Thursday, April 18, 2024

Barron’s favorite N.C. money manager

By David Dykes

Stephen Thomas studied architecture and owned two restaurants before entering the brokerage business. He’s one of six North Carolinians cited by the Financial Times among the 400 best U.S. advisers. Others were Gregory Cash, Robert Wickham and William Oliver of Charlotte; Brett Hoge of Winston-Salem; and Robert McCarthy of Raleigh. Photo by Jay Winemiller

Charlotte money manager Stephen Thomas gets a lot of national recognition, maybe as much as anyone in his industry in North Carolina. With $1.45 billion under management and 19 employees, he made Barron’s list of the 100 top independent financial advisers this year, ranking 98th. No one else from the Carolinas was ranked by the financial newspaper. The Financial Times has also included his firm, Linden Thomas & Co., in its ratings of 400 top financial advisers for the last two years.

Linden Thomas (Linden is his middle name) has 600 clients.

It’s quite a success story for Thomas, who tried a couple of other careers before settling on finance. “It’s a blessing to be recognized. But at the end of the day, I’m still the poor kid from Texas, and I want clients to do real well,” he says.

Thomas, 56, studied architecture at Texas A&M University but found the work boring as an intern back in his hometown of Dallas. “I thought I wanted to design skyscrapers for a living and thought I was going to be a great architect,” he says. “It was just a very disappointing job, because I just sat there drawing I-beams for the other senior architects.”

He later worked at and owned a couple of restaurants. Thomas’ roommate at the time was a bond trader who urged him to find a finance job. Dallas firms weren’t hiring, so Thomas followed a lead to Washington, D.C. A branch manager at the EF Hutton brokerage offered him a position, which he accepted with a caveat: He didn’t have the money to return to Dallas and collect his belongings. The manager lent him $200, setting him up for a long investment career.

Over 20 years, Thomas would work for Prudential Securities, Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney. After Hutton operations merged with Smith Barney, Thomas stayed on but moved to Charlotte. He started his own company in 2005, convinced he could achieve better results and customer service. A significant part of the revenue of large brokerage firms goes to back-office investments that provide limited benefit to clients, he says.

Thomas’ staff of analysts and customer-service representatives impressed Barron’s, which asks 102 questions of advisers seeking recognition, then bases its ranking on three general categories: assets, revenue and practice quality. Investment returns aren’t factors in Barron’s or the FT’s surveys, though an adviser’s growth typically relies on meeting clients’ expectations.

The business is based in an 87-year-old North Tryon Street building acquired for $2.5 million in 2011. Thomas, who is married and has three daughters, says his firm has outgrown the space and is looking to buy another downtown building.

While the Barron’s and Financial Times accolades help attract clients, Thomas says the attention hasn’t changed his outlook. “We’re nowhere near where I think I want to be,” says Thomas, who donates 10% of revenue to charities and ministries that assist underprivileged kids. “Our journey, quite candidly, is really just beginning.”
Bryan Krakker, a client management adviser who has worked with Thomas for six years, says his boss’ success stems from a passionate, hands-on style.
“It’s just the dedication, the daily focus that he has with his clients and that, quite honestly, he expects of his staff, including myself,” Krakker says. “We don’t take anything for granted.”

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