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Chief Industry Visionaries: Zoë Brunson, Chief Investment Strategist, AssetMark

Institutional Investor • 15 February 2024
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Sub-Advisory Institute Award Recognition

The Sub-Advisory Institute is recognizing three Chief Industry Visionaries of the sub-advisory and manager research space this year – individuals who have had a rich history of demonstrating foresight and implementing innovative strategies in the industry while contributing to the conversations and directions between peers at industry events and gatherings. We spoke to our three inaugural recipients on their experiences and thoughts, and lessons and insights for allocators across the board.
Nominated as Industry Visionary recipient, Zoë Brunson is Chief Investment Strategist at AssetMark, where she oversees a turnkey asset management platform with over $20 billion in assets. Founded in 1996 and based in Concord, California, the $100 billion firm provides wealth management and technology solutions to more than 9,200 financial advisors. She is a CFA holder and continues to support CitySquash, a not-for-profit after-school enrichment program in the Bronx at Fordham University, where she mentored and volunteered prior to moving to California.
Zoë is a graduate of London’s Kingston University, where she received her BSc (Hons) in Business Information Technology. Following graduation, she joined the actuarial firm Bacon & Woodrow as a pension assistant, then State Street Trust & Bank as a performance analyst based in London. After nine years at Standard & Poor’s leading their due diligence and model management teams, Zoë left for AssetMark in 2007 to help build out their due diligence capabilities.
Zoë's expertise extends far beyond due diligence. Over the past 17 years, while continuing to lead due diligence, she’s held multiple roles, including management of strategies and mutual funds, provision of investment content, and most recently, building out investment consulting capabilities. As Senior Vice President, Zoë is currently responsible for driving the investment platform framework and curated list of investment managers, alongside portfolio construction guidance for advisors through investment mastery programs and investment consulting services.
The following is edited for length and clarity.

Can you share on broad overview of what your asset allocation strategy looks like today?

What makes AssetMark unique is that we have both third-party investment solutions and a proprietary suite, all focused on providing different asset allocation strategies. As a platform, we believe in going beyond traditional asset class diversification and focus on strategy diversification. Although my purview is more on selecting third-party solutions than managing our proprietary suite, I do oversee the full platform and the way we’re thinking about helping advisors build portfolios.  
It’s not just a mix of asset classes; it’s a mix of different strategies that either emphasize the goal you’re trying to achieve or manage risk in the portfolio rather than simply trying to beat a benchmark. If you think about clients having goals – growth, income, or defense – you can tilt or bias the portfolio to what the clients want to meet those goals.

Any factors that influence you most when evaluating new investment opportunities?

The due diligence that we do is not only about the goals or the purpose it might have in a portfolio; it’s focused on the people, philosophy, process, portfolio construction, and then performance. Our belief is that all of the former factors lead to performance – what the investment managers have achieved, their people, what they believe in, the discipline in their process, how they think about risk, and how they manage risk are displayed in their performance – and if we don’t understand them, how on earth are our clients going to understand them?

What has been the most significant change you’ve witnessed that you think has been critical to this industry?

“ESG” was the buzzword for the longest time. I think the political side that came in around the ESG was a little bit of a surprise.
We also see the flows into ETFs that have become more prevalent. It’s not just the launch of ETFs but the shifts to ETFs: it’s an interesting move because it seems to be more about conversion than about new products. 
Finally, we are starting to see institutions thinking more in a goals-based approach: “I don’t think I need this large cap fund; I need something that does X to get this exposure or achieve this outcome,; et cetera. That’s seeing more adoption in the retail space and leading some to move away from traditional benchmark comparisons. 

What do you see in the next 12 to 18 months?

I think one of the challenges and opportunities is AI, not so much in terms of how it will eliminate jobs, but how it will create efficiency in our jobs today.
We’re thinking about scalability in leveraging AI across the board. Perhaps you can write a commentary within a matter of minutes include an initial compliance review, and then leverage that person for more meaningful and impactful work.

What would you say is your office’s greatest accomplishment since you joined?

One accomplishment is how we have changed the thinking on how to partner strategies together, help build out a philosophy and framework in helping advisors build their portfolio, and then educate and guide that portfolio.
Central to that is work that I’d been doing for several years on investment consulting, prior to formally launching the service last year. We work one-on-one with advisors, listening to what’s important to them and their clients and helping them build practice-based model portfolios to build efficiencies in their practice. Part of that process is also shifting the focus to how to talk about the portfolio and why strategies fit together to form the full picture.
The foundation of investment consulting is our investment framework to use a core foundation of equities and fixed income and then add more outcome-based strategies to meet specific goals. Having talked about and presented the concept over the last couple of years, I've been proud of seeing it executed within investment consulting and evolving our platform to execute this framework.

What do you like to spend your time doing?

Supporting my daughter's competitive gymnastics career fills most of my personal time. Witnessing her resilience and dedication inspires me. When I’m not with her, I love getting outside with my husband, whether pottering around the garden or walking the dog, especially because our jobs are so indoors. The Japanese community talks about “Forest Bathing,” where nature walks help you unplug, move into the present time, destress, and relax. We adopted a dog last year, so I’m now walking a lot more in nature and loving it.

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