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Asset Management Advisors is enjoying rapid growth in the ultra-high-net-worth market.

When Maria Elena Lagomasino resigned as chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Private Bank in March 2005 after more than 20 years with the firm, including at Chase's legacy wealth management business, the 58-year-old executive figured she would try something just a little different. So she wrote a business plan for a bank affiliate that would provide independent financial advice to ultrawealthy individuals but sell no in-house products. Lagomasino approached seven big private banks with the idea, but they all gave roughly the same response. The plan would inject a virus into their systems that they would not be able to deal with, she recalls them saying.

Fortunately for Lagomasino, a headhunter put her in touch with Henry (Hap) Perry, founder of Asset Management Advisors, a Palm Beach, Florida­based multifamily office that the wealthy entrepreneur had launched more than 15 years earlier. Before meeting Lagomasino, Perry had interviewed about 40 candidates in an effort to strengthen his firm's leadership, but concluded that none of them "got it." Lagomasino was different. What was supposed to be a one-hour lunch appointment at her home in Naples, Florida, turned into four hours. Perry says that by the time he left, he had found his business "soulmate." His host, who was pleased to learn that the company she envisioned already existed, felt exactly the same way.

Lagomasino was named chief executive officer of AMA in November 2005. To round out her senior management team, she recruited two former deputies who had also left JPMorgan Chase & Co. following its 2004 merger with Chicago's BankOne Corp.: Michael Holden, JPMorgan Private Bank's former chief operating officer, who assumed the same role at AMA, and Michael Zeuner, JPMorgan's former global head of wealth solutions, who was named AMA's chief strategy and innovation officer. Perry remains chairman.

AMA's business model is straightforward: Sell customized, independent advice to individuals and families with $25 million or more in investable assets. With its open-architecture platform, the firm addresses client needs with products that come from wherever the firm's wealth managers see fit. AMA earns no commissions; instead, it charges clients an annual percentage of assets under management on a sliding scale -- from 85 basis points on the first $30 million to 48 basis points on assets at or above the $100 million mark. This fee covers financial planning for everything from risk management and asset management to advice on family governance, estate planning and educating children about wealth.

AMA offices are small and high-touch, each with a maximum of 80 clients served by 15 employees organized into teams that typically include a chartered financial analyst, an accountant or tax lawyer (or both) and an administrator. Each team serves a maximum of 20 clients, although they average only seven.

"We're the unbank," says Lagomasino, whose charge is to accelerate AMA's expansion beyond its roots in the Southeast -- without diluting its service culture.

That "unbank" moniker is unusual given AMA's majority owner: SunTrust Banks, which has held its stake in the multifamily office since 2001, when Perry needed expansion capital and the Atlanta-based bank decided it would be more prudent to partner with an existing operation -- and grant it independence -- than to launch its own ultra-high-net-worth business from scratch.

"Starting it ourselves would not really have been credible," says William Rogers, head of wealth and investment management at SunTrust, who struck the deal. "That's a hard thing to admit to yourself."

Industry analysts believe it was the right choice. "The best strategy now in the ultra-high-net-worth market is to buy a brand with a reputation and proven expertise, and let them run it autonomously," says Jefferson Harrelson, a bank analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in Atlanta.

Michael Kostoff, who runs the financial services practice at the Corporate Executive Board in Washington, agrees. "More banks are going to have to try that," he says.

The partnership between SunTrust and AMA appears to be working. Five years ago AMA had one office in Palm Beach, 21 client families and $500 million in assets. Today, thanks in large part to referrals from SunTrust's wealth management division, the firm serves 360 families with $10 billion in assets through 11 offices in such cities as Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Miami; and Washington. "The preponderance of new clients at AMA have come from the SunTrust franchise," says Rogers.

Lagomasino and her team won't discuss the specifics of AMA's expansion strategy. Last May, though, the firm opened an office in the lucrative New York City market, its second foray into the Northeast after the launch of a Greenwich, Connecticut, outpost in 2003.

Despite being owned by a big bank, AMA's focus on intimate service and independent advice is deeply held and reflects the priorities of founder Perry, who in the late 1980s was operating an underwater engineering business and sitting on a pile of cash from a variety of companies he had built and sold. Managing both his business and his wealth proved too much for Perry, so he decided to look for help.

The experience was frustrating. Trust companies didn't want to give Perry the level of independence he desired, and hiring money managers would mean that he would have to perform due diligence. He is a risk taker and wanted access to investments like hedge funds, precious metals and emerging markets. But for private bankers, he found, "all roads led to stocks and bonds."

Perry set up AMA in 1989. He didn't want a single-family office because he preferred dissenting opinions and was wary of being beholden to any single-family client. So he took on a few large families and eventually gave up his other professional interests to run the business. He even managed the investments until 1996, when he brought in an outside chief investment officer.

Perry's search for growth capital brought him together with Rogers in 2000, after the SunTrust executive was put in charge of devising the bank's strategy for the ultra-high-net-worth market. With most of the growth in the segment coming from family offices and multifamily offices, Rogers quickly concluded that his bank didn't provide a relevant offering. "Clients wanted more of a boutique feel -- someone sitting on their side of the table selling advice rather than products," Rogers says.

After discussing AMA's business with Perry over the course of several weekends, Rogers offered the entrepreneur an enticing deal: equity capital and a promise to respect the multifamily office's autonomy.

The move wasn't at all popular within SunTrust. "The challenge in the beginning was to give up good clients," says Rogers, who even today must remind colleagues that AMA is not a competitor. "We've made a lot of headway, but it has been a long road," he adds.

SunTrust initially bought an 80 percent stake for an undisclosed sum. After doling out equity interests to AMA's new management team last year that are convertible into SunTrust shares, its holdings dropped to 70 percent. Lagomasino says the plan is to extend ownership deeper into AMA's ranks.

Creating a profitable multifamily office isn't easy. The temptation is to sacrifice customized service for economies of scale. That's why Perry initially did not want to grow the firm. "We told our original shareholders that we never wanted to deal with more than 50 families," he says.

Nonetheless, the founder soon realized that AMA needed to get bigger to develop capacity and expertise in key disciplines.

"We had intense soul-searching discussions on how to keep the close, friendly, high-touch service," Perry says. The solution is an organizational structure he calls "Bob W," short for "best of both worlds." To avoid compromising its service culture, AMA won't loosen its maximum employee-to-client ratio, but it backs up its client teams with a central resource center that includes expertise in investments, philanthropy, taxes, manager research and asset allocation, as well as marketing and finance for the entire firm. "The resource center keeps everyone nourished," says Lagomasino.

The approach enables AMA to maintain the intimacy of its offices even as it builds scale. A case in point is the firm's Atlanta presence. When the original office reached the maximum of 15 employees and 80 clients, "We went ten minutes away and built another office," says Lagomasino. SunTrust's Rogers says there was "zero discussion" about creating more leverage by adding clients to the first office.

With a staff that includes former tax partners from top law firms and ex-managing partners from leading accounting firms, Lagomasino says the high caliber of AMA's teams is another competitive advantage. "The people who come here have a fundamental belief in working in an unconflicted way for the family," she says.

In an industry where staff turnover can be debilitating, AMA has a 98 percent retention rate. And virtually all of the firm's clients who were with AMA when it launched are still there today. "That's a pretty important endorsement of our vision," says Rogers.

As Lagomasino builds the business, she says her next challenge is rebranding the firm. Because of the name, Asset Management Advisors, potential clients often assume that it is a traditional money manager. For an enterprise that is aiming to rewrite the rules of wealth management, that simply won't do.