HONOLULU - During the 11 years that he regulated financial companies in Hawaii, Robert A. Alm said he preached over and over again that consumer protection just makes good business sense.
Now, two years after stepping down as a director of the state's Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, he's getting a chance to prove his point.
Mr. Alm has taken a job as a senior vice president of First Hawaiian Bank - the state's second-largest bank - overseeing a new retail brokerage, a new mutual fund family, and an established personal trust business.
By assuming these duties just as banks and brokers are reeling from last year's tough markets, he risks getting into the firing line of investors disappointed about returns.
"It's been tough, getting into these products just as the markets got rough," he acknowledged. "But we're learning from the ups and downs."
To make sure the ups and downs don't unduly hurt his customers, Mr. Alm said he has instituted a series of rigorous controls.
For example, he said he has personally been making sure that the bank's 15 investment product sales representatives sell only investments that are suitable for their customers.
Not only is every transaction reviewed, but the sales representatives' compensation is linked to the results of follow-up calls that outside evaluators make to the reps' customers.
Furthermore, Mr. Alm said the bank is doing its level best to be an unbiased broker of advice, one that doesn't push proprietary investment products over other investment products simply to make more money.
To that end, two years ago, First Hawaiian stopped employing an outside brokerage firm, GNA Corp., to run its branch-based retail brokerage. The reason? Bank officials were uncomfortable about GNA selling its own annuities to bank customers, Mr. Alm said.
"Our focus is on retaining that long-term relationship with our customers, and we try very hard not to jeopardize that," Mr. Alm said.
But First Hawaiian also isn't being shy about the business. For example, it hired Mr. Alm to manage the retail brokerage that GNA had been running.
Additionally, at the beginning of the year it launched its own proprietary mutual fund family - the Bishop Funds - which the bank's own brokers are selling.
This latter move pits First Hawaiian against some stiff competition, including Bank of Hawaii, the state's largest institution, which has an established mutual fund family.
A mild mannered 43-year-old, Mr. Alm arrived to a recent interview dressed, like he is most days, in a flowered Hawaiian shirt and casual slacks. His office overlooks Honolulu Harbor - the hub of commercial activity for the state.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Mr. Alm said his first job was at a gas station in Honolulu, "back in the days when we still checked the tires and cleaned windshields."
He aims to recreate some of the eager-beaver attitude he had as a gas station attendant among his brokers.
"We want our reps to become part of the community," Mr. Alm said. "If a branch is having a pot-luck dinner, then I want that rep to be the first one to bring the potato salad."