In February 2010, the head of Firstrust Financial Resources LLC said the advisory firm was looking at different options to spur growth — with a goal of increasing assets under management from $600 million to $1 billion.
A year later, the unit of Firstrust Bank in Conshohocken, Pa., made its move. FFR has affiliated with the insurer MetLife, which will provide it with not only MetLife's product platform, but also with strategic help in expanding the business, said Timothy Abell, Firstrust Bank's president. "It's good for customers, because MetLife has great products and services, which means our advisers are going to have more tools in their toolbox," Abell said. "And MetLife is willing to invest in this business and help build it over time."
In fact, the partnership with MetLife could ultimately be expanded to the brokerage businesses of community banks around the country, said Adam Sherman, FFR's chief executive.
"There's the opportunity that this program could be scalable throughout the MetLife system," he said. "We think there's an opportunity to take the FFR story to other metro areas."
MetLife wants to see how the relationship with FFR works before potentially "taking it to a larger audience," Sherman said. "Manufacturers want distribution, and community banks tend to be underserved in this area."
Michael Vietri, executive vice president for individual distribution at MetLife, said the arrangement with FFR could be the start of something more in terms of the company distributing through the community bank channel. "We think there is more to this market," he said. "There are some well-established banks in these small communities."
For now, the affiliation with MetLife will help FFR in its quest to double in size over three years, Sherman said. FFR has about 20 reps, $600 million of assets under management and $6 million of annual revenue. MetLife's practice development program will be a help in that regard, Vietri said. "It allows them to evaluate and assess their practices, and think about how they can continue to expand their" business, he said.
The arrangement brings FFR under MetLife's retail sales force, but does not affect Firstrust Bank's ownership of the business. FFR continues to have its own compliance directors and its own product experts in-house.
Before switching to MetLife, FFR was affiliated with Axa Advisors LLC. Business that is in force from the Axa era will remain with that company, and FFR will develop new business with MetLife, Vietri said. He said MetLife "made an investment in getting them started" following the transition.
For FFR, one crucial reason for the linkup was MetLife's well-respected brand, Sherman said. MetLife's product suite of insurance, annuities and investment products also lined up well with the bank distribution program's needs, he said.
Vietri said FFR was a good match because it provides things that are important parts of MetLife's business — life insurance, annuities and retirement planning services. The deal also gives MetLife an opportunity to expand in a major market, he said. Before the partnership, MetLife and its affiliate New England Financial had about 360 financial professionals, associates and staff serving the retail market in the Philadelphia area.
FFR "is unique in that it has a relationship with Firstrust Bank," Vietri said. "It's one of the oldest and obviously a well-respected financial institution in the Philadelphia marketplace."
The firm that is now FFR has gone through lots of affiliations over the years. Sherman and David Fleischer, who is now FFR's president, worked for Axa Advisors in 1999, when enactment of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act spurred them to develop a wealth management firm with a community bank. That year, Sherman and company joined with Progress Bank in Blue Bell, Pa., and built a wealth management unit with 25 registered reps and $500 million of assets under management. Fleet Financial Group bought the bank and the wealth manager in 2004 — and then Bank of America Corp. bought Fleet.
Chafing under bureaucracy, Sherman, Fleisher and Andrew McIlhenny bought out the wealth management business and went independent. By 2006, the team had found a new community bank home within Firstrust.