize they have a legacy" behind them, "and they start to imagine what their legacy might look like to future generations," he said.
Winget declined to discuss the history initiative's cost.
But there's no need to add a chief historian to a firm's staff to get more business. For a fee, you can contract the work out. The Association of Personal Historians' website houses a database of experts who specialize in such research.
To be sure, extensive histories are a big investment. When someone hires Judith Kolva, a personal historian and chief executive of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Memoir Shoppe, to write a personal history, she typically spends at least a year on the project, traveling extensively to conduct in-person interviews and working with the family on a narrative along the way. The book she creates costs between $30,000 to $150,000.
There are also less expensive, scaled-down ways to do family history projects.
You can invite a personal historian to conduct a workshop for your clients. For instance, for about $300 an hour, Kolva said she can lead a session training people on how to compile old family recipes into a cookbook.
Other ideas to consider: If a client has a family member in hospice, a personal historian can conduct an end-of-life interview with the sick relative.
Also, historians can help create a so-called ethical will, in which parents can describe the values they want to pass on to their kids.
Expect to spend several hundred dollars or more on these and other options, depending on the level of detail you want for a client.
David O'Neil, a personal historian and founder of Newton, Massachusetts-based Story Trust, said he conducts hour-long oral histories for about $500, but highly edited narratives that last several hours can cost about $2,000.
If nothing else, pull together a list of personal historians that you can offer to clients on referral. The service can be particularly useful for those who are dealing with friction that can come with an intergenerational wealth transfer.
Personal histories give families safe starting territory in inheritance discussions, Michael Babikian, executive vice president of Transamerica Life Insurance Co.
"It really starts that dialogue that is essential when it comes to wealth transfer," said Babikian, who often helps advisers and their clients work through wealth transfer issues.
(Reporting By Jennifer Hoyt Cummings; editing by Jennifer Merritt, Andre Grenon and Jeffrey Benkoe; Twitter @jenhoytcummings)