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Vanguard returns to Philadelphia, starting with a staff of 20

After a hiatus of more than 15 years, Vanguard, the $3.8 trillion mutual-fund company, is returning to Philadelphia, with an office in University City.

Vanguard announced Wednesday that it plans to open next year what it has dubbed an "innovation center," to focus on "developing services to meet the evolving needs of its individual, financial adviser, and institutional clients."

Expected to open in 2017's second quarter, the Vanguard Innovation Center will have access to the region's transportation hubs and the firm's global headquarters in Malvern.

One local commercial real estate observer put the office space required at 20,000 square feet.

"Innovation is woven into Vanguard's DNA, from our unique mutual ownership structure to bringing the first index mutual fund to market for individual investors," CEO Bill McNabb said in a news release. "The Innovation Center is a tangible commitment that we'll continue our strong track record of building capabilities that we believe give our clients the best chance for investment success, and we're pleased to take this significant next step in Philadelphia."

Vanguard said the center represented a growing commitment to its online business. According to the release, more than 90 percent of Vanguard's interactions with its 20 million clients occur digitally. For example, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services is a hybrid offering that combines virtual engagement, customized financial planning, and robo-advisers.

Vanguard said it envisions the innovation center being staffed initially with 20 people, but with space for about 100 staff members "as projects get underway and we bring in additional crew and partners," company spokeswoman Arianna Stefanoni Sherlock said in an interview.

The company has not yet chosen a location, she said.

"We are in the midst of a great technological revolution – from self-driving cars and package-delivering drones to smartphones and 3D-printers – that is changing the way we live, work, and, in Vanguard's realm, invest. With a centralized, and centrally located, Innovation Center, Vanguard seeks to harness emerging technologies and new processes to create value for our clients by improving their investing experience and their investment outcomes," McNabb said in the statement.

From 1984 to 1999, Vanguard operated a walk-in investment office in Center City to serve individual investors making deposits to their mutual-fund accounts or contributing to their individual retirement accounts.

Vanguard is one of the world's largest investment-management companies. As of Sept. 30, it managed more than $3.8 trillion in global assets. The firm offers more than 350 funds to its more than 20 million investors worldwide.