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March 2008
A Better Way
By Ellison Clary

    Career people often think: “There must be a better way of doing business.”That’s what three executives from Bank of America’s private bank were thinking when they opened the Charlotte office of Stanford Group Company in July 2006. Since then, David Morgan, Audrey Truman and Hunter Widener have lived their dream of providing high-net-worth individuals as well as organizations and businesses with financial advice and services—and doing it on a more personal basis to which they had long aspired.

     Their SouthPark office, under the management of native Charlottean Eddie Rollins, opened with seven employees. Now it boasts 23 professionals, including new hires who migrated to Stanford from other area financial services firms.

     As executive director for the Carolinas, Rollins also manages the Stanford Greensboro office that has a dozen associates. Stanford Group Company is a member of the Stanford Financial Group, a privately held, wholly owned global group of financial services companies that traces its roots to Lodis B. Stanford. He started Stanford Insurance Company in 1932, in the depth of The Great Depression, in the central Texas town of Mexia.

 

The Stanford Difference

     Today, the Stanford Financial Group of companies has $43 billion in assets under management or advisement and has expanded into a global network of financial services companies with more than 50 offices in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. Its chief executive and chairman is a Texan who’s been appointed Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of the Nation by Antiqua and Barbuda. Hence, he is known as Sir Allen Stanford.

     Morgan muses, “It’s interesting to hear somebody with a good Texas accent addressed as ‘Sir.’” Then the 26-year veteran of private banking quickly lists more serious attributes of Stanford Financial Group that he likes.

At Stanford, he can concentrate on client investment needs without worrying about other components of a banking relationship, as can be the case with other firms. He likes the track record the family-run company has established for product consistency and diversification.

     “The Stanford Investment Model (SIM) and Stanford Allocation Strategies (SAS) are a more global approach and seek a targeted absolute rate of return, using broad global diversification and employing non proprietary, registered and/or unregistered products to achieve the client objective. It is a more European-style management of absolute returns as opposed to a focus solely on a single benchmark such as the S&P 500,” Morgan explains.

     Widener, with 13 years in private banking, relishes the lack of pressure. “We don’t want to be all things to all people,” he says. “We provide the best service to high-net-worth clients in a low-volume environment.” He feels Stanford’s status as a private company lowers pressure. “Every other firm rolls up to a public company somewhere, and eventually they feel the quarterly pressure to perform,” he says.

     Widener got his fellow associates interested in Stanford after he heard that a group of former Wachovia bankers established a Stanford presence in Atlanta. “The way we’re doing business at Stanford, it’s more focused on the investment management, the estate and tax planning and risk management. We’re not spending time on some of the more retail components to a banking relationship.”

     Truman, who had 14 years at Bank of America, was only too happy to follow Widener and Morgan into the new venture, she says, because she, too, saw a chance to focus rather than scurry between duties related to lending, deposits and credit cards.

Widener also likes the autonomy Stanford allows. “We don’t have someone somewhere else telling us how to run our business,” he says. “They give us parameters but they trust us to make the right decisions. We have the ability to really build a brand.”

     That autonomy along with a few broad guidelines, applies to the investments the local office makes in the community, the trio says. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis is Stanford’s global charity of choice and the company looks to support St. Jude initiatives in the markets in which it does business. It also is strong on backing for the arts and sports, but seeks local advice on where those dollars should go.

     So it’s not surprising that on the list of regional organizations the Charlotte Stanford office supports are such names as The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and the Broadway Lights Series at the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

     The Arts & Science Council also benefits, and President and Chief Executive Lee Keesler praises Stanford support for solid financial management among arts organizations.

     “The Stanford Financial Excellence in the Arts Award, now in its second year, recognizes cultural organizations that demonstrate exemplary financial management,” Keesler says. “Long-term financial sustainability of the cultural sector is an important ASC priority and the generosity of the Stanford Group allows us to reward excellence in this area.”

     Then there are the Championships at the Palisades that brings top-name champion tennis luminaries such as Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras to the Queen City each fall.

     Throughout its footprint, Stanford supports golf, sailing, polo, tennis and, in appropriate parts of the world, cricket. In fact, it was his passion for reviving cricket in the West Indies that inspired Sir Allen Stanford to develop the Stanford 20/20 Cricket tournament, a month-long West Indies tournament held in Antigua.

     “We have chosen to align the Stanford brand with a handful of sports that we know fit with our client demographics,” says Morgan. For a high-net-worth individual, he adds, that stimulates more business than a print advertisement.

 

Flexibility a Distinguishing Mark

     The Charlotte office likes to see $1 million in liquidity for high-net-worth individuals, but Widener is quick to point out that Stanford allows much flexibility. He and his associates often work with a person who has low liquidity but high net worth.

     “That differentiates us from banks or anybody else,” Widener says. “We don’t have the segmentation where, if you have this amount of assets you get this level of service. Stanford lets us decide what the right relationship is.”

     For institutions and emerging growth companies, Stanford in Charlotte follows the Stanford Financial Group offering line. The trio touts Stanford’s global expertise in asset allocation strategies, investment advisory services, equity research, policy research, international private banking and trust administration, commercial banking, investment banking, merchant banking, institutional sales and trading, real estate investment and insurance.

     Morgan, Truman and Widener are close-mouthed about numbers, whether related to clients or business volume. They maintain they are steadily growing their client rolls in the face of stiff competition.

     “We’re in the same city with two of the top five banks in the country,” Widener explains matter-of-factly. “But it’s a battle we’re winning.”

     The trio makes it a point to serve on boards for well-thought-of organizations, but not so much for business development, they say, as for devotion to plain old civic duty. Word of mouth is perhaps the strongest business stimulus, Widener says. That is particularly true now that people in these parts have begun to learn more about the company, he adds, and have largely stopped asking, “Stanford who?”

     Morgan likes to tell the story of a Charlotte client who benefited from Stanford’s flexibility. He took several million dollars out of the client’s equity portfolio, he says, and diversified it further to offer a less-risky path to asset growth. The result for the client who has been associated with Morgan for more than 10 years is that he was largely insulated from the recent stock market downturn.

    “This client has an eight-figure net worth,” Morgan smiles. “He was absolutely thrilled.” Clients often praise the insight provided by the Stanford Policy Research Group, Morgan says. That group includes such respected experts as Lyle Gramley who specializes in monetary policy.

 

Stanford in Charlotte

     The trio sees controlled growth for Stanford in Charlotte. “We don’t want to get to the point where we’ve got more clients than we can service the way they want to be serviced,” says Truman. “That’s a commitment to ourselves and to our clients—that we want to maintain reasonable ratios of client-to-advisor.”

     Morgan hopes that in five years the assets the Charlotte office manages will have grown “exponentially.” But he agrees with Widener and Truman that the office likely won’t add many more professionals, preferring to grow client rolls judiciously.

     As he gazes out an eighth floor conference room window at a panoramic view of Center City, Morgan vows the Charlotte office will remain “a focused, smaller, nimble organization that can deliver a big punch for our clients.”

     Morgan paraphrases a thought voiced by Sir Allen Stanford in a gathering at the company’s European headquarters in Zurich. The gist is that the firm should never grow as large as to lose its soul. It is, Morgan says, the most reassuring thought he could hear from his leader.

     That sounds right coming from a person who professes he was ready to leave private banking to teach history in high school for maybe $30,000 a year. It’s an illustration of how much job satisfaction he had lost.

     Hooking on with Stanford wasn’t about money, Morgan says. He calls other Stanford professionals he meets “kindred souls” because they share his vision for how to serve clients.

     “If I put a percentage on the amount of time each day that my team and I spend on the clients, it’s probably 85 to 90 percent, and that’s something that’s rather unique in this business,” Morgan says. The result these days is that he’s far better at preventing financial surprises for his clients and keeps them much happier.

     For her part, Truman professes to have experienced a sea change in lifestyle since affiliating with Stanford. She likes knowing she has the ability to serve her clients the way she wants to, she says, and that helps her focus on her family when she gets home.

     “It’s fun again,” she says with conviction.

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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