Safer’s Secrets

Veteran trust banker talks about new Argent gig, always being willing ‘to be our client’s designated worrier’

Most folks believe that business success mixed with passion and topped off with a dollop of humility is a nice amalgamation of personal traits not often found in the rough-and-tumble world of trust and investment management. And few locals represent that combination better than Howard G. Safer, who this spring jumped from Regions Morgan Keegan Trust to be CEO of Argent Trust Co., a division of a Louisiana-based holding company that opened a West End office in April.

Safer is an accountant, something his detractors in 1993 thought would derail his first foray into trust banking waters at what would become Bradford Trust Co. In their mind, an accountant would need more “outside-the-box” skills to make it in a cutting-edge investment world that requires significant levels of malleability.

They were right about the skills — but wrong about Safer.

Safer agreed to answer a few questions for the Nashville Post, giving us a glimpse at the man behind several successful trust and investment management companies birthed in the past two decades in a town once known as the Wall Street of the South.

Q. Early on, before the introduction of trust services to J.C. Bradford, what made you confident a brokerage mindset could ever effectively combine with a trust banking mindset?
My earlier career was as managing partner of Kraft Brothers, Nashville’s largest local CPA firm. Looking at the investment and banking worlds from an independent perspective then, I developed a good understanding of what clients desired. They wanted a new paradigm investment/trust provider that was perceived to be safe, secure and at the highest level of fiduciary protection along with the open architecture that was available in the investment firm world.

Q. Talk about some of the obstacles early on. How important was it for you to have folks “buy in” and quickly contribute to what you wanted Bradford Trust to be?
Starting a de novo business is always a challenge and the biggest challenge is attracting great — not just good — people. Nashville is an attractive place to be and made it easier to find an experienced operations officer from San Diego and an experienced attorney (and former probate Judge) from Kentucky, who were excited to join the team. Sharing the “new paradigm” story was the key to our recruiting success, as each professional understood the changes that needed to occur in the investment/trust world.

Q. How does bringing Argent to the market as a new player in 2012 compare to launching Bradford Trust in 1993?
The biggest change is that Argent can take advantage of all of almost 20 years of technology advances since then. They include things like robust open architecture for investment choices, state-of-the-art back-office accounting and administrative programs and a more refined fiduciary operating environment to protect client assets.

At Bradford Trust, we were inventing the broker-affiliated trust platform. At Argent, we’re building on the most advanced investment/trust platform available for independent trust companies.

Q. You have a small team now. How big do you want to be in three years? And do new hires have to be senior professionals already in this market?We are planning manageable growth of senior professionals and estimate doubling in three years. We have already had conversations with other investment/trust entities that could accelerate our growth.

The financial services industry is seeing the migration of professionals from large brokerage to more boutique registered investment advisors and trust firms at an accelerated pace. We are perfectly positioned to meet the need of investors and providers who are looking for a new paradigm.

Q. What was the dollar amount of assets under the Bradford Trust umbrella before the PaineWebber takeover? And beyond pure dollars, what were some of the other benchmarks or goals your team achieved?
In seven years, we grew assets from zero to almost $1 billion, zero to over 30 staff and hundreds of satisfied clients all across the Southeast. The first real mark of success came at the five-year mark, when we were named to Worth Magazine’s Best 100 Advisors. The second was when my mother asked me to manage her financial needs. Another benchmark came after about 10 years when the number of CPA and attorney referrals started to increase rapidly.

Q. You created a successful trust/brokerage model at Bradford and, as far as I can tell, duplicated that model as Bradford morphed into PaineWebber and you moved on to Regions Morgan Keegan. Why has it worked and what did you see that others didn’t?
Every financial service firm has the same goals. I have numerous “vision” paperweights on my desk — from Bradford, Morgan Keegan, Regions... — and they all have many similarities. The differentiating key is execution. Having the best client servicing team possible, delegating appropriately and encouraging individual growth can work wonders in helping to exceed client expectations.

Q. Usually, when trust leaders change positions, companies or roles, they lose something in the process. Clients don’t like change and often there’s a fall off and it’s difficult to move one’s full book of business to another firm. How have you managed this?
We have never set up a one-size-fits-all model. We have worked hard to customize and modify our service to the unique needs of various clients and their complex family interrelationships. All of us have times when difficult issues confront us and our financial and family governance experience is limited. We are always willing to help coordinate clients’ special needs with other advisors. We are always willing to be their “designated worrier.” This includes the 3 Ds — divorce, disability and death — as well as issues surrounding the happier life cycle events. It’s very gratifying to have clients that trust us enough to make changes, and we appreciate their affirmation of the value in what we do.

Q. Speak to the state of the trust and money management business in Nashville. What’s the level of competition and where do you want the Nashville office to be in five years?
The trust/money management business is growing with numerous out-of-state firms wanting to come to the progressive trust environment here in Tennessee, which is top five in the country. Over the past few years, we have visited with numerous firms that want to know more about Nashville and Tennessee.
Argent compares very well when considering all the important factors such as investment platform, administrative resources and progressive client service culture.

We believe many will agree with our analysis and that significant growth will occur over the next five years.

Q. You referenced the more attractive trust banking climate in Tennessee. Is the overall trust market growing or do you need to take share from established companies to succeed?
Tennessee’s trust companies will be growing more in the next 10 years than the last 10. The growth will come from both new and existing prospects, from both in and out of state. Hats off to the Tennessee Legislature for being forward-thinking in providing our industry with a much better platform than we had just a few years ago. We’re already ahead of all other Southeastern and Southwestern states.