When it comes to asset management, Fleet Financial Group has been on an acquisition tear. And it may not be done yet.
Since last December the Boston banking company has shelled out more than $2 billion to buy additional distribution and investment product origination capabilities.
The investment helped Fleet buy Quick & Reilly, the Palm Beach, Fla.- based discount broker-dealer, at a price of $1.6 billion. It also spent $600 million for Columbia Asset Management, a Portland, Ore., fund company.
But Fleet is not quite ready to put away its wallet, said Gunnar S. Overstrom Jr., vice chairman and head of the bank's investment group.
"We do have some product gaps," he said.
Fleet is now on the prowl for an international investment product capability, Mr. Overstrom said. It is considering either acquiring an internationally focused money management firm outright or purchasing a 30% to 50% stake in such an institution, he said.
Like other investment managers, Fleet does not want to be left behind as the mutual fund industry develops overseas. Many banks, including Mellon Bank Corp. and State Street Corp., have recently formed alliances with foreign firms to capitalize on the shift in investment culture outside the United States. And large fund companies like Fidelity Investments have already set up shop abroad.
"Europe, Asia, South America are about 10 years behind us in terms of what's going on in the pension (fund), defined benefit business," said Mr. Overstrom."So, there's an enormous opportunity."
The bank has a relationship with a British firm, Oechsle International Partners, which acts as subadviser to international funds in the bank's proprietary Galaxy Fund family.
"They do a great job for us, we share the revenues. So they make money, we make money," said Mr. Overstrom.
But the bank wants something more and is exploring a couple of options.
One possible solution is to build an international capability internally, Mr. Overstrom said. It is more likely, however, that Fleet would look to partner with a domestic firm that has global flair.
Indeed, Fleet is talking to a U.S. investment management company with an international focus, Mr. Overstrom said.
"It's not an impactful deal financially, but it's an impactful deal to fill out our product line," he said. He declined to be more specific, but said the bank may be ready to make an announcement within the next couple of months.
While Fleet's strategy for 1998 is to gain international product for domestic distribution, next year the bank wants to explore the possibility of on-the-ground money management and distribution capabilities abroad. An overseas move, however, could happen sooner if the right opportunity came along, said Mr. Overstrom.
If Fleet buys, it would likely buy small, speculated industry observers.
Marvin & Palmer Associates, a global equity management boutique in Wilmington, Del., might be a good fit, said Burton J. Greenwald, a Philadelphia mutual fund analyst. The firm has roughly $3.4 billion of assets under management.
However, LGT Asset Management, which recently agreed to sell to Amvescap PLC and was reportedly being eyed by a number of banks, would likely have been too big for Fleet, said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund analyst based in East Greenwich R.I.
It is estimated that LGT, which owns the San Francisco-based GT Global Inc., an internationally focused asset manager, has $60 billion of assets under management.
Though Fleet is clearly not quite finished building its investment group, Mr. Overstrom emphasized that the "sense of urgency" evident in Fleet's investment strategy as far back as 1995 has abated. "We have quite a scale today."
Factoring in the Quick & Reilly and Columbia acquisitions, Fleet had $80.6 billion of assets under management at Dec. 31, 1997. That nudges Fleet toward a goal expounded last summer, when a bank official said it was Fleet's aim to grow to $100 billion of assets under management over a five- year period.
The Columbia deal alone netted the bank $21.2 billion in retail and institutional assets, while Quick & Reilly brought $4 billion to the equation.
Now, part of Mr. Overstrom's strategy is to start working with some of the new pieces of the business. "We've spent a couple of billion dollars here. It's important in 1998 to take advantage of the opportunities we generated for ourselves in 1997," he said.
The addition of Quick & Reilly and Columbia brings the number of business units within Fleet's Investment Group to nine, all of which report to Mr. Overstrom. Both units are being operated as wholly owned subsidiaries of the bank.
Fleet has said that it will likely leave the Columbia brand-name untouched. However, the bank is conducting market research into how Quick & Reilly customers would respond to a change in the brand name to incorporate the Fleet identity.
Meanwhile, the bank recently merged its Fleet Brokerage unit under the Quick umbrella and is poised to do the same with its 245-person investment advisory units.