For Acacia Financial Group Inc., success lies not just in the W in Woman Business Enterprise, it also revolves around the B.
In 2015, Acacia ranked not only as the top woman-owned financial advisor in America, it came in at No. 5 in the nation against all FA firms for the 4th year in a row, according to Thomson Reuters. And as the company gets ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary in May, it can also look to how it has grown from a smaller regional business into a larger national one spanning both coasts.
Co-presidents Noreen White and Kim Whelan told The Bond Buyer that the key to their achievement has been strategic growth coupled with a commitment to maintaining a standard of high quality for their clients. Acacia did $9.1 billion of business in 171 transactions in 2015, which translates to a market share of 2.4%.
“We have been pretty consistent as to where our ranking has been consistently high in par amount, but also high in the number of transactions we have done, which is key,” Whelan said, adding that they are in the marketplace from two to three times a week. “That’s what surprises many people,” White added, “That we are so active in the marketplace, doing deals in a variety of negotiated and competitive sales. In our firm there’s a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas, so we know where the market is.” Prior to cofounding Acacia, Whelan was a partner at Public Financial Management; the president and sole owner of Whelan Financial Group, a New Jersey-based financial advisory firm; and an investment banker in the municipal finance arena. She has served on the Board for the New Jersey Building Authority and is a member of the Government Finance Officers Association and the Association of Environmental Authorities. Before she co-founded Acacia, White was President and founder of Municipal Advisory Partners. She also served as a member of the Municipal Securities Rule-making Board representing the Municipal Advisor community. At the MSRB, she chaired the Municipal Advisor Working Group. White is a Certified Municipal Finance Officer and a Certified County Finance Officer in New Jersey. She started her finance career at Bear Stearns, where she concentrated on infrastructure financing. White and Whelan started Acacia in 2006 with the goal of seeing it become a national practice.
“Strategic growth has been the key to our success,” Whelan said. “When we target a new territory, we look to make sure we can still provide the high level of quality of service that our customers need.” In the fourth quarter of 2015, Acacia opened a new office in the San Francisco Bay area, which joins the six other offices around the U.S. The company now has 18 public finance professionals on staff and has offices in New York; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Anchorage, Alaska; Montclair and Marlton in New Jersey; and the newest addition in Burlingame, Calif. “Acacia – our name came from the Acacia tree – which I think is a good symbol for what financial advisors do,” Whelan said. “We provide protection with wide branches while having deep roots providing strength and continuity.” Acacia Financial has an affiliate company – Acacia Investment Advisory Group Inc. – which is registered as a Municipal Advisor with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Acacia Financial itself is registered as a Woman Business Enterprise (WBE). White said that Acacia is committed to providing opportunities to women and minorities in the municipal bond business. “We provide many years of experience – the municipal bond business is one the last great apprenticeships. We hire junior or entry level women or minorities,” she said, “And this is a good way to mentor and teach those who may feel, when they look at big senior firms, that there is not a way to move up the ladder for women or minorities.”
Looking back over the past 10 years and looking ahead to the next 10, White and Whelan see both opportunities and challenges. Whelan said that in the last in 10 years not too much has changed in the FA business: “Our primary responsibility is still our fiduciary responsibility to our clients.” White added that regulations have been changing and expanding. “More regulation has made the cost of doing business more expensive,” which may have hurt some smaller firms that didn’t prepare for it, White said. “At the end of the day, though, we are seeing more professionalism in a business that many had marginalized.” Whelan said some smaller issuers now see that underwriters have no fiduciary responsibility to them and that they have dual loyalties – to investors and to issuers. “All this comes at a time of complexity and volatility,” White said. “That’s important – a need for continuity and experts in the municipal marketplace – and that’s the role that we play.” In addition to being an independent financial advisor, White said, Acacia is a full service firm that does diverse business, such as consulting. The company’s work for the state of New Jersey typifies this diverse approach. After working for the state a few years ago, Whelan said, the firm was recently hired to do a cash flow and capital model for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. “There was a very rigorous procurement process for N.J. DOT and we beat out many accounting firms, because we had done a good job previously for the state,” White said. “This is one aspect of our business that doesn’t get into the league tables or the rankings.” In the final analysis, Whelan and White believe it is their strategic growth plan and industry expertise that is winning the race to the top. “We are not going away. We are not just a flash in the pan. It’s not just the W in the WBE that’s getting us the work,” White said. “Our goal is to continue to grow strategically from coast to coast,” Whelan said. “We know where we came from, we know where we are. And we know where we are going.”
by Chip Barnett
JAN 12, 2016 9:00am ET