Executives at SunTrust Banks Inc., some of whom did not get a bonus for last year because the company failed to meet some internal growth targets, said Tuesday they have a new plan to boost earnings.
Much of the strategy hinges on sales of trust and investment management services to a broad range of customers and potential customers, from corporations and endowments to retail discount brokerage users and the megawealthy with more than $25 million to invest.
Atlanta-based SunTrust has struggled recently with its trust and asset management business, a unit that manages $93 billion of assets $20 billion in its own STI Classic funds. The unit is the biggest contributor to the parents fee income.
Last year, after several years of double-digit growth, SunTrust stumbled when the performance of the STI Classic funds waned and customers yanked their money. Trust fees declined 0.3%, or $1.7 million, from 1999. The company blamed lower equity markets and rising interest rates. New trust business also grew at a slower rate last year, SunTrust said.
But now executives say that improvements in the performance of the STI funds since last year, new product offerings, and a revamped approach to customer segmentation will bring in new business and result in moderate growth in trust income this year. As if to underscore their potential to turn the business around, SunTrust executives pointed to a recent ranking in Barrons that put the STI funds at 16th in fund performance this year. Last year, the fund complex was ranked in the bottom quartile.
Our competitors have been too successful at wooing our customers away said Bill Rogers, head of private client services at SunTrust, during his presentation at the annual meeting of the Bank and Financial Analysts Association being held this week at the Plaza Hotel in New York. But our plan is to send them back to the drawing board, he said.
The effort comes amid a severe market downturn. Mr. Rogers and other executives acknowledged that the market volatility could dampen their ability to increase earnings in the unit, so they said they would meet profitability hurdle rates by relying on the success of the sales initiative and customer retention efforts.
It seems like a good plan, said Catherine Murray, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. But now its down to execution.
John Spiegel, chief financial officer, insisted Tuesday that the company is well positioned, forecasting earnings growth in the low double digits as the trust business rebounds and mortgage operations get a boost from the changing interest rate environment.
Mr. Spiegel said he was comfortable with Wall Streets expectations for the year.
While the company is buckling down on its customer service and efficiency projects, acquisitions will be on the back burner. Through the late 1990s, the company expanded its market and business lines through acquisitions.
L. Phillip Humann, chairman and chief executive officer, said Tuesday that the company did not want to dilute its customer profile. That rules out more transactions than it rules in, he said. But he did not rule out mergers entirely. We are interested in being better. We are not disinterested in being bigger. Id say 80% of our effort will be focused on internal growth, and 20%, maybe, on selective deals.
SunTrust is focusing on a core group of customers with between $2 million and $25 million to invest, calling this its highest opportunity client base. SunTrust plans to go after this segment with private client advisers, a cadre of brokers who hold both a Series 7 license to sell investments and a designation as a Certified Financial Planner or its equivalent.
These brokers will offer an array of online and personal trust, investment management, and other fiduciary services, Mr. Rogers said. One big difference: they will offer non-proprietary money management funds, including wrap accounts and separate account products that will be made available come summer.
Customers who fall into the category of those with $500,000 to $2 million to invest will be steered in the direction of private bankers, who are being trained with Series 6 securities licenses and will offer a more packaged financial planning service, hinged on SunTrusts asset management account.
SunTrust also has a plan for the megawealthy, defined as those with more than $25 million to invest. It includes offering access to outside money management specialists and new products like hedge funds to attract former customers who took their money elsewhere.
If we return to the levels of the past we can achieve our numbers, Mr. Rogers said.