Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. is banking on its wholesalers — and an emphasis on fee-based distribution channels — to carry its mutual fund and 529 college savings plan businesses through the market turbulence, says the head of those businesses.
Keith Sloane, the senior vice president in charge of the businesses, said that part of his approach is to avoid obsessing about the direction of the stock market. "I know that there is nothing I can do to affect it," he said.
Hartford Financial Services' fund assets have shrunk in the past year because of the difficult market conditions. Through September, its assets stood at $43 billion, down from $50 billion a year earlier, he said.
When Mr. Sloane, a Wachovia Securities veteran, took over Hartford Financial Services' mutual fund and 529 plan businesses last fall, he could not have guessed that his old employer would soon vanish as an independent name and that he would be navigating his new business through gut-wrenching market turmoil.
On the other hand, Hartford's corps of 100 wholesalers is busy reassuring distribution partners. Mr. Sloane said that this group is "one of our crown jewels."
"In these times, when advisers need more communication and support than ever, we have got a chance to really stand out," he said. The company's seminars for advisers and shareholders have attracted large crowds seeking guidance, he said.
Jonathan Scheid, the chief investment officer at Bellatore LLC, a San Jose financial services company, said that mutual fund companies must focus on communication in this environment. They should be communicating with advisers and investors about what is working in their investment approach, what isn't, and what changes are planned, said Mr. Scheid, whose firm sells turnkey asset management packages and practice management services to financial institutions and advisers. Fund firms must help investors and advisers make sense of what is going on, he said.
Mr. Sloane said advisers' results have been dragged down along with the markets but that partnerships with advisers remains the cornerstone of Hartford's distribution strategy. "We think that, even though we are dealing with what we are today and everyone is playing some defense, in the future the public will need financial and investment advice much more," he said. "They are realizing how complex these markets are to navigate."
The shakeups in two of its distribution channels — wire houses and banks — do not worry him, Mr. Sloane said. Having gone though eight mergers during his 12 years at Wachovia, he said, he is used to a shifting landscape, though it is more dramatic this time.
"I'd imagine there are going to be some banks that emerge very strong," he said. "We currently work with them, and we'll work with them even more so."
Mr. Sloane said his company is "agnostic" about distribution channels. He is more interested in the method of distribution — namely, methods that go hand in hand with advice, he said. The company's "transformation to a more fee-based business accelerated over the past year," he said. More than half its sales are through fee-based platforms, he said, and through this year's first nine months, such sales were up 25%.
Part of Hartford's strategy involves keeping the management of its funds simple. It has no plan, Mr. Sloane said, to expand its managers beyond its mainstays: Wellington Management Co. LLP and Hartford Investment Management Co. "We think one of the reasons our franchise has been able to sustain and grow is the fact that we've got a very focused strategy around our money management approach," he said.
Hartford has added to its fund lineup by starting global equity, diversified international, and six target retirement funds since October 2007.