For Ashbel Williams Jr., Rebuilding Trust Is Part of the Plan
The executive director and CIO of the Florida State Board of Administration has kept a tight lid on the funds’ all-in costs.
When Ashbel Williams Jr. returned for his second tour at the Florida State Board of Administration (SBA), in October 2008, as executive director and CIO, the Tallahassee-based system was already caught in the financial crisis’s giant vortex. Working to save a system that had crashed to $85 billion in assets by March 2009 from $136.6 billion in June 2007, Williams had to tackle massive fallout from the credit crisis, which had decimated a $33 billion money market pool, and rebuild trust in the government agency, which oversees nearly 40 separate funds, including the fifth-largest public retirement system in the U.S.
Williams — now 61 and a fifth-generation Floridian — established an independent risk management and compliance unit to enhance SBA controls. He built up the alternative-investment portfolio, adding hedge funds and more than doubling private equity, and created a global equity portfolio. Last year the SBA conducted a “Valuing the Vote” study, analyzing the impact the agency’s proxy voting decisions had on director elections.
Since 2012 the SBA has had the lowest all-in costs among its peers, according to Toronto-based consulting firm CEM Benchmarking. For the 12 months ended December 31, 2015, the now-$175 billion SBA had a return of 1.48 percent, versus a median performance of 0.54 percent for public funds with $5 billion-plus in assets in the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service.
Williams originally headed the SBA from 1991 to 1996 before moving to New York to work as CEO of Schroder Capital Management. The secret to his success at the SBA? “The art is staying true to fiduciary principles, investing prudently and earning the trust of those many constituencies every day,” he says.
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