There is oatmeal everywhere, and Eric Gonzales is in the thick of it. A pink streak crosses the evening sky, and a half-moon appears above the river as a culturally diverse crowd of volunteers gather in an empty Napa Riverfront restaurant space. They are there to create vitamin-fortified ‘Instant Oatmeal’ food packets for the local Food Bank. Behind the counter with a microphone in hand and oozing charisma, Eric Gonzales leads the local adults, teenagers, and children enthusiastically through the work. He’s been leading the charge for five years running, and he’s clearly enjoying himself. As a live DJ plays, the hair netted enlistees are positioned at their various fulfillment stations swaying to the music, laughing, and chatting. The room fills with growing energy. Eric is the founder of ‘Napa’s Riverfront Hunger Project’ and this event. They work with the Harvest Pack organization and give back to the Community Action of Napa Valley’s local Food Bank, where Eric serves on the board. It’s hard to believe that by the end of the evening, over 20,000 of these fortified oatmeal meals will be created, boxed and ready to be disseminated to those that need them in Napa County. Quite a feat for one project, but Eric is about a lot more than oatmeal. The pot he stands stirring most of the time is financial.
When asked what his idea of wealth is, Eric Gonzales states without hesitation, “Family and Health.” This statement may not seem strange until you consider he is the Sr. Vice President of The Gonzales Group and Merrill Lynch Napa’s Sr. Resident Director.
What’s Eric’s secret sauce? It may well come from something simple his mother said over and over when he was a young man.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” says Gonzales.
This humanistic approach is at the very heart of The Gonzales Group, and the culture of success he has created around it.
In practical terms, it means Eric and his team are never satisfied with just looking at investments and returns. They challenge their clients to think longer-term and more in-depth about what they want to do with their wealth. Is it long term stability and peace of mind that they seek? Or are they hoping to inspire their next generation on a grander, more purposeful path? Is the goal to further their family’s legacy or perhaps use their wealth toward fulfilling philanthropic concerns?
Eric says, “The goal is to move beyond the numbers and help them find their purpose, their Why.” When they do, they discover that their business needs and their individual needs share common values; family is always in the center.
Finding this shared goal requires connecting with clients and their families, talking to them, being amongst them in the community, and slowly building trust and rapport. For him, “The magic is when you connect with their goals and when the client is not solely focused on performance, that’s when the relationship changes.”
For Eric, these ideas did not form overnight. They began in childhood and were shaped by his upbringing. He is the son of Filipino immigrants. His mother was a hard-working, savvy businesswoman who bought and rented homes in the government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program. Eric’s father was a Vietnam Veteran and a Mare Island Blue-collar worker. Their work ethic was strong, and Eric and his brother would join their father in helping to fix up the proper- ties on which his mother was working. When Eric was a young teen, his grand- father introduced him to investing in the stock market. He received a scholarship grant for a few shares, which led to his fascination with stocks and bonds. He became captivated watching his shares rise in value and realized that if this could happen without him having to be present, perhaps he could make an investment that would pay off without having to repair a bathroom cistern in between. He took investment courses while at UC Davis and has now been in the wealth management business for over 20 years.
Eric instinctively knew and realized early in his career that he wanted to be himself by attracting and forming deeper quality relationships through community immersion. When consider- ing becoming a partner of The Gonzales Group, Eric doesn’t look at the top of each resume; he goes straight to the bottom to the ‘Other Interests’ section. Once there, he immediately digs into who the applicant supports and what it means for them to do so. Eric’s vision is to find people who have the same kind of passion for philanthropy that he has. He mentors his new people on ways to structure their giving time and how to make the strongest impact among one or more of their chosen non-profit groups. Today, The Gonzales Group associates with more than twenty charitable groups and members of the team currently serve on the boards of ten local charities such as: Francis Abella- ‘If Given A Chance’, James Zambrano- ‘Habitat For Humanity’, Oscar Robles- ‘Community Health Initiative’ and ‘Hispanic Organization for Leadership & Advancement’, Pina Carino- ‘Women for Winesense’, Renee McLeod- ‘Napa Valley College Foundation’ and Jeri Arnold- ‘Calistoga Community Chest’. Eric is also the Chair for ‘Justin Siena Parent’s Association’ and has served on the board for ‘Nelda Mundy Elementary’ for over a decade.
The next pillar of what Eric believes makes The Gonzales Group successful is its diversity. Eric experienced his diversity revelation years ago when he looked around and decided he wanted his office to reflect the cultural diffusion of his community. He believed The Gonzales Group should look and sound like the people they work and represent the places they live. This approach has resulted in The Gonzales Group and Eric as its manager, becoming a ‘Global Diversity and Inclusion Manager Award Winner’ in 2018 and 2019.” Eric does not follow a formula or set protocols in his staffing; he considers himself a diversity opportunist. He looks for professional talent first, then their passion for giving back.
If there is cultural diversity there as well, he has triangulated the secret sauce that infuses his group with energy and momentum.
Connected to diversity is his realization that a wealth adviser can no longer act as a GP, curing all their client aches and ailments single-handedly. There are times when a specialist is needed. The Gonzales Group ensures each of their clients has a trusted point of contact as well as access to other experts from within their group and other specialty areas to advise the best course of action for each individual portfolio. Eric has the people, the talent, and a group that follows a higher calling working for the collective interests of their clients and the community with the full breadth of resources of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America at their fingertips. This access is why, at one relatively small local office, they can explore a multiplicity of strategies to best fit their client’s needs.
Meanwhile, back on the riverfront, it’s dark outside, and the volunteers are drifting away. Some shout “See you next year” as they disappear from their posts. The last packages of oatmeal get put away, and the families are turning hand in hand to return home. Everyone seems tired but happy. Eric finally puts down the microphone, and his team starts on the clean-up. The 20,000 or so oatmeal packages are all individually stamped ‘Best By: Nov 6, 2020.’ Time dictates that they’ll all be back to do it again in 2020. At this proud moment of community fulfillment, one of Eric’s personal and passionately repeated phrases could be meaningfully applied, and not just to those who have wealth to manage. “We live through the families we serve.”
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Article By: Colin MacPhail // Photos By: Lowell Downey – Art & Clarity