Spreading the wealth

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Articles - March 2014
Tuesday, February 25, 2014


A high bar to clear. Until last year, investors seeking the expertise of Portland firm Ferguson Wellman Capital Management needed to bring at least $2 million along with them. The 39-year-old wealth management firm lavishes personal attention on its clients. Some families have trusted Ferguson Wellman with their money through three generations. And its employees are far from fickle: Not a single investment professional hired in the last 25 years has left Ferguson Wellman for another job, says CEO James Rudd. The firm closed out 2012 with just shy of 600 individual and institutional clients and $2.91 billion in assets under management. “We’re not a hot-dog manager,” Rudd says.

Creating growth, controlling growth. Market research told the employee-owned firm that the time had come to pursue less wealthy investors. Assuming it would attract younger investors, Ferguson Wellman this summer added two employees and launched West Bearing Investments, a division for Oregon, Washington and California clients with at least $750,000 to invest. West Bearing clients have access to the same investments as Ferguson Wellman clients, as well as direct access to the analysts who create those investments.

The rich get richer. On January 1, the firm raised its minimum for entry into the established Ferguson Wellman division to $3 million. The move doesn’t affect current clients. “I’ve been here 31 years, and this is the fourth time we’ve increased our minimum,” Rudd says. Ferguson Wellman first established a minimum, then $1 million, in 1989. The higher minimum “allows us to continue to be very client centered in what we do and very entrepreneurial,” Rudd says. “Clients are the greatest resource that we have. Believe me, it takes years to form a trusting relationship with a client.”

Surprising results. The 43-employee company ended 2013 with $3.8 billion in assets under management, largely because of the strong performance of the stock market. But it also brought in 52 new clients. Twenty-eight came from the West Bearing division, which hit its goal of $25 million in assets under management. 

So has the double-digit growth in Oregon’s software sector brought young, flush investors into the Ferguson Wellman fold? Not yet. The new clients aren’t of the high-tech hoodie set, but rather business owners, entrepreneurs, doctors and those who’ve inherited money. “When it came down to it, in the Northwest — anywhere, for that matter — $750,000 is a great amount of money to be putting into a retirement,” says Mary Faulkner, senior vice president for branding and communications. “Our demographics at West Bearing compared to Ferguson Wellman, they’re essentially the same. It was an exciting discovery for us — how wealth manifests itself in the Northwest.”



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There’s a fascinating article in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review about a profound power shift taking place in business and society. It’s a long read, but the gist revolves around the tension between “old power” and “new power” as a driver of transformation. Here’s an excerpt:

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The authors, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, don’t necessarily favor one form of power over another but merely outline how power is transitioning, and how companies can take advantage of these changes to strengthen their positions in the marketplace. 

Our Powerbook issue might be viewed as a case study in the new-power transition. This annual book of lists provides information on leading businesses, nonprofits and universities in the state. Most of the featured companies are entrenched power players now pursuing more flexible and less hierarchical approaches to doing business. Law firms, for example, are adopting new technologies and fee structures to make legal services more accessible and affordable.

This month we also take a look at a controversial new U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring public companies to disclose the median pay of workers, as well as the ratio between CEO and median-worker pay. 

Part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the rule will compel public companies to be more open about employee compensation, with the assumption that greater transparency will improve corporate performance and, perhaps, help address one of the major challenges of our time: income inequality.

New power is not only about strategy and tactics, the Harvard Business Review authors say. “The ultimate questions are ethical. The big question is whether new power can genuinely serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems.”

That sounds like a call to arms. Or a New Year’s resolution. Old power or new, the goals are the same: to be a force for positive change in the world. Happy 2015!

— Linda

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