There are key dynamics that offer the potential to drive meaningful growth and expansion in distribution.
* Asset managers' ability to make their products available through multiple vehicles, such as mutual funds, separate accounts, variable annuity trusts and ETFs.
* Money managers applying a more disciplined and focused approach to their pursuit of new distribution channels.
Consistent with that second dynamic, USAA Investments recently reached an important milestone in our third-party distribution efforts with the announcement of an expanded relationship with Charles Schwab. While a noteworthy accomplishment, it's one important piece of a broader third-party distribution strategy that we began implementing in 2012 and is beginning to hit its stride: Sales through the channel climbed more than 100% in 2013, accompanied by a 30% lift in intermediary-driven assets.
A New Direction
USAA Investments has been around for more than 40 years, but our earnest pursuit of third-party distribution is a relatively new chapter in our firm's history. For some money managers, interest in third-party distribution is almost exclusively about building assets under management. At USAA, however, our more focused foray into intermediary distribution was primarily driven by a different goal-serving USAA members where they prefer to be served.
While our primary motive hinged on access, growth in assets has its own advantages to USAA investors. With better economies of scale, we're able to operate our funds more cost-efficiently and share the benefit with members through a more competitive expense structure.
Six Keys to Success
While each firm approaches the intermediary market with its own unique set of circumstances, I believe USAA's experience points to six universally-applicable steps on the path to success in this arena.
1. Assemble a team to focus on the channel. When building any organization, it's critical to match talent to the specific mission at hand. For USAA, which spent most of its history focused on direct distribution to USAA members, that sometimes meant looking beyond our own walls to find individuals experienced in cultivating relationships with firms and professionals throughout the industry.
2. Build a targeted strategy. The intermediary marketplace is far-reaching and diverse, and in the face of that huge array of possible partners, it's important to carefully allocate your resources and choose both the sectors and the specific institutions that best suit your business.
3. Identify your firm's differentiators. Let's face it-intermediaries don't need just another mutual fund company in their line-up. They need firms and funds that truly add value and fill a gap in their offerings.
Those gaps aren't always about style boxes. At USAA, much of our attraction to intermediaries springs from the powerful affinity and loyalty we've cultivated with an important demographic: current and former military service members and their families.
4. Put your best foot forward. While the idea of adding your entire array of funds to a platform is appealing, narrow your initial pitch to the most genuinely compelling choices. At USAA, we've found success highlighting select equity funds, our $3 billion suite of target funds and our very highly-regarded fixed income offerings.
5. Build awareness. Your firm may have enviable investment credentials, but they're only valuable to the extent your market knows about them. USAA approaches the intermediary market with some strong credentials-for example, 75 percent of all USAA mutual funds beat their Lipper category average for the 10 years ending Dec. 31, 2013, and the breadth and depth of our long-term performance results puts USAA in the league of the most prominent asset managers in our industry. Historically, however, we'd spent very little energy sharing our story with anyone other than our members.
Building awareness required an investment in personnel and an ambitious approach to reaching out to the industry, from home office executives and employees to individual advisors.
It's also important to uncover misconceptions about your firm. We found, for example, that many industry executives and investment professionals didn't realize USAA funds are fully open to the general public-no military service is required.
6. Make your firm easy to work with. In a crowded and competitive marketplace, there's little patience for firms that are difficult to work with. That's particularly true in the critical realm of due diligence. With that in mind, USAA built a team that focuses on helping intermediaries' due diligence professionals analyze our fund mechanics, data, processes and personnel.
With the expansion of our relationship with Charles Schwab, USAA has reached an important milestone in its relatively new pursuit of third-party distribution. By carefully following these six steps, your firm should be well-positioned for its own successes.
Keith Sloane is vice president of third-party distribution at USAA, which manages over $60 billion in mutual assets across more than 50 no-load funds.