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Vanguard opens special offices for $1 million clients

"Personalized service" balances online, automated mass customer management

The new digs are not for everyone.

Vanguard Group, the Malvern investment giant that attracted more than $1 billion every trading day in new client dollars last year, has balanced its focus on internet and automated customer service by opening special offices, for individual clients with more than $1 million invested in Vanguard funds, at its headquarters in Malvern this winter. Similar facilities will open later this year at its satellite offices in Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix.

Vanguard has long advertised a focus on cutting costs so as to keep fees competitive. Automation helps the company scale aggressively: Over the last 10 years, total assets have quadrupled, to $4 trillion from $1 trillion, while employment is up a modest 25 percent, to 15,000 from around 12,000. So assets per "crew member," as Vanguard calls staff, have more than tripled, to more than $250 million.

But even after closing its former Philadelphia and Malvern walk-in offices, which were open to all, in 1999, employees tell me Vanguard continued to direct staff to informally receive its "flagship" investors in Malvern when they showed up asking for help.

Flagship clients, who qualify for this and other "personalized services reserved for our high-net-worth investors," as Vanguard puts it, now need to have $1 million or more invested in Vanguard funds. The company has around 60,000 flagship clients among its 25 million individual account holders.

Vanguard has now set up formal spaces where flagship investors can make appointments with staff for an "improved" experience, spokeswoman Arianna Stefanoni Sherlock confirms.

The offices include space at the building called Zealous on the Malvern campus. (Vanguard and its key buildings such as Zealous were named by founder John C. Bogle after Lord Nelson's British warships, which beat Napoleon's French fleets in the late 1700s and early 1800s.)

Stefanoni Sherlock says there's no plan to add a client office at Vanguard's planned Philadelphia employment center at 2300 Chestnut St., where the company expects to assign up to 100 "crew," including young software workers reluctant to commute to the far 'burbs.

The flagship offices are meant to complement Vanguard's online and phone-based services. "Investors in a range of stages sometimes need additional support and advice, and often with a personal touch, whether that's a virtual or face-to-face meeting," Stefanoni Sherlock told me.

She compared the flagship offices to Vanguard's Institutional Client Center, spacious, media-intensive meeting and presentation rooms that Vanguard opened in 2014 as it renovated its West Campus at Malvern, which sprawls along South Valley Ridge facing the Great Valley of central Chester County.