By Dan Kadlec
Updated: March 24, 2015 4:47 PM ET | Originally published: March 19, 2015

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqgFlr5xG80&w=640&h=360]

Bring back shoulder pads and the mullet. E.F. Hutton, another 1980s throwback, is in the financial services business again. The big question: Is this once iconic brand worth anything?

Hutton is launching the website Gateway to connect investors with independent financial advisers, estate lawyers, accountants, and insurance agents. The firm will vet its roster of financial pros, which individuals can access for free.

But this is really about helping advisers find clients. The advisers will pay Hutton a fee based on revenue they collect from clients that find them on the site. Stanley Hutton Rumbough, the grandson of legendary founder E.F. Hutton, is leading the brand’s revival from within a relatively new entity called E.F. Hutton Financial, which was incorporated in Colorado in 2007 and has no legal relationship with the old E.F. Hutton. The new firm likens itself to car service Uber in that it takes a small cut of the business it generates for advisers.

Hutton was a Wall Street heavyweight 40 years ago and is best known for its advertising slogan: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” The firm’s ads ran for years and typically featured crowds of people leaning in to hear the advice of a Hutton broker. (That’s one in the video above.) This was a powerful image during the bull market that started in 1982. After the lost decade of the 1970s, investors were getting excited about stocks again. The Hutton ad suggested that only through a broker could you gain an investing edge.

In some ways, the suggestion was ironic—coming just ahead of the massive insider trading scandals of the late 1980s, when dozens of Wall Street players, including Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, were found to have skirted the rules for their own advantage. So much for the broker edge, which in those cases anyway was about illegal stock tips sometimes in exchange for suitcases full of cash.

Hutton became embroiled as well, and in 1985 pleaded guilty to 2,000 counts of mail and wire fraud, and paid more than $10 million in penalties in connection with a check-kiting scheme. The firm would make bank withdrawals and deposits in such a way that it gained illegal access to millions of dollars interest free for days at a time while waiting for the checks to clear.

A further irony lies in reams of new data that show that over the long haul stock pickers tend to underperform simple, low-cost index funds. Over time, the fees that active fund managers charge overwhelm their ability to pick winning stocks. This is now so well understood that the good old-fashioned stockbroker is a dinosaur. Today, industry leaders like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley employ financial advisers or wealth managers who counsel clients in all aspects of their money life.

Founded in 1904, Hutton ran into capital issues following the 1987 stock market crash and disappeared in 1988 amid a spate of mergers that included Shearson Lehman Bros., American Express, Smith Barney, Primerica, and Citigroup. Former Hutton executive Frank Campanale tried reviving the brand three years ago. Campanale ditched the effort for a job with the established asset manager Lebenthal and Co., but continues to have a financial stake in the Hutton brand.

With a checkered past and four decades removed from glory, you have to wonder how much the Hutton name is worth. Then again, Michael Milken has resurfaced as a philanthropist and neon is back in style. Power up the flux capacitor, Doc. We’re going back the future.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that: 1) E.F. Hutton Financial is a different company from the original E.F. Hutton brokerage that ran into legal troubles in the 1980s; and 2) Mr. Campanale has retained a financial interest in E.F. Hutton Financial since his departure.

 

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