Several years ago, Grant Rawdin passed on the chance to become a charter shareholder in National Advisors Trust, a trust company owned by a registered investment adviser and designed to serve advisers nationwide.
At the time, Rawdin, who is CEO of Wescott Financial Advisory Group, felt the company did not have a strong enough trust solution for his firm. But in February 2011, he and his firm did an about-face.
"They're now way ahead of where we ever expected them to be," said Rawdin, whose firm has $1.5 billion of assets under management and has offices in Philadelphia and Miami. "They are very low-cost, efficient, smart and service-oriented."
Part of what drew Rawdin and his firm into the fold is National Advisors Trust's two-year-old trust representative office program, which provides turnkey referral marketing. The TRO program, according to National Advisors Trust, of Overland Park, Kan., is one of the main reasons the trust company has netted seven new RIA shareholders over the past two years.
Also two years ago, the trust company embarked on a yearlong project to create a multicustodian RIA technology platform, which has helped to drive growth as well, Ronald Ferguson, chief executive officer of National Advisors Trust, said.
Indeed, the trust company has made a strong transition out of the market downturn, thanks in large measure to new assets lured in by its new offerings, Ferguson said. New custody rules, put in place a year ago in response to Bernard Madoff's fraud, have also driven business, he said.
The custody rules are a heavy burden for small advisory firms:in order to comply, firms must pay for unscheduled independent audits that typically cost several thousand dollars.
National Advisors Trust has nearly doubled its assets since the March 2009 market low, to $7.2 billion, from $3.7 billion. The market recovery has accounted for a portion of the gains, but most of the $3.5 billion of assets added over the past two years is due to new accounts, Ferguson said.
Formed a decade ago, National Advisors Trust has held its ground and then some as a trust partner for RIAs, even though its target clients have high-profile alternatives through companies like Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, Pershing and Fidelity. National Advisors Trust started with about 80 firms, and now has more than 130.
The business was created by RIA firms that wanted a way to handle multigenerational relationships. "At the death of a client, many times that whole family relationship ended," Ferguson said. "The next generation's assets were all transferred to a trust department someplace."
With fewer robust alternatives available at the time, the RIAs decided to build a noncompeting company: The trust company would act as administrator and the adviser would manage the investments.
National Advisors Trust touts its flexible solutions as a key differentiator over the big custodian firms, and that was indeed part of what drew in Wescott Financial, Rawdin said.
"It's accountable to us, and it understands our needs," he said, "as opposed to a very small unit of a very, very large corporation."
One solution that Wescott Financial found with National Advisors Trust involves special-needs trusts for some of its clients in Miami.
"We needed an administrative trustee who would appreciate what is involved in physical or mental disabilities," Rawdin said.
Meanwhile, more than 20 firms that helped attract Rawdin's firm to National Advisors Trust are using the TRO program. It aims to help RIAs market trust services not to end-clients, but to so-called centers of influence such as estate-planning attorneys and CPAs, who work with high-net-worth clients. It also helps RIAs gain more referrals from existing clients.
Each shareholder firm of National Advisors Trust has a minimum ownership stake of 50 shares, with the latest per-share valuation slightly more than $1,000, Ferguson said. The maximum ownership stake is 5%, or approximately 500 shares; no single firm has a controlling interest.
Profits for the company, which is technically a federal savings bank, go into retained earnings. National Advisors Trust has not yet paid a dividend to shareholders. It has, however, steadily invested in new services for its owner firms, Ferguson said. For example, it created a pooled funds platform a few years ago after several clients expressed interest.