Highland at 25

When Highland Consulting Associates opened its doors on December 1, 1993, there were associates, technically speaking. But only three of them. And instead of operating out of well-appointed offices overlooking a bustling, mixed-use lifestyle center, they worked in an office park looking out at a major interstate.

To further elaborate, they punched a hole through the wall between two of the offices. (Who had money for an intercom system? Texting? What’s that?) Highland’s office furniture was the best money could buy—from a used office equipment warehouse.

Highland then didn’t look a lot like Highland does today, 25 years later, at least on the surface. But like most enterprises that have stood the test of time, there was something unshakeable at its core. An idea, which was actually more of a conviction, that investors could be better served.

“It seems simple today,” says Rich Veres, a founding partner, “but it was a lightbulb moment which quickly became a calling: Clients should have the focus on them. We knew technology was revolutionizing the industry and that we could help clients, serving as fiduciaries in each and every client relationship.” At the time, five of them.

Today, Highland has multiplied the number of clients on its roster and the assets under advisement, but they haven’t strayed from their commitment to independent, conflict-free advice.

Marc Williams, Rich’s counterpart through the hole in the wall, put it this way: “We were passionate about our mission to earn our clients’ trust. We still are. We never want clients to question our motives. Ever. We want to get paid for what we know, not what we’re selling.”

Rich recalls clients asking if they were really being paid only the fees they earned for providing investment advice. The answer was and is still “yes.”

Of course that means you have to hire a bunch of really smart people to prepare and deliver the advice.

Marc recalls that when he, Rich and their fellow partner, Bill Kinde sketched out the business plan, they didn’t foresee a problem getting clients, but getting people.

Highland found a number of clients the old-fashioned way. “We put a hundred letters in the mail one week,” recalls Marc. “The next week, we’d make a 100 phone calls. We were so passionate about our work, we never had a bad day. We had better days, but never a bad day.”

They found Highland “associates” more opportunistically, hiring quality individuals believing the business could and would support the addition even before there was an opening to be filled.

Rich recognizes these co-workers, most of whom have been a part of the team for well over 10 years as “professionals who have made a tremendous effort—even a sacrifice to grow Highland’s business. It’s a great group of colleagues and we consider ourselves fortunate to link arms with them every day.”

In this case, “team” is the operative word. As an example, unlike many businesses that direct clients to an individual’s extension, Highland still asks clients to dial into a main number that is always answered promptly. It seems a small distinction except in this: Clients are served personally. By a team of people who know them by name.

Talk to any member of the Highland team and they’ll tell you what motivates them.

Kelly O’Hara, the fourth Highland employee says, “We never forget that each of our clients have an end user. For our nonprofit and corporate retirement plan clients, it’s employees and retirement plan participants. For our foundations and endowments, it’s the beneficiaries of their mission. For our private clients, it’s the next generation. When I come to work every day, I know what the end goal is.”

Rich has said the trio who started Highland back in 1993 were like the movie “Three Men and a Baby.” At 25, the baby’s all grown up, but the idea is evergreen. And the next 25 years look as promising as the 25 that will be commemorated in December.

As Kelly says, “It feels like we just started. There’s still so much to do.”

Stacy Windahl is a freelance writer who recently co-authored "Beyond the Castle, A Guide to Discovering Your Happily Ever After," with 30-year Disney veteran Jody Dreyer. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Kenyon College with a B.A. in Economics and M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University.

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