Registered investment advisory firms founded in the early 1990s are often described as pioneers. The term “trailblazer” is more apropos for Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Heber Fuger Wendin (HFW) Inc., which is going strong in its ninth decade.

HFW, a fee-only financial advisor and investment counsel firm established in 1934, has always served as a fiduciary and put clients first—even before the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 imposed this duty on investment advisors.

HFW specializes in fixed income, which is 95% of its $4.6 billion in assets under management. It also knows its way around equities. The firm has just eight employees, which is surprising considering the scale of its business. And although it has historically focused on community banks and other institutional clients, it is now also eager to grow its wealth management practice for individuals and families.

“We’re not going to abandon our bread and butter banking business by any means, but like any business we want to diversify,” says David Barnes, chairman, president and CEO of HFW since January 2013. Barnes, 56, practiced business law for many years and joined HFW’s board of directors in 1987. He and his wife Heidi, the firm’s treasurer and systems manager, became its sole owners in late 2012.

Diversifying the firm’s client base is especially important, says Barnes, because community banks and credit unions are shrinking. HFW’s initial clients were savings and loan institutions. Over the years, it has branched out into insurance companies, credit unions, hospitals and foundations.

HFW began working with personal accounts in the late 1930s when the widows of bank presidents asked it to manage their money. Twelve years ago, it created HFW Compass Personal Wealth Management Solutions and Service to serve bank employees and board members of its institutional clients. Over the past five years, HFW’s wealth management assets have risen from $9 million to $50 million. Many of its 55 clients in this space have come aboard in the past few years, largely through word of mouth.

Although wealth management remains a tiny part of HFW’s overall business, “It cements our relationships with our institutional clients,” says Barnes. The firm will soon begin offering wealth management services to the members of one of its credit union clients.

Great Depression Roots
Richard “Dick” Wendin, 75, an investment advisor with HFW and son of firm co-founder Sigurd R. Wendin, is happy to chat about its early days. The so-called firm historian—who recalls playing with the old Dictaphones in his father’s office as a child—joined HFW in 1982. He is also president of Sigurd R. Wendin & Associates, a firm specializing in the valuation of closely held companies.

Sigurd earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1925 and was working in the statistical research department of Bank of New York when the Great Depression hit. After reading about bank holidays and other troubles, he saw a need for someone to advise small community banks. “He looked around the country for the area that could most use his help,” says Wendin, “and lo and behold came up with Michigan and Detroit.”