The folks at Natural Investments LLC see themselves as different from mainstream financial advisors, and consider their clients to be different from garden-variety investors. In short, the Natural Investments team takes pride in being out of step with conventional Wall Street and financial services norms. It is, they will tell you, what makes them who they are.
The advisors who make up the Natural Investments (NI) network are scattered from coast to coast, as well as beyond in Hawaii. Most work from home, and Hawaiian shirts and tie-dyed shirts are the uniform of the day for some of them. NI advisors have backgrounds ranging from social/environmental activism and the ministry to scientific research and Wall Street. But what unites them is a passion for sustainable and responsible investing, which is the new version of SRI that formerly was known as—and is still sometimes used interchangeably with—socially responsible investing.
NI advisors are into green-economy investing and companies in any sector that earn a profit without negatively impacting the planet and its denizens. They also facilitate community- and local-based investing for clients that can run the gamut from a private-equity offering that buys organic farmland to loans with various purposes such as boosting small local businesses or helping low-income people pay their mortgages and stay in their homes. NI believes the latter types of unconventional investments both promote the public good and help diversify client portfolios.
The firm was founded 16 years ago, but its founders had been practicing and writing about SRI since the days when it was considered kooky. And with a recently published book written by NI’s three partners that introduces the concept of resilient investing, the firm is trying to take the SRI space to the next level.
“We’re a fairly quirky firm,” says Christopher Peck, a managing partner and NI’s chief compliance officer, who works in Windsor, Calif. “Even though we may look a little quirky and our personalities are, too, I don’t want to undersell the fact it’s a super-professional group. In college, we were the kind of folks who were drinking a beer at 11:00 at night and talking about what we read in class. We don’t necessarily conform to the standard box, but we’re totally into what we’re doing.”
NI’s investment minimum is $50,000, but it has numerous high-net-worth clients and its aggregate assets under management are roughly $260 million. It’s a fee-only firm that also does financial planning on a project, hourly or retainer basis. It has slowly built up its advisor network over the years, but it isn’t looking to build an empire.
The firm’s patriarch is Jack Brill, who began his career as an SRI advisor 30 years ago and was an original member of First Affirmative Financial Network, which remains the largest network of SRI advisors. His son, Hal, followed in the family business, so to speak, and together they launched Natural Investment Services Inc. in 1999, the same year they and Cliff Feigenbaum, the editor of the GreenMoney Journal, wrote a book called Investing With Your Values, Making Money and Making a Difference. It was Jack Brill’s second book, the first being Investing From the Heart in 1992.
Michael Kramer came on board as the third advisor in 2000, followed by Peck four years later. Jack Brill is now retired, and today Hal Brill, Kramer and Peck are NI’s three partners. The firm reorganized as a limited liability company in 2007, and the rest of the advisors who’ve joined NI are independent contractors.
“We’re owner-operated and have no employees, and the three partners run the firm in addition to having their own clients,” says Kramer, who works from Keauhou, Hawaii. “We kind of function informally as a cooperative rather than a hierarchal structure built around management and a central office making decisions.”
Kramer notes that NI has never recruited anybody. “They’ve all approached us because they felt a resonance with the values of our firm,” he says. “We get approached periodically, and we’re very selective because we want to make sure it’s the right fit with our very small company. The people we bring on really have to walk their talk and not just see this as business. We want people where this is really core to who they are because clients want us to be leaders in social and environmental change. ”