Bringing the expertise of the team to the table
Jan Winters’ soft-spoken, confident style suits her role as president of AMBS Investment Counsel LLC.
Named president of the small firm last year — just prior to the dark days that began in October — Winters is primarily responsible for AMBS’ relationships with clients. She said AMBS Investment has tried to be proactive in communicating with clients during the stock market’s recent wild ride that ended down by about one-third by the end of 2008.
“A lot of what’s going on right now is communicating with the clients and making sure they are as comfortable as they can be with where they are,” Winters said. “There’s no question that there is more concern now than there has been.”
Founded in 1982 in Grand Rapids by Keith and Marie Ambs, AMBS Investment Counsel today is owned by seven principals plus Convergent Capital Management LLC.
A Chicago holding company with eight affiliates around the country, CCM is an affiliate of City National Bank and owns a 75 percent stake in AMBS Investment. AMBS has $532 million in assets under management, a nine-member staff and more than 150 clients. The client base is primarily high-net worth individuals and institutional investors, such as foundations and pension funds.
AMBS is run independently from CCM and City National, according to the firm’s 2005 ADV Form on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission. CCM provides administrative and business management support, according to the statement, but not investment strategy for clients.
AMBS Investment takes a value approach, looking for firms that are undervalued for its 30- to 40-company portfolio, Winters said. A four-person investment committee, which includes CEO Barbara J. DeMoor, makes portfolio decisions for value-approach equity investments as well as fixed-income offerings.
“We look for companies that have earning ratios that are greater than the norm,” Winters said. “We’re looking at valuations that are less than the benchmarks — the Russell 1000 and the S&P 500. What we’re trying to do with the value strategy is attempting to outperform the benchmarks.”
Winters said she thinks the team approach, which utilizes decades of investment experience among all the members, serves clients well. “Not only are you taking all of those perspectives, we also have a very senior group of portfolio managers,” she said. “The expertise that we bring to the table is great.”
Company: AMBS Investment Counsel LLC
Birthplace: Fort Meade, Md.
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Personal/Family: Divorced, with two grown daughters.
Business/Community Organizations: Michigan Bar Association, West Michigan Estate Planning Council, Financial Planning Association of Michigan; immediate past chair, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services board.
Biggest Career Break: Joining Old Kent Bank’s trust department and joining AMBS Investment Counsel.
The stock market’s volatility over the past quarter, however, has surpassed the experience of just about everyone in the industry.
“Actually, from the value perspective, we have been doing quite well — relatively speaking,” Winters said at the end of 2008. “This last year in the market, or more, has been one of the most volatile that we’ve seen. Those that have been in the investment area for years, they’ve never seen this kind of market and some of the irrationality of what’s happening.
“We are very proud of our long-term track record in terms of performance,” Winters added. “If you look at the last one year, three years, five years, 10 years, we are ahead of the market. That’s one of our challenges right now, to position the portfolio in such a way that we are going to be able to take advantage of what the market brings in the coming year.”
Winters said she is convinced there are companies with solid fundamentals whose stock has been hit hard but are still worthwhile investments.
“You also have to understand the client and know what they are comfortable with,” she added.
Winters moved to Grand Rapids as a child, after her father got out of the U.S. Army. She grew up here with three sisters and two brothers, the second oldest in the brood that belonged to Dr. John Rupke and his wife, Esther, a homemaker. She graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School in the first graduating class after East Christian and Central Christian were combined. Then she obtained a degree in special education from Calvin College.
“I had always been interested in the mental health area. I had toyed with psychiatry and with getting a doctorate in psychology,” Winters said. “As I learned more about the programs that were available then, (special education) looked like a good opportunity.”
Winters taught special education for a year in a suburban district, then moved to Chicago, where she was a teacher for three more years before finding herself drawn to the law. She was studying for a master’s degree at DePaul University while also providing respite care for a family with twin special-needs boys. She observed the parents traveling through the special education system, seeking appropriate education for their children.
It was a time of many changes in special education law.
“That really intrigued me,” Winters said. “I ended up doing my master’s in law and education.”
As soon as she finished her master’s degree, Winters enrolled in law school at Loyola University of Chicago Law School. “I was always thinking I would go into school law,” she said. That didn’t happen.
“You end up working where you clerked, and for me, that happened to be as in-house counsel for Liberty Mutual in Chicago,” Winters said.
After moving back to Michigan, Winters was working at a small Grand Rapids law firm when an opening in Old Kent Bank’s trust department surfaced.
“It was an area that I truly enjoyed,” she said. “I enjoyed the ability to get to know your clients and work with them on an ongoing basis. I just really found my place there, working with trust clients and doing the best for them in terms of managing their assets.”
Winters moved from trusts to estate settlement to wealth management during her 17 years at Old Kent, and, after the 2000 merger, at Fifth Third Bank. She became a Certified Financial Planner in 2001.
She said DeMoor approached her in 2007 about making the move from the big, corporate bank with out-of-town headquarters to the smaller nest of AMBS Investment.
“To come from a large organization to a small organization — that was an exciting prospect,” Winters said. “You have the opportunity to have ownership and a greater degree of influence. I very much liked their focus on the client — always doing the best for the client — and their very focused and disciplined way of investing. Those were real attractions to me.”
Last year, DeMoor divested herself of the president’s title, handing that over to Winters. Winters now handles much of the day-to-day business management as well as client relationships and responding to requests for proposals from institutional customers, while DeMoor devotes time to big-picture issues.
Winters said she’s proud of the female leadership at AMBS Investment Counsel, where Chief Investment Officer Wayne A. Titche is the lone man among the four top posts.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Winters. “The chief operations officer and chief compliance officer also is a woman. It works very well here. In the emerging market area, they are actually looking for minority- and women-owned firms, so it’s a positive in many respects.”
Winters recently stepped down after a decade on the board of directors of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where she served as chair for two years and helped to choose the current CEO. “That was a very good experience,” she added.
Winters, whose quiet demeanor is punctuated frequently with strong and generous laughter, loves to travel, garden and read. Three years ago, she took up running. She has two college-age daughters, one studying in Spain and another attending Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City with an eye on a nursing career.
“Leadership qualities are to have a vision for where you’re going, to work together as a team, to look at each member and see what they bring to the table so that we can work together to grow the firm to meet our clients’ needs,” Winters said.
“It’s having an understanding of who you are, who the firm is, what you want to be, and then figuring out the steps that you need to get there, and how everybody is going to help in that process.
“In a smaller firm, everybody plays a critical role. We’re fortunate here to have a great team.”