Twenty-five years ago this month Fred Taylor, Dick Kopp, Moses “Tony” Taylor and I upended our otherwise routine lives to start Northstar. Although the four of us came from different areas of the financial services world including bond sales, trust investments and trading, we were all very clear about what we wanted to accomplish as an independent fiduciary advisor to individuals and families.
We suspected that there was a better model for growing and preserving wealth that did not involve investing all of your money in style-driven mutual funds. The modern mutual fund industry had its start in Denver when such legends as Tom Bailey, Bill Berger and Bjorn Borgen started their own fund families – Janus, Berger and Founders Funds. The huge success of these and other mutual fund families helped to democratize investing by allowing smaller investors to participate in the growth that the stock market promised. We felt that investors deserved to know that their money was being managed to their objectives, who was making the investment decisions, and when to realize capital gains. In those days the modern investment advisory business was pretty immature – and the scale, choices and technology that we take for granted today were still a long way off.
Many of our early business decisions revolved around the adoption of technology for things like real-time news and stock quotes. The internet and email as widely used business tools was still a few years away, and online custody and trading platforms did not appear until the early 2000s. At that time, producing comprehensive and easy to understand printed statements that showed cost basis, realized gains and losses and performance information was a big undertaking – and a big improvement over what brokerage firms were able to provide. Of course, we did not appreciate it at the time, but our focus on utilizing the latest technology as it developed, would allow us to scale our operations and serve our clients better as we grew. Fast forward to today, and our consistent investment in new technology allowed our whole team to vacate our offices during the Covid-19 shutdown without a major disruption.
Throughout the 1990s as more Americans came to rely on stocks for their family wealth and retirement savings, the stage was set for businesses like ours to grow. This broader participation by individual investors required transparency and education to help clients understand how their investments were impacted by seemingly unrelated social, economic, fiscal and monetary developments. The combined experience of Northstar’s founders was considerable and it meant that we had witnessed a lot of ‘once in a lifetime’ market occurrences. We utilized our independence and capitalized on our experience by being flexible in our approach to investing. Central to that was an understanding that while markets move one way or another for any number of reasons, it rarely has to do with strictly fundamental inputs. Often, the lack of a rational reason for a big market move will spook individual investors into making rash decisions about their life’s savings. Clients often tell us that they appreciate that we are there to keep them from selling for emotional reasons rather than as part of a long-term plan.
Together we have witnessed some astonishing events and we are amazed at the resilience of our financial system and our markets. Looking back, it is also remarkable to consider just how critical the Federal Reserve has been in helping to keep the markets out of the ditch when things get dicey. The increasing willingness of the Fed to use its considerable power to keep markets and investors out of deep and lasting trouble has been notable. Here is a list of some of the challenges that the markets have faced during Northstar’s first 25 years and highlights of government intervention:
- The Asian Financial Crisis – 1997 – US federal banking system backstopped loans to Asian countries.
- Russian Financial Crisis – 1998 – collapse of U.S. hedge fund Long Term Capital Management – Federal Reserve bailed it out to save banks.
- Tech bubble/dot-com crash 2000-2003 – Federal Reserve lowers interest rates.
- 9/11 terrorist attacks – Federal Reserve lowers interest rates.
- U.S. housing market bubble/Subprime mortgage crisis/The Great Recession 2007-2009 – bank and key business bailouts, interest rate reductions, quantitative easing.
- Coronavirus Crisis – 2020 – multi trillion-dollar emergency funding, including the Paycheck Protection Program, Cares Act, interest rate cuts and securities purchases by the US Treasury.
In the moment, each of these events had the potential to cause serious disruptions to world and national economies and markets. Indeed, some of the resulting recessions lasted a while and resulted in temporarily higher unemployment and lower GDP growth. Ultimately, the markets found their footing and resumed their path upward. The adage of ‘don’t fight the Fed’ – despite fundamental reality – has proven durable and powerful when it comes to stock market returns.
Throughout our first 25 years we have been keenly aware of the need to stay relevant for our clients by adding important talent to our team of professionals. In 2007 we added Charlie Farrell, who came to us with a good number of clients and a background in retirement planning and tax law. In addition to becoming a great partner, Charlie serves as Northstar’s CEO, in charge of business and investment strategy.
As an industry, Investment Advisors place primary importance on how they are doing vis a vis the market or a benchmark. Investment performance is a way of keeping score. There are other metrics as well including assets under management (AUM), that we use to compare ourselves with the competition. For us, the most important and far less objective metric for success is the large number of client relationships that we have forged and kept through so many market cycles and crises. Those are what we are most proud of and the main reason that we enjoy what we do every day. I like to think that we are helping clients make sense of the world as it is and help them understand what we are doing to stay in the game.
A lot has happened to shape our business and our thinking in our first 25 years. Fred, Charlie and I have a great partnership and we are proud of our talented and dedicated team. In the early years, Fred and I and the other founders were happy to have found a way to help clients with their investments. The next 25 years will see many new challenges and opportunities. We are gratified to see young people come to our firm – both as clients and as future partners. We are proud of our work in the community as board members, leaders and mentors.
In honor of our first 25 years in business we are excited to be funding a scholarship at Metropolitan State University for students from backgrounds and experiences that are underrepresented in finance today.
As we often say, we are especially grateful for the trust our clients have placed in Northstar.