Alaskans are known for their fierce independence, and it shows in the way they buy and sell mutual funds.
Anchorage-based National Bank of Alaska has shunned help from investment product marketers and decided instead to sell funds through its own trust department.
To do that, the $2.3 billion-asset bank hired Mary Wladkowski, a former mutual fund officer at the Boston Co., to head its investment services effort.
"The original plan was to go the broker-dealer route," Ms. Wladkowski said in an interview. The bank also decided it "didn't feel comfortable" working with an outside marketing firm to sell investments. "We'd rather do things our way," she said.
"Our way" meant developing a sales approach based on the amount of assets that are gathered, and not the frequency of sales. The strategy also is designed to make sure salespeople aren't tempted to sell one product over another simply because of lucrative commissions.
"We use this as a selling tool with customers because they know it's in both our interests that our assets (under management) grow," Ms. Wladkowski said.
By going its own way and selling investments through its trust department, the bank also avoids regulatory oversight from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Association of Securities Dealers, which regulate brokerage firms that register with the NASD.
"It gets the regulators off our backs," said Ms. Wladkowski. And the bank saves money on costly compliance programs, she added.
National Bank's arrangement is unusual, since most banks opt to keep their trust and retail operations separate, said Mary McAvity, a consultant at Cerulli Associates, Boston.
Although "running an investment sales program through one department makes sense," Ms. McAvity said, "they have to make sure their compliance program is on the ball."
Ms. Wladkowski said the bank looks over every sale to make sure the investment is suitable. One way to promote that is to ensure that investment officers are familiar with the mutual funds they sell, she said.
"Keep your short lists short," Ms. Wladkowski said.
National Bank sells only mutual funds, and only from a handful of companies, including Fidelity Investments, Federated Investors, Franklin Resources Inc., and T. Rowe Price.
"I think it's asking too much of an investment officer to have them be familiar with 350 funds," said Ms. Wladkowski. "It would be difficult for anyone to pick one fund over another when the investment objectives are the same."
The bank's investment service is meant as an alternative to brokerage firms that set up shop in Alaska during the oil boom of the 1970s. Competitors such as PaineWebber Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co. have offices around the state. BankAmerica Corp. and Keycorp also have broker-dealer affiliates in Alaska.
But Ms. Wladkowski says big banks and brokerages can't deliver the personal service her three-person sales force can.
"You call one of these banks, and most times, they'll connect you to an investment officer in Seattle or San Francisco," she said. "They don't know what investments Alaskans want and need."
Alaskans are "pretty independent, and they really don't like that," she added. "They want to meet face-to-face, shake your hand, and take you out for a brew."
Nestled within a ring of mountains, National Bank is the largest in Alaska, with 50 branches covering almost every corner of the state. Ms. Wladkowski said that, when a customer calls, sales representatives will meet with them wherever they ask.
Sometimes, that means flying to remote locations, such as Dillingham, a small fishing village near the Alaskan Peninsula. Or salespeople might make the trek to the northernmost city in America, Barrow, north of the Arctic Circle. And some spots, such as Cheniga, an island near Kamishak Bay, can only be reached by seaplane.
Most of the bank's customers are middle-class to wealthy people. Some settled in Alaska before statehood and made their money in timber or the oil fields, fisheries, and mines. Another source of business is the native groups in Alaska, many of which have set up corporations and sold land or mineral rights to accumulate capital.
At the Anchorage branch alone, these groups have helped swell the bank's trust goals from a projected $20 million last year to more than $50 million realized by yearend.
The next step for National Bank of Alaska may be selling annuities, which Ms. Wladkowski says is a logical investment companion to mutual funds. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of banks' right to sell insurance products, Ms. Wladkowski said, "the door opened a little wider for banks."