BY SHARON G. SIMPSON
A lot has changed for financial depositories since Emily co-founded ALM First Financial Advisors in 1995, but the firm’s commitment to putting its clients’ best interests above all else has remained. Emily Hollis, the leader who lives by that client-centric philosophy, has served as a principal of ALM First Financial Advisors since the company was established.
Under her leadership, ALM First has become one of the largest privately-owned, SEC registered investment advisory companies for financial institutions that is not associated with a broker-dealer. Managing $21 billion in assets, the company has steadily grown to a client base of more than 250 financial institutions nationwide. While the company’s average client is $1.4 billion in assets, smaller depositories often look to ALM First for the expert guidance needed to deploy the same investment and balance sheet management strategies larger financial institutions are implementing. The company’s philosophy is to fully analyze and consult on the institution’s entire balance sheet prior to implementing an investment strategy, hence the name, ALM First.
As a renowned expert in asset liability management, Ms. Hollis is a popular speaker at industry events and has presented countless educational sessions. Her firm even provides training for regulators on complex topics such as derivatives and hedging for financial depositories.
Prior to ALM First, Ms. Hollis was vice president for Kidder Peabody Asset Management; chief investment officer for a large financial institution; and an investment trader for a New York Stock Exchange Company, responsible for executing trades for the firm’s fixed-income and foreign receivable portfolios. Her experience includes managing a $6 billion fixed-income investment portfolio and investing in derivatives. Ms. Hollis holds a master’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in arts from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, as well as a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She holds the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.
Here, Ms. Hollis shares some of the key insights she’s gleaned from over two decades of leading with a firm focus on acting in the best interests of financial depository clients.
Why is putting the client’s best interests first so critical in what you do?
I was truly bound and determined to get into the investment arena, but my initial experience on the buy-side as a retail broker dialing for dollars just didn’t suit me at all. I firmly believe in doing what’s best for the client. As an SEC-registered investment advisor, our firm can act in that capacity and take on a more strategic role. In fact, we are required as part of our fiduciary duty to always act in the best interest of our clients. That has been – and will always be – vital to our company and to me personally.
It makes a huge difference in how we approach the services we offer as a firm. We’re providing something valuable for the financial services industry by protecting clients from unscrupulous brokers, keeping depositories’ investments safe and offering robust analytic products. Putting our clients first creates a true partnership built on trust and leads to more successful financial depositories. We don’t see ourselves as just another vendor, we want to be their partner.
How did you get into the investment arena?
Investments was really my second career. I was a professional ballerina for the Fort Worth Ballet directly out of high school, but knew I wanted to transition into the financial world. I was always gifted in math and had such a high GMAT score that I received a full scholarship to SMU for their dual MBA/MA program. It was such an honor to be recruited for that program.
I graduated with a high GPA, but with no job offers. Once I took the dancing information off my resume and left those four years blank, I was hired for a commission-based position selling defined benefit services and insurance products. I later took a job at a Fortune 500 company, which was posted as a temporary position, to investigate defaulted bank notes at $10 an hour. My classmates thought I was crazy, but I was promoted to a permanent position in four months. After four jobs in two years, I finally had my entry into the investment community. The company quickly saw the value I could bring to the table and I gained insight into derivatives as I began managing a $500 million portfolio.
Emily Hollis in her prior career as a professional ballerina and today.
How does leadership style help build and maintain a successful company?
A leader sets the tone for the entire company. I believe in leading with empathy, confidence, and education. One of my mentors shared the importance of those concepts with me some time ago and they have been imperative in building and maintaining a successful company. You must have empathy to truly listen and understand what clients and staff are saying, the confidence to redirect an idea if it’s not the right direction for the company, and the ability to educate others and clearly communicate your vision.
Successful leaders aren’t limited by traditional business strategies. Personally, I like questioning everything. I encourage creativity and new ideas amongst my staff. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful; we have a talented and energetic team who is always thinking of new ways to solve client challenges and help financial depositories.
As a leader, I also make sure that I am there and that I am approachable for my staff. We’re a service-oriented company and the high work ethic starts with me. If I model the right behavior and service my team, they will be there for our clients.
Is there any general advice you’d give to community banks as interest rates rise?
There are certainly a lot of trends, such as deposit repricing, liquidity and the potential for a future economic recession, we discussed during ALM First’s 2018 Financial Forum conference in San Diego last month. We had over 150 financial executives board members and industry expert speakers attend this annual event to discover insights, formulate strategies, and gain new perspectives about the coming year.
However, the principles of sound balance sheet management don’t change as interest rates rise or fall. In fact, during our session on Managing the Balance Sheet, our team noted that market timing and rate forecasting has consistently been wrong over time. It’s hard to not bet on rates as that dominates the headlines, but as a firm we’ve found that sector allocation drives 95% of your returns. That’s why we focus on working closely with community banks and other depositories to ensure that the entire balance sheet is being taken into consideration when making investment, pricing and other key decisions.
What are you hearing from regulators in terms of 2019 priorities?
We were fortunate to discuss this topic in more detail during a Regulatory Panel discussion during the recent 2018 ALM First Financial Forum conference as well. The panelists focused on the importance of liquidity management, looking at assumptions, and contingency funding plans for financial institutions. Overall, the panelists noted that asset liability management is on regulators’ radar and that, with rising rates, they are questioning how depositors will actually behave.
Our team subsequently noted that financial institutions are the most profitable they’ve been in a decade and shared some data on deposit betas. While these are extremely low currently, there was a lot of discussion about when the big banks will reprice and how much variation can be seen among regional banks in different markets.
What tips would you give to other leaders?
Avoid comparing yourself to competitors. Focus on what makes your organization unique and the value you can provide within your market. This is just as true for community banks as it is for companies like ALM First.
I also encourage leaders to be approachable. One of the turning points for me in running a company was when I stopped trying to be perfect. I realized that you become unapproachable and that can be harmful to your company culture. It’s OK to be human. Our success starts with our employees so having an open-door policy and remaining approachable is important.
Leaders should be passionate about what they do. I’ve always had a passion for the investment world and my team has a passion for serving our clients. I would rather have an employee that is passionate and has a high work ethic than any other characteristic – even high intelligence. The commitment to working hard for our clients is that vital.
Lastly, it’s important to be flexible and open-minded. It is a leader’s responsibility to protect the culture and to provide employees an honorable and dignified place in which to work. There’s not always one way to do this or one set of rules that works in every situation. A leader wants her employees to enjoy coming to work, to innovate, to create, to make a difference, and feel challenged by that. Clients will notice that type of energy and drive, and all will benefit.
The ALM First Team at the company’s headquarters earlier this year.
Sharon G. Simpson is a freelance writer and national consultant who specializes in developing and implementing strategic marketing plans for CUSOs and credit unions.
Sharon has more than 20 years of marketing experience in the financial services industry. She has previously served as vice president of marketing for Mid-Atlantic Federal Credit Union and as vice president of marketing and administration for Callahan Financial Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Callahan & Associates, Inc., a leading credit union consulting firm based in Washington, DC.
She began her career as a management trainee at Franklin Templeton Group, a global investment manager headquartered in San Mateo, CA. Sharon holds a Master of Arts degree in political management from The George Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in international relations from the University of San Diego.