Lori Sax. R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell Jr. is CEO, president and senior trust officer at Caldwell Trust Co.

The region's independent trust companies share success strategies

A trio of independent trust companies face some significant challenges connected to a 'good' problem: rapid growth
By: 
Apr. 20, 2018

Editor's Note: The west coast of Florida is home to three of the largest trusts in the state, all over $1 billion in assets under management. This story looks at how these firms have grown — and will continue to manage the growth.  

Caldwell Trust Co.

Caldwell Trust Co. recently surpassed $1 billion in assets under management.

During the firm’s first 10 years, its assets grew to $200 million. Over the following 10 years, it reached nearly $700 million.

The company’s growth is partly due to employees, says R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell Jr., CEO, president and senior trust officer of Caldwell Trust. “We hired good people and they brought in good clients,” he says.

Caldwell Trust, with offices in Sarasota and Venice, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. As it has grown, Caldwell says the firm has taken stock in itself and asked two key questions: “What do we have to change to grow?” and “What do we not change?”

“The No. 1 thing our people need to do is talk to our clients.” — R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell Jr., CEO, president and senior trust officer, Caldwell Trust Co.  

One of the company’s values that remains constant is a forward-looking approach. “Our focus is generationally, not today,” Caldwell says.

Caldwell Trust has increased its client base through recommendations from current clients as well as referrals from lawyers and accountants. The company advertises, but Caldwell says those marketing efforts are more of an awareness campaign. “No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want a trust.’ It’s not a sports car. You either have a need for it or you don’t.”

As the company has grown, it has focused on attracting the right employees and building a strong infrastructure, including information technology. “We spend a great deal of time, energy and money on the IT side,” Caldwell says. “The No. 1 thing our people need to do is talk to our clients.” Technology helps employees focus on that priority and works to make aspects of their jobs easier. “We have to be productive so we can talk more to our clients.”

That investment in technology is ongoing. The company’s Venice headquarters, built in 2014, includes a large conference room where employees host video conferencing sessions with clients as another option beyond in-person meetings.

The company also writes its own software — an unusual move in the industry. But the software helps integrate the different steps required to complete tasks for clients. “We felt tech was the saving grace to staying profitable and productive,” Caldwell says.

Caldwell Trust’s IT employees are always working on improving and streamlining internal processes, he says, to make them faster, quicker, cheaper and better. “We’re not trying to make tech people trust people or trust people tech people.”

The company has 34 employees, making the seven to eight full-time, dedicated IT employees a significant portion of the staff. “We got to a critical mass where we could afford IT people,” Caldwell says. “It’s been the best thing.”

Future growth, he says, will mean expanding out from serving clients in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties to serve clients in other geographic areas. “If you don’t grow,” Caldwell says, “you’re dying.”

Sabal Trust Co.

With around $2.1 billion in assets under management, St. Petersburg-based Sabal Trust Co. is the largest independent trust company in Florida.

“We’ve been very pleased with the growth, really with all of our markets over the last few years,” says Bryant Jones, CEO of Sabal Trust Co. “Our approach is one where we’re pretty laser-focused on who we are and what our target markets are.”

Courtesy. Bryant Jones, CEO of Sabal Trust Co.

The company has offices in The Villages, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota. “We’re fortunate to be in four geographic markets that are really good markets for the business that we’re in,” Jones says.

The classic Sabal Trust client, he says, values a high-touch relationship and the company’s marketing efforts reflect that. “We want to get our people out in the community, participating in the greater activities of the community. We tell folks, ‘Do what you’re passionate about.’”

When hiring employees, the company looks for someone who can be entrusted with clients. Larry Fasan, managing principal and executive vice president, says, “We run into our clients at the grocery store, getting gas and at different social functions. It really is a very personal relationship.”

Courtesy. Larry Fasan, managing principal and executive vice president of Sabal Trust Co.

Jones says the company has done a good job of looking forward toward a period of time and building capacity to handle expected growth. “When you do your planning,” he says, “a critical component of that is what will my infrastructure needs be?”

A few years ago, Jones says, the company made the decision to increase the size of its team by 25% in anticipation of revenue growth so it could maintain the level of service it wanted clients to experience. “In our business, you don’t have proprietary technology,” he says. “The source of value for a firm is two things — your reputation and the quality of people you have. Once you sacrifice one of the two, it’s very hard to get that back.”

Employees at Sabal Trust — now numbering 42 — work in teams of five or six people, so clients don’t have just a single person serving them. The teams include people diversified by gender, age, knowledge and credentials, Fasan says. The whole team works with a client and is available when they have questions or concerns. “We don’t want someone to call and get voicemail,” Fasan says. “They have a warm voice and someone who knows who they are.”

The Sanibel Captiva Trust Co.

Terry Igo, CEO of The Sanibel Captiva Trust Co., says the company is seeing growth across the areas it serves, including Sanibel-Captiva, Naples-Marco Island, Tampa Bay and Winter Haven.

Today, the firm has $1.8 billion in assets under management. “We’ve been able to grow by focusing on the big picture in the relationship, not just the investment piece,” Igo says. “I don’t think anyone should choose a trust company with their top priority as investment management only. The goal should be to preserve the asset and pass it on and have a prudent return.”

Courtesy. Terry Igo, CEO of The Sanibel Captiva Trust Co.

New clients, he says, come almost exclusively through word of mouth and referrals from other clients and attorneys.

The company, founded in Sanibel in 2001, will open an office in the Clearwater area this year. It also has plans to open a Fort Myers office in 2019 and is thinking about opening a Bonita Springs office in 2019 or 2020.

Igo says the decision to open a new office involves a combination of three elements — enough people in the marketplace who meet the company’s profile, knowing the market is underserved and a gut feeling. “The most important thing to us when expanding,” he says, “is we ask ourselves, ‘Can we maintain ourselves, our corporate culture?’ If it doesn’t fit our culture, that really dictates what we do.”

The overall growth strategy, Igo says, is to stay on the west coast of Florida where there’s additional opportunity for growth. “We don’t need to get big, we just want to be great at what we do. We have no desire to be some national mega trust company.”

The firm, with 34 employees now, has never used a headhunter, Igo says. “We have experienced people calling us.” Its employees are crucial to expanding its client base. “When we meet with prospects, they sense our culture, and that’s why we’re able to grow,” Igo says. “We have really good people, and we do the right thing for the client and our employees.”

Within three days of Hurricane Irma hitting the area last year, he says the company had $2,000 transferred to every employee’s checking account to defray costs of home repairs and other hurricane-related expenses. The Naples office was hit pretty hard, he says, and didn’t have electricity for two weeks. But the money went to employees in all of the company’s offices. “We just knew people were dealing with taking care of parents and their homes. We felt it was the right thing to do.”

Moving ahead, Igo says, the company will have to face managing a finite resource. “The demand for what we do is pretty high. I think the challenge is prioritizing our time. We could open a market here or there, but it’s staying in our lane, doing what we do best. The biggest challenge is to recognize that when you’re in a growth phase like we are to resist the temptation to grow for growth’s sake.”