Arvest?s Private Bank Stresses Service

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When Brent Akers tells prospective clients the goal of Arvest Bank Inc.’s private banking arm is “to be more to a few than less to many,” he can point to an empty office as proof.

While the vacant space on the second floor of Arvest’s branch at Village on the Creeks in Rogers might seem an odd choice as evidence of exemplary customer service, it actually reinforces the department’s aim. Akers, a senior vice president, said a staff of seven financial industry professionals currently handle about 125 families with private banking needs.

(A family generally needs at least $500,000 in liquid assets to qualify for Arvest’s private banking services.)

The number of families currently serviced has about quadrupled since the Rogers branch began offering private banking in 2003, and if it starts to approach 150, that empty office will be filled with a new hire ready to address a high net worth client’s every financial need.

“We want this place to be where they call first,” Akers said. “For anything.”

Welcome to the world of private banking, where staffs like the one Akers oversees know no boundaries when it comes to servicing high net worth clients.

Need the checkbook balanced?

Bring it in, Akers said.

In the market for a vacation home?

Akers’ crew will find the best buy available.

Want to purchase an airplane?

Akers has an expert ready to offer counsel on that, too.

“Name something,” a smiling Akers said when asked about the range of services he and his staff provide clients.

Humble beginnings
While Akers said his office currently oversees more than $130 million – a value that fluctuates daily – in market money alone, it began under relatively more modest circumstances. By 2003, as the economy in Northwest Arkansas boomed, Arvest had detected an unfilled gap in its offerings.

High-level executives at companies like J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., as well as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its vendors, had trickled into the area, and they needed a broader perspective when it came to managing their wealth. Add the proliferation of smaller, community-type banks, and Arvest was left somewhat exposed in terms of private banking.

“Nobody really understood or had a vision for it because Arvest was operating under the Wal-Mart approach of, ‘Hey, everybody gets the same great service,'” Akers said.

“But all of a sudden, all these community banks, if you want to look at it that way, were offering private banking services if you were one of their few big clients, at least until the banks got bigger.”

“It turned out there were a lot of people looking for just that, but they didn’t really know what they were looking for because it hadn’t been offered. We began to see that somebody needed to be tying all that together.”

That’s when Arvest president Rob Brothers asked Akers to put together a plan.

“We kind of started from scratch,” Akers said.

Today, though, it’s a smooth operation. From deposit services to all manner of loans to trust services and estate planning, Arvest strives to meet the every need of its private banking customers.

“We offer the full gamut and really try to bring everything together,” financial executive Rocky Jones said. “That’s the one thing that we’ve got control over, is the attention we can give them and the time we can spend with them.”

Family first
Akers said Arvest doesn’t advertise its private banking services, that business is generated by word of mouth. Once contact is initiated, Arvest officials prefer to have a handful of meetings before settling on an agreement.

The meetings are designed to let the private banking employees get to know prospective clients. Akers likes to have as many family members – even children – attend, as well as a client’s accountant and/or attorney if so desired.

He likes it that way because learning the personalities, interests and hobbies of his clients can help Akers better serve them. Jones reinforced this notion.

“Every individual and every family is different,” Jones said. “They all have different needs, and the more information you can get up front on their particular needs and their particular goals, it just helps us put together a better plan and a better strategy for them.”

Private banking clients also get the best deals and rates Arvest has to offer.

“We’re going to cut it to the bone,” Akers said.

In return for such services and perks, Arvest’s primary revenues are based on annual fees charged according to a client’s average managed assets. Some commission-based services, like insurance, also are available. Clients also must utilize at least seven Arvest services, as in savings accounts, business checking accounts, credit cards, etc.

Accounts are then monitored on a daily basis, and communication is critical. This was especially true last year, when markets – and fortunes – plummeted.

Akers said the hardest part of his job is dealing with a white-faced or teary-eyed client who’s lost big chunks of wealth. At those times, private bankers are as much psychologists as financial advisers.

“You do some talking and hand-holding and patting on the back,” Akers said. “You just have to keep telling them and keep telling them they’re going to be OK.

“I’ve seen (the market) go down and come back, go down and come back, and sometimes these downs lead to the biggest backs we’ll ever find, the best opportunities you’ll ever find.”

To keep emotions in check, Akers and his staff  remind customers that maintaining their high net worth is the ultimate goal. In essence, that means trying to sustain growth of 7 to 10 percent per year rather than taking chances on higher-risk propositions.

What’s next?
According to a report and survey published by PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year, some changes within the private banking industry are practically imminent.

“History indicates that a financial crisis leads to new regulation,” a portion of the report reads. “Following an unprecedented financial crisis, it is logical to anticipate an unprecedented regulatory response.”

A later passage is even more direct.

“Wealth managers need to plan for a tax-transparent world, taking steps to ensure that product ranges, sales techniques and messages are fully compliant with new regulations,” it reads. “Organi(z)ations need to think carefully about where they place clients’ funds, as well as the vehicles and techniques they use to serve their clients.”

And while Akers agrees that regulatory changes are lurking, he said nothing will change the primary goal of Arvest’s private banking arm – to provide the best service imaginable to its high net worth clients.
“Nobody’s sitting here waiting to take orders,” Akers said. “It’s very proactive.”