While many financial advisers continue to seek either the comforts of a megafirm or the independence of a registered investment advisory group, Adam Sherman, David Fleisher and their team have found a cozy home in the community banking channel.
For the past 11 years they have cobbled together a strong book of business from within a community bank, navigated through a merger, become independent and then emerged right where they started, selling wealth management services from inside the friendly confines of a small bank.
"Community banks are really a unique environment," said Sherman, the chief executive of Firstrust Financial Resources, a unit of Firstrust Bank in Conshohocken, Pa. "The clientele has a strong, lasting, trusting relationship with the bank. The larger banks are less customer-oriented and more transaction-oriented. Community banks have been able to maintain that mom-and-pop feel."
In 1999, Sherman and Fleisher worked for Axa Advisors in Philadelphia when the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was enacted and allowed commercial banks to offer investment products and services. Sherman, who has worked in the financial industry for 25 years, said he saw this as an opportunity to develop a wealth management firm with a community bank.
That year he and his team opened Progress Financial Resources with Progress Bank in Blue Bell, Pa., and over the next four years developed a wealth management unit that offered a suite of investment services, including annuities, mutual funds, stocks, bonds and life insurance. It grew to 25 registered reps with a $500 million of assets under management before Fleet Financial Group bought the bank and the wealth manager in 2004.
Later that year Bank of America Corp. bought Fleet. Fleisher, Firstrust's president, said he and the rest of the executive team decided to depart because of B of A's "bureaucratic nature" and the "multiple layers" of employees between them and clients. So in 2004, Sherman, Fleisher and Andrew McIlhenny bought the wealth manager from B of A, and it became an independent firm for two years.
In 2006 Sherman, Fleisher and McIlhenny partnered with the $2.5 billion-asset Firstrust Bank, which has 25 branches, all in the Philadelphia market. It opened Firstrust Financial Resources with $450 million of assets under management, and despite difficult economic conditions, by the end of 2009 it had $600 million under management.
Firstrust Financial Resources has 17 full-time advisers and six licensed bankers. It plans to add six advisers in the next 12 to 18 months and expects to have $1 billion of assets under management within the next two years.
"We are going to look at a lot of different avenues for growth," Sherman said. "We are going to consider growth through acquisition and by increasing the number of advisers that we have on the street. We are looking for ancillary business lines to acquire, and we are looking to see whether we should be manufacturing our own investment advice rather than using just an open architecture approach."
Sherman said the company is interested in buying a money manager within a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia. Firstrust is a well-capitalized, privately owned bank that can make an acquisition if the right opportunity comes along, he said. "Firstrust is in a position to take advantage of the weaker players that are out there."
"We feel that 2009 in our industry was the ultimate survival of the fittest, and 2010, in our opinion, is a time for growth," Sherman said. "People that have the balance sheets to grow their wealth businesses are the ones that will succeed going forward. We think we are going to be one of the winners. We are on the prowl for the right opportunities."
Analysts said a lack of economies of scale makes it difficult for most community banks to compete on price with larger financial companies. "It all comes down to the bottom line," said Geoffrey Bobroff of Bobroff Consulting in East Greenwich, R.I.
Burton Greenwald of BJ Greenwald Associates in Philadelphia said Firstrust is not a big player in the Philadelphia region, but if it can attract top producers it should be able to build assets under management. "They won't compete with PNC or Mellon, but they can build a tidy business and operate as a strong open architecture wealth manager," he said.