Publications

- October 1, 2022: Vol. 9, Number 9

Profile: William Spitz, co-founder and principal of Diversified Trust

by Mike Consol

It was around the year 2000, with his career going well and some national stature to his credit, that William Spitz decided to enhance his image by going to the London haberdasher Turnbull & Asser (which, among other things, features a James Bond Collection of attire). He purchased four custom-made suits as well as some dress shirts and ties from the clothing retailer.

Why not? Spitz was scoring big at the time as both CIO of the Vanderbilt University endowment, and as co-founder and principal at Diversified Trust, which billed itself a “comprehensive and independent alternative” to traditional banks and brokerage companies.

Clearly, there was cause for a bit of self-adulation, so to fill out his dashing new appearance, Spitz also purchased a Patek Philippe wristwatch, sparking an interest in precision timepieces, of which he now owns seven and wears a different one each day.

The prize of his collection is a 1958 Patek Philippe Calatrava, given to Spitz’s grandfather on the date of his retirement after 41 years of service with Heyden Newport Chemical Co., and eventually bequeathed to his grandson. Sixty-four years after its manufacture, the timepiece still runs with legendary Swiss precision.

“Premium watches are really hot these days,” Spitz informs. “They have gone up in price a lot in the last couple of years.”

Indeed, the wristwatch as niche asset class was summarized in the January edition of GQ magazine like so: “As of 2021, vintage watches are as hot an investment as classic cars were in the 1990s and that means prohibitive costs. If you’re lusting after one, you already know that the two most popular makes are now out of reach for all but those with the deepest pockets. Should the names ‘Rolex’ and ‘Patek Philippe’ nestle at the top of your lust list, just put down this magazine and call your broker. With Paul Newman’s own eponymous Rolex Daytona selling for almost $15.3 million and Patek Philippe perpetual calendars consistently commanding more than $1.2 million, it’s no surprise that watches are attracting more and more wealthy investors, pushing prices up even further.”

With cell phones keeping perfect time, there is technically no reason a person needs a mechanical watch anymore. But they remain in demand for two reasons, according to Spitz: 1) buyers look at a gold or platinum watch as a piece of jewelry, and 2) admiration for the craftsmanship.

“There are nerds like me who are fascinated by the mechanics, how they work and the precision manufacturing, and the great skill that a watchmaker must have to put them together,” Spitz observes.

TEN YEARS AFTER

Spitz has been in Nashville since 1985 and has seen the wholesale development and population changes in Music City, as it has become one of the hottest growth cities in the nation — and Nashville continues to play that tune. Through his office window at Diversified Trust, he counts 18 construction cranes.

His move to Nashville came after 10 years on Wall Street and was prompted by a phone call from his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, which approached with this query: Would he be interested in managing the Vanderbilt endowment fund, formally dubbed the Vanderbilt University Office of Investments?

Spitz recalls thinking: “My initial thought was, ‘I’m a Wall Street guy, why would I want to do that?’ The more I thought about it, I decided it would be a better use of my talents and a better quality of life for my family and me. We have been here 37 years now.”

And so it was that Spitz found himself back at Vandy, as the school is informally known, a university dating back to its 1873 founding when it was named in honor of shipping and rail baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who provided the school its initial $1 million endowment in the hopes that his gift and the greater work of the university would help to heal wounds inflicted by the Civil War.

Today, that endowment stands at $10.9 billion, thanks in large part to Spitz who, as treasurer and vice chancellor of the Office of Investments, oversaw a tenfold increase in fund assets from 1985 through 2007. Not bad for a guy who admits he didn’t entirely grasp the job when he arrived.

“In the endowment world, the chief investment officers all know each other, and every so often there are industry forums where we would get together. When I went to my first one and started interacting with my counterparts from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these are really smart people doing really creative things.’”

Spitz observed and learned and even assembled an endowment-style portfolio rich in illiquid and nontraditional assets, and that was coterminous to the rise of Yale endowment chief David Swensen, who is widely considered the father of the endowment style of investing, or at least the most successful practitioner of the concept. While giving Swensen his due, Spitz notes that he and his team at Vandy were “right there with him.”

When he arrived at Vanderbilt, there were small allocations to real estate, private equity and venture capital, all three of which Spitz loaded up on, making them far larger positions in the endowment portfolio. Hedge funds were added to the mix in the late 1980s, and by 1988 distressed securities were added, making Vandy an early player in the asset class.

“The signature part of our portfolio was the private equity and venture capital portfolio, and we hit a lot of home runs there.”

OPPORTUNITY DISCOVERED

While CIO for the Vanderbilt endowment, Spitz noted that people frequently told him they were not sure where to invest their money, in part because they didn’t like brokers or banks. At the same time, Larry Bryan, a Memphis-based friend in charge of a healthcare company pension fund was having the same experience. They discussed and realized the situation pointed to an opportunity to create a “high-quality investment entity,” which is precisely what they did in 1994 under the name Diversified Trust. The decision was made to organize as a trust company because Spitz and Bryan were intent on providing an array of services to high-net-worth individuals and families, including handling trusts and estates.

Twenty-eight years after its founding, the firm has grown to five offices (Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; Greensboro, N.C.; Memphis; and Nashville) staffed by 100 people managing more than $8 billion in client assets.

That growth started with one office in Memphis, and the subsequent four offices all came to the firm in the same way: a group of financial professionals who approached Diversified Trust to say they wanted to associate.

“We did a lot of due diligence on each other, and we realized they were our kind of people and vice versa, and that we would enjoy working with them and they would enhance our firm,” Spitz explains. “We never said ‘we want to be in Atlanta’ or ‘we want to be in Nashville.’ It was all driven by the right kind of people finding the firm. That has been our strategy and I think it will continue to be.”

What’s more, the firm is entirely owned by its employees, with between 65 to 70 of its 100 staffers owning shares in the company, and that ownership is broadly distributed, with no single employee controlling any more than 8 percent of equity.

Bryan has served as Diversified Trust CEO for many years, while Spitz, though a co-founder, shareholder and board member of the firm, continued working as CIO of the Vanderbilt Office of Investments under an arrangement with the university leadership that he could devote a small percentage of his time to outside professional interests. He did exactly that until deciding to retire from the Vanderbilt endowment at age 56. After kicking around for six months, Spitz decided he was bored by retirement and returned to Diversified Trust as an employee, in addition to being a principal, shareholder and board member. As a Diversified Trust employee, he more than adheres to the firm’s policy of four days in the office and one day working from home — showing up every day for four to five hours.

“I enjoy the discipline of getting up and going,” he says. “One of the things that I’ve learned is you have got to have purpose in life, and daily goals. Getting up and going to the office and doing something productive is important to me.”

Spitz’s other duties include serving as a member of the MassMutual and Acadia Realty Trust boards of directors.

ANIMAL HOUSE

William Spitz was born in Pensacola, Fla., and moved to the New York City suburbs during his middle-school years when his father, an engineer with Heyden Newport Chemical Co. (the same company for which his grandfather worked for more than 40 years), got promoted to the headquarters offices. Spitz attended boarding school at Phillips Academy of Andover, then Vanderbilt, where he joined and became president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, as well as captain of the lacrosse team.

“I am not all that proud about a lot of what we did,” Spitz says of fraternity life. “We were sort of Animal House. It was fun at the time. When I saw Animal House at the movie theater my first thought was, ‘Been there, done that.’”

He concedes that interest in his studies was lacking until midway through in his undergraduate pursuits. In Spitz’s own words: “I had lots of diversions and, as a result, I was a pretty mediocre student for a couple of years, and then I finally realized, ‘You are going to have to make a living one day, you better get serious.’ My last two years I did extremely well and, luckily, when I applied to graduate school, they looked at the trend, not the average, and I got into University of Chicago, which is obviously a great place. I did very well there.”

The two years he spent in Chicago earning his MBA were his most stimulating intellectually, as the department was populated by the academic likes of Fischer Black, Milton Friedman, Arthur Laffer, Myron Scholes and George Stigler. Spitz subsequently spent 10 years in Manhattan with several investment management firms as an analyst and portfolio manager.

“I really didn’t think I was very good at that, and I didn’t enjoy it very much,” he admits. “But … I was a decent overall economic and investment thinker.”

When Vanderbilt University officials approached, Spitz found, much to his liking, all the endowment’s money was managed by outside parties.

“I quickly realized that was a pretty good use of my talents, to be an asset allocator and an evaluator of managers, as opposed to trying to pick this stock versus that stock,” he recounts. “And I don’t like to manage people. I wanted to be an investor, I wanted a small group of closely knit people who would roll up their sleeves and get the job done in a low-key professional manner.”

Though he never had a personal mentor, Spitz credits James Bailey and Hunter Lewis, the Harvard roommates who founded Cambridge Associates in 1973, with having a major impact on his career. Cambridge Associates was working with all the major university endowments at the time.

“I did not have particularly well-formed ideas to what my investment strategy should be when I arrived at Vanderbilt. When I started working with Jim Bailey and Hunter Lewis at Cambridge, they really educated me on what the big boys were doing and how to think about investment classes and asset categories, and how to be contrarian and be courageous enough to do things that are kind of off the radar screen. They influenced me tremendously.”

THE THREADS OF TIME

Unfortunately, the natty suits and accessories from Turnbull & Asser that Spitz purchased many years ago have since gone fallow. The world has changed, he says, and nobody wears formal business attire anymore, leaving him with a closet filled with suits, shirts and ties that have become outmoded by the business community’s move to casual dress.

Interestingly, if you catch Spitz dressed to the nines, it’s likely while he’s on the dancefloor wearing a tuxedo. For 15 years, Spitz has been an active ballroom dancer and a regular in national competitions.

“I have been in about 50 competitions. In 2015 my partner and I were the top amateurs in the country, and I still practice an hour a day, five days a week.”

After burning out on competitions and taking a five-year break, Spitz and his professional dance partner are gearing up to compete again in the late fall or early spring. They train for 19 different dances divided into two broad groups called “smooth dances” (such as waltz, tango, foxtrot and Viennese waltz) and “rhythm dances” (the mambo, cha-cha, rumba, swing, hustle and merengue).

“Most people get the physical aspect of ballroom dancing, but most people would not get the mental aspect, and that is really the bigger thing,” he says. “You think about it, we do 19 different dances, for each dance we have a routine that we do when we compete, and each of those routines has, depending on the dance, five to 10 or 15 different steps or patterns in it. So, we are doing 19 routines with five or 10 different patterns — that is hundreds of patterns of steps that you have to memorize, and for each of these you are doing a sequence, you have got eight or 10 steps that you want to do in a certain order. Memorizing all that and staying current is really a good mental workout.”

The other feature of ballroom dancing Spitz appreciates is the manners and etiquette, required on the ballroom dancefloor but virtually nonexistent anywhere else in modern society. For starters, it’s tuxes and tails for the men and beautiful ball gowns for the women. Secondly, rather than grabbing their partners, the men extend a hand to invite their female partners to the dance. Good posture is a must. At the conclusion of the dance, the partners bow to their audience and men escort the women off the dancefloor.

“It’s some nice formalities that you don’t see much in the world anymore.”

True enough. But that has never stopped William Spitz from putting his best foot forward.

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.

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