Forget heavy mahogany, brass trim or bankers' lamps. Traditional financial firm fixings aren't SEI's style.
Planted on a developed plot of farmland in Oaks, the campus looks more like an assembly of eight brightly colored Art Deco air hangars -- an unlikely setup for an investment institution that administers more than $282 billion in mutual funds and pooled assets and $100 billion in assets and processes almost 50 trillion investment transactions annually.
But then, creativity is part of SEI's company culture -- innovation is in the air.
"The facility is not a big monument," says CEO Alfred West, who commands the $636 million firm from the same type of desk-on-wheels that his 1,625 employees park at each day.
Red plugs called pythons hang from ceilings like elastic garden hoses, and employees can wheel their mobile workstations to an open port and hook into a new location. Sometimes entire work groups relocate, he says.
On any given day, the open-air arrangement is a "beehive of activity and communication," West says. An office without barriers conducts information like a fluid current.
"We have tried to get everything but business out of the way," he says. "There is no hierarchy."
West doesn't have a secretary to expedite phone calls or filter his e-mails; he answers them himself. He constructs his own Power Point presentations and doesn't pull into a special parking spot. All of this has earned him a spot on Forbes' "Best Value Boss" list for 2004. And for the fourth consecutive year, the company was named to Fortune magazine's list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" in America, placing at No. 29.
"A lot of the jealousy that takes place in other companies over different perks doesn't happen here," West says. "Ideas are more important than anything."
Ultimately, SEI's décor defines the company dynamic -- open, upfront and transparent -- West says.
"We are about creativity and doing the right thing," he says. "You have to be that way."
Born from a graduate school project at the University of Pennsylvania, SEI Investments started as Simulated Environments Inc. -- part of a Wharton School game in which students set up small businesses. West and a partner wrote a computer simulation for bank loan officers.
"We really didn't think we would end up in banking, but at the time, bankers were the only ones with money," he says. "Interest rates were 16 to 18 percent."
In 1968, SEI sold its software to 60 top banks, which used the program to train loan officers. Before long, West's technology knack and financial know-how snowballed into other applications, namely an automated system for trust departments.
Until 1981, SEI focused on these niches, depending on a recurring revenue model that West compares to building an annuity. In 1981, the partners purchased a pension provider, entering the consulting sphere with a multimanager approach.
"We moved from the middle to the front office," West says, noting a simultaneous introduction of cash mutual funds for banks to sweep in assets each night.
SEI provides asset management and investment technology solutions to corporations, financial institutions and advisers, and affluent families, helping them create and manage wealth. People or corporations that invest large sums of money -- pooled funds, family fortunes or pension funds -- trust advisers or other entities to manage their wealth. These advisers and entities then trust SEI to account for, report on, process, protect and grow the money, West says.
"In order to do what we do for investment advisers, brokers, investment managers of all types and banks, we really have to be on top of our game," he says. "And we have to understand what's on the minds of end investors. This has led us to a deeper understanding of the needs and desires of baby boomers, which in turn has led us to a new advice platform that takes into consideration not only their wealth, but more importantly, their life goals. There's nothing more important than listening to what our clients have to say.
"You can't spend too much time with your clients because you get wonderful feedback. We spend a great deal of our time these days doing everything we can to enhance the client experience."
These key points stem from experience. The company's three departments prospered during the 1980s, but the financial game, like any sport, is laced with competition. Growth sparked friction among the divisions, contradicting the cohesive, entrepreneurial mentality West and his partner infused in the college start-up venture.
Collision prompted reconstruction.
"In 1990, we reinvented the company culture and took it back to how it was when it was in a single room," West says, explaining the open-forum, community feel clients note when they visit SEI today.
As a leading global provider of asset management and technology solutions, SEI's investment empire includes 22 offices in 11 countries, proving that change management is good, and adaptability is even better -- especially in an industry where the only constant is fluctuation.
"Business is not a zero-sum game," West says. "Everyone in the company can win by winning, which is not always apparent when people are competing internally. That happens very easy (in the financial industry).
"At SEI, we are collaborative and there is friendly competition, but there is no negative competition. We drowned that out."
Customers, center stage
SEI's customer service is far from cookie-cutter. Baby boomers can play board games rather than filling out standard-issue questionnaires to figure out their investment personalities.
"There are life challenges on the board, you move the pieces around, and you confront various issues," West says.
Vacation home? Career change? Dole out money to the kids?
"It's an upside-down approach," he says.
Analyzing the financial impact of these life choices helps advisers choose investments for this key customer group.
"The baby boomer has really taken over the individual side of the market," he says, noting the importance of uncommon customer service. "Baby boomers have redefined everything as they chug through their life cycles. They redefined music in the 1960s, sex with the pill, automobiles with the SUV, and now they are chewing on financial services.
"They also need a service mentality. For baby boomers, it's not about the investment, it's about how those investments can support their lives."
Cracking this case requires a bit of psychology, West says. But SEI has found that creative solutions appeal to this growing demographic.
"Most financial services and investment firms haven't zeroed in on the whims of the baby boomer," he says. "They are different consumers than any other generation. Since we serve our clients in a support capacity, we are helping intermediaries build the capabilities they need to service the baby boomer."
SEI team members consider obstacles their customers face and treat them like their own.
"Their issues are more important than ours," West says, "and everyone is pretty much in a state of flux or change."
Beyond meeting the needs of baby boomers, West says there are a couple of other client issues that challenge the investor world today. For one, corporate customers struggle to feed cash flow into pension plans.
"The defined benefit pension plan has now become an issue of corporate finance, where before, for about 10 years, everyone was on a pension holiday," he says.
When interest rates dropped a few years ago, liabilities swelled.
"All of a sudden, pension plans are requiring a much larger portion of cash flow to keep them funded," he says. "We are helping our corporate clients, unions and foundations handle these large problems."
No solution comes without risk, but SEI counsels its financial adviser clients and provides them tools -- information, technology and market expertise -- so they can make sound financial decision for their customers.
Hedge funds, for example, deserve to play roles in client portfolios, West says. The key is to balance risk management, preservation and growth.
"People don't like volatility when it is in the loss column," West says. "If you look at four years ago, when the markets were screaming ahead, people didn't want to give up return for better risk management. Now, it is the reverse."
West is an approachable leader. After all, no barriers separate his work space from the rest of the office commotion.
"I don't micromanage," he says.
In the investment world, this leadership strategy matches the mindset in which clients must view portfolios -- from a long-term perspective with an open mind and an acceptance of change.
Managing markets is much like steering the SEI ship around market obstacles.
"It's really all about change," West says, summing up SEI's corporate structure with two words that fit a financial firm -- change management. "It's about creating something new, getting rid of what is old and clearing the deck so you can move ahead.
"That change is not easy," he says of the company's restructuring efforts in the 1990s and the setup that drives its success today.
He considers the wheeled desks, the dangling pythons and the built-in flexibility SEI's corporate culture encourages.
"It's about signaling that change is OK and you can't dodge it," he says. "It is with you. And you better embrace it."
This requires an approachable management team to dream up attainable strategies for clients. Then comes the hard part that West says is always a "bugaboo" -- flawless execution. And as the political climate presents expanded global market opportunities, administering processes that meld cultures, monies, financial strategies and customers' goals will feed more commotion into SEI's open-air-market office.
"We are building global platforms that will give us tremendous leverage," West says. "This presents the challenge of bringing together a diverse group of people as we go global. You have to be careful that your corporate culture doesn't exclude anyone as you bring in people from different cultures."
Diversity is as clear as the writing on the wall, quite literally. West displays his personal art collection on SEI's vibrantly painted accent walls -- unusual, eye-catching works that include surreal photography, Hershey-painted portraits and a ceramic mushroom display.
"There is a lot of parallelism between the art that is hanging and what we do," he says. "These emerging artists are pushing the boundaries in the art world just as we are pushing the boundaries in the financial world."
How to reach: SEI Investments, (610) 676-1000 or www.seic.com