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Strategic Financial eyes $1 billion in assets

By Norman Poltenson


UTICA — “Our goal is to hit $1 billion in assets within two years,” says Alan R. Leist, III, the senior portfolio manager at Strategic Financial Services, Inc. The firm is headquartered at 114 Business Park Drive in Utica, with additional offices in DeWitt and West Palm Beach, Fla.

Alan R. Leist, Jr., company CEO and founder, says, “I started in 1979 in wealth management and estate planning. I ran out of money in three months … and went to KeyBank for a $25,000 loan … It took three to four years before [the business] blossomed.” His son, Alan R. Leist, III, notes that, “the firm [currently] manages and advises on assets of over $850 million.”

From its modest start, Strategic Financial Services expanded in 1988 into investment management, when Judy Sweet, now the firm’s president, came onboard to co-found Strategic Investment Advisors, the firm’s registered investment advisor. Around 2000, Strategic Financial embraced company-sponsored retirement plans. “Today, we have 27 full-time employees of whom 10 are focused on research, one is in marketing/sales, and the rest service and support our clients,” says Leist, III. “Our [annual] revenue is around $5 million.” Leist, Jr. notes that “… the company owns the 9,000-square-foot building in Utica and leases the 960-square-foot office in DeWitt and the 450-square-foot office in Florida.”

Strategic Financial caters to high-net-worth clients. “Our clients [typically] have $1 million to $20 million in liquid assets and a net worth of $5 million to $50 million … Our institutions also have endowments of $1 million to $20 million,” says Leist, III. “This is our sweet spot, our core competency,” adds his father. “On the institutional side, we have 32 relationships … [of which] 31 are in Central New York … Many of our individual investors also own businesses, and we handle their company retirement plans.”

Contributing to the firm’s growth is the executive committee, which includes eight employees. In addition to Leist, Jr., Sweet, and Leist, III, the committee includes Jeremy Stewart, managing director, information and data systems; Nancy Meininger, managing director, finance and operations; Iris Buczkowski, managing director of wealth management; David Lemire, managing director, senior market strategist; and Laura Powers, director, retirement-plan services.

Strategic Financial has appeared regularly in Barron’s Top 100 Financial Advisors, based on assets managed, revenue produced, and quality of practice. “We’re proud of our being recognized by Barron’s, … [especially] considering the number of competitors, which range from international bankers and pure investment managers to other independent advisors,” says the CEO.

“What sets us apart is our value proposition,” adds Sweet. “We’re not selling a product … We’re giving investment advice based on a thorough understanding of our clients’ needs and goals. That means taking the time not only to gain this knowledge but [also] to establish a comfort level and earn their trust … Our clients have access to key executive talent … When you talk to us, you talk to a team of money managers … focused directly on your investment strategy … We focus on quality to protect assets in the short-run and [compound] returns in the long-term … Process, people, and persistence drive investment success.”

Michael Leist, who focuses on marketing and client relations, says to add “… communications to the mix of what sets Strategic Financial apart from the competitors. We have created a communications platform which includes regular publications in print and online. We are looking at adding videos and considering information seminars … We also advise our clients what’s new at Strategic Financial so they are aware of any changes.” Leist, Jr. also points out that “… two members of the staff focus on scheduling appointments between the relationship managers and the clients to [ensure] regular meetings … If a client has a question, we provide the answer by the end of the day or we call to say we’ll have the answer by tomorrow.”

“Education of our staff also sets us apart,” continues Leist, Jr. “[Just] look at the impressive credentials of our employees.” The CEO is referring to an alphabet soup of initials attached to the firm’s employees. “[For example], it is unusual for a firm our size to have so many CFAs,” he avers.              

Leist, Jr., Sweet, and Leist, III are stockholders in the company. Leist, Jr. held management positions at Elder Pharmaceuticals, Xerox, and Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co. before founding the company in 1979. Prior to joining Strategic Financial, Sweet held investment positions at Marine Midland Bank and the Bank of New York, where she was responsible for equity and fixed-income management of trusts, estates, and investment-management accounts. Leist, III led the technology-trading team at Merrill Lynch before moving to Fulcrum Global Partners, LLC to run the trading operation. He joined Strategic Financial in 2005.

“Our firm is committed to the community … We are proud to sponsor over 65 different local organizations, such as St. Elizabeth’s Foundation, United Way, The Community Foundation, Utica Public Library, and Leave a Legacy,” says the company’s CEO. “We give six figures [annually] back to the community, and we try to grow it each year … Our employees also sit on 19 or 20 boards of not-for profit organizations.” Strategic Financial also works with local vendors. It has maintained a 34-year relationship with KeyBank for financing and relies on Fitzgerald, DePietro, & Wojnas CPAs, P.C. for its accounting work.

Strategic Financial is committed to growing the business. “That’s the reason we brought Mike [Leist] in, to focus on business development,” says Leist, Jr. “We have a good share of the Utica marketplace; we need to be more aggressive in Syracuse now that we have opened an office … Longer term, we need to [develop] Albany… Syracuse and Albany [are the ends] of the barbell … To develop the business, we also need to concentrate on succession, on continuity in the company … We have to retain the institutional knowledge while attracting young people.” Leist, Jr. is 66; Sweet is 52; Leist, III is 40; and Michael Leist is 32.

Leist, Jr. muses that he started the business “… because I was doing too much traveling. I moved my son (Alan, III) to three different schools in three years. I needed to feed my family … Because I grew up in Syracuse, I figured Utica (residents) would consider me an expert since I came from 50 miles away,” the founder says jokingly. Leist, Jr. and his wife Connie of 43 years, live in New Hartford near their two sons who returned to work in the family business. Their daughter, Libby Leist, works as a senior producer for the “Today Show” in New York City.


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