A few years ago, Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management set out to find the right long-term partner. 

As it turned out, word of that search spread from the firm’s Atlanta headquarters all the way up to Toronto, home of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), which was successful in its domestic wealth market and had its sights on entrée to the far larger U.S. high-net-worth space.

“We wanted to create a platform to arrive in the U.S. and then to expand,” recalls Steve Geist, a CIBC senior executive vice-president and its group head of wealth management. “The U.S. wealth market is quite fragmented, so there is an opportunity for entry and for growth.”

Atlantic Trust had appeal on several fronts, he says. 

“Atlantic Trust was highly regarded, they deliver strong results for their clients from an investment perspective, clients were bringing them more money to manage and more clients were arriving,” Geist says.

But hasn’t many a business combination killed the goose that laid the golden egg? This particular union would be a cross-border undertaking, adding to the risk.

Today, Atlantic Trust is a unit of CIBC and the wealth management firm’s chairman and CEO, John “Jack” S. Markwalter Jr., couldn’t be happier. “It’s almost like it was meant to be,” he enthuses about becoming part of CIBC (NYSE: CM), a perennial name on Bloomberg’s yearly list of the world’s most financially sound banks.

It’s easy to understand his excitement. Atlantic Trust manages nearly $27 billion, up from $24 billion since the acquisition closed in early 2014. Offices have been added in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Wilmington, Del., bringing the total to 13. The firm’s footprint in Boston, Atlanta and Newport Beach, Calif., has recently expanded. And head count is up, with some new team members coming from the competition.

Fairy tale endings don’t happen by accident in the hard-nosed wealth management business. This is the story of a flourishing firm that went hunting for more than just a new owner. It thirsted for a partner to share its vision, values and yen to grow, and the best way to find that, Markwalter’s executive team concluded, was to begin the search with a short list of qualities treasured in a potential buyer. These desired characteristics were consonant with how Atlantic Trust ran—and aimed to continue to run—its business, which in turn stemmed from its roots.

From Three Firms To One

Atlantic Trust is the scion of three yesteryear organizations: Whitehall Asset Management, Stein Roe Investment Counsel and Pell Rudman. The Atlantic Trust name was born after Invesco bought Pell Rudman in 2001. By 2004, the other two firms had been acquired and assimilated.

“What we tried to do is take the best attributes of each organization and combine them,” says Markwalter, who has helmed Atlantic Trust the last dozen years.

In the firm’s playbook you’ll find Pell Rudman’s penchant for holistically integrating clients’ investments and wealth planning, along with its appetite for quarterbacking their financial team. The commitment to excellence in both investment management and client service that came from Stein Roe and Whitehall now finds expression in Markwalter’s vision for Atlantic Trust.

“We want to be the go-to wealth management firm for both clients and professionals, and in my mind the only way you can do that is to be the highest quality firm in the industry. Then clients stay with you, they add assets, they refer you to their friends and family, and their attorneys and accountants refer you,” says the 30-year industry veteran.

Aspiring to best-in-class status is certainly a lofty goal, but make no mistake: Under the leadership of the tall, charismatic Harvard MBA from Georgia who’s known for greeting people with a welcoming smile and hearty handshake, Atlantic Trust has posted some enviable numbers. Thirty-six consecutive quarters of increases in assets managed—all of it organic growth rather than through acquisitions.

Atlantic Trust is the number one wealth management firm ultra-high-net-worth clients would recommend, according to a 2014 Luxury Institute survey. It has a 98% client retention rate for the year that ended March 31.

What these accomplishments reflect, of course, is the firm’s culture. That ineffable intangible has always been central to success at Atlantic Trust. For a sense of the firm’s core values, listen to what Markwalter has to say about the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, which some in the financial industry (and on Capitol Hill) are fighting.

“Being a fiduciary is not new to us. Frankly, it’s something that we’ve practiced since inception because we think the best way to take care of families and their wealth is to put their interests first,” Markwalter says.

Atlantic Trust thus sought in new ownership, first and foremost, an organization that would continue its fiduciary ideals and culture. “And we found it with CIBC,” Markwalter says.

The feeling was mutual, according to CIBC’s Geist. “We were probably not 90 minutes into our first discussion with Atlantic Trust senior leaders before we knew we had an alignment in terms of cultural fit. It was very obvious to us that they were truly client-focused,” Geist says.

A Peek Behind The Curtain

Atlantic Trust’s unwavering dedication to clients can be viewed through the keyhole to the office of Paulina Mejia, head of the firm’s Wealth Strategies Group. From the 42nd floor of the Atlantic Trust office in midtown Manhattan, she oversees the group as it works to holistically mesh clients’ investments with their tax, wealth transfer and other plans. She and most of the professionals on her team are trusts and estates attorneys who no longer practice but who have substantial wealth-planning expertise.

“We help our clients think through strategies given their overall asset picture, but we don’t actually draft the documents and put them in place,” Mejia explains, noting that the group’s wealth-planning services are included in the investment management fee clients pay. “We work with the clients’ lawyers and accountants, who play an integral role in the creation of the plan as well, and ultimately they implement the plans.”

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