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2 financial advisers remember Alta roots

It's a ski town. Face the fact that while Alta boasts some of the best powder in the nation, it's not exactly the type of place to spawn nationally acclaimed financial advisers. Not usually, anyway.

But, though they've long since moved from the cramped office in the ski lodge's basement to their Sugar House office, John Bird and Toby Levitt, co-founders of Albion Financial Group, still call Alta home.

"There is a place in my heart from there," Bird said. "We took our name from there. The culture of our company has a lot to do with our roots being from that mountain town and the people of that mountain town."

Since their first days, handing out advice while dressed in shorts and flip-flops up the canyon, Bird has been named one of the nation's top 100 financial advisers by Worth magazine for the past three consecutive years. And Bird and Levitt's wealth-management firm has received awards from some of the nation's top financial publications.

Albion, which began with one client and $250,000, has grown significantly over the past 23 years to accommodate 200 clients and roughly $420 million.

"Pretty good for a couple of guys hanging out in a ski lodge," said Bird, who still regularly dresses down in a polo shirt.

He said sometimes he still cracks up thinking about the firm's infancy and how things have evolved since then.

But, despite the firm's casual atmosphere, Bird stressed that its progress hasn't been a cake walk for its founders. Success has grown slowly as he and Levitt have put their clients' interests first. It has required hard work and perseverance.

"It comes back to having a passion for what they do and having integrity," said Debbie Knotts, vice president and a financial adviser who has worked at Albion for 18 years. "That's built their business and put them where they are."

Though both Bird and Levitt are avid skiers, the partners only became friends at Alta after discovering they both shared a zeal for investments and financial matters. Bird had come to Alta, fresh out of college to ski and climb while he searched for something he could feel passionate spending his life doing.

"I grew up in the home of a Boston banker and I knew the idea of putting on a suit and taking a train into the city was not for me," Bird said.

But though he could ski powder all day, he said he soon became bored not having anything to engage his mind.

At that time, Levitt, who was in his late 20s, managed the finances for his father's ski lodge. He'd spent his growing-up years bouncing back and forth between New York and Alta, reading the Wall Street Journal while other kids were playing football, he said.

And though he'd dropped out of college earlier, business and finance weren't a new scene for him. He'd been fascinated by both since he was a boy. He'd started a business of his own in high school and had been investing money for his family and friends as a hobby for years.

By the time Bird appeared on the scene, Levitt's father began encouraging him to make finance, his profession.

"Here was this guy who was in Alta physically, but he was so focused on other passions," Bird said. "He definitely had a presence in the community, but Toby wasn't skiing. You could tell that he was thinking about things all the time. To me that was compelling."

When they formed Albion in 1982, the financial industry consisted mostly of brokers selling stocks and "advisers" pitching products like life insurance, Leavitt said.

"Although there was lip service to the idea of putting the customer first, at the end of the day, advisers got paid for selling a product," Bird said. "We just thought that really didn't make sense."

So, the partners helped pioneer the "Fee-Only" concept, meaning that clients paid their advisers directly for their services and that financial advisers didn't receive commission for pushing a product. The principle minimized conflict of interest and focused on achieving the client's goals, he said.

And though it took time to earn clients' trust, the word-of-mouth business grew as they referred their friends, Levitt said.

"There is a common perception that if you want expertise you have to go to either of the coasts," he said. "But Albion is as good as any company out there. It has been able to do a better job because it's not in the rat race."

Part of that success has come by remembering the client is the boss, Bird said.

Both he and Levitt said they felt a responsibility to their clients to be aware of issues in the world and in their clients' lives that could affect their finances. It can be stressful to care for someone's entire nest egg, Levitt said, but, his eyes lit up as he explained his fascination with his work and how it allows him to help people.

It's serendipitous how two guys from the East Coast crossed paths in Alta and ended up starting Albion Financial, Bird said.

"I will take the canyons of the Wasatch Front over the canyons of Wall Street any day," he said.