Boatmen's Trust Co. is sizing up some new ways to deliver services to its wealthy clientele.
The trust institution, a subsidiary of Boatmen's Bancshares, recently hired a shoe executive to lead a new unit to serve the rich. And it's in the midst of launching a limited partnership fund that could invest in distressed securities.
Distressed securities? Shoe executive? Boatmen's?
Boatmen's has apparently decided it's time to brush up its stodgy reputation and work on adding pizzazz.
It has hired John B. Biggs Jr. - fresh from a stint as head of a $500 million-revenue division of Brown Shoe Group Inc., a maker of women's shoes - to head its wealth management division.
A former member of Boatmen's board, Mr. Biggs had never worked for a bank before he arrived to lead the new division, which was carved out of $5 billion in assets from clients with at least $10 million in accounts.
Mr. Biggs brings to Boatmen's what many say has been lacking in banking: sales and marketing savvy and the outsider's je ne sais quoi.
"It's one of the best signs of leadership I've seen in the industry," said David Ross Palmer, a private banking and trust consultant. The move brings "some innovative marketing in an area of the industry that badly needs it."
Mr. Biggs is a familiar face in social and business circles in St. Louis, most recently having chaired that city's three-day July 4 fiesta.
And Mr. Biggs, who says he finds lots of similarities between the shoe industry and the financial services industry, has already tackled his new bank job in style.
American Banker caught up with Mr. Biggs and Joseph A. Pesnell, the investment guru of the new unit, at the posh Westbury Hotel in Manhattan, where the two were staying on their reconnaissance trip.
Mr. Biggs and Mr. Pesnell, a 23-year Boatmen's veteran, were in New York interviewing investment managers for the limited partnership fund Boatmen's hopes to launch this summer.
The fund, called Multi-Strategy Alternative Fund I, will have Boatman's as a general partner and potential clients as limited partners.
Outside, or underlying managers, will be called in to complement Boatmen's traditional investment style with alternative investments like hedged funds and distressed securities in an effort to diversify portfolios and bring different investment hands into the process.
"This is the first time in the history of the trust company that we have been willing to look outside" for fund management, Mr. Pesnell said.
Traditionally, banks have not outsourced investment management for wealthy clients. That practice is slowly starting to change, however, in part because of a law that is slowly being adopted in several states - the prudent investor rule, which urges fiduciaries to seek experienced investment advice and even go outside, if necessary.
Mr. Biggs and Mr. Pesnell, have also tapped the Wellesley Group, a Waltham, Mass.-based consulting group specializing in the high-net-worth segment, for advice on how to corner this competitive market.
"Competition has eroded what traditionally has been the strength of banks," said Mr. Biggs. Now more than ever, he added, there is an urgency to act on very favorable demographics for seekers of wealthy clients.
"The marketplace doesn't wait for us," Mr. Biggs said, adding that Boatmen's intends to take advantage of this momentum. "This is big news for a trust company."