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No Problem Too Difficult

How we played a key role in one of the biggest government settlements in American history: a multi-billion-dollar payout to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

Sandy EwingSandy Ewing is an overachiever with a cast-iron work ethic, enviable people skills and an ability to think on her feet.

In the 20 years that Ewing has worked at SEI, an Oaks, Pa., provider of wealth management services and solutions, she has held an array of executive positions. She has spent time in client service and held a trifecta of management jobs, doing what the company calls relationship management, project management and solutions management. She was a service director, responsible for upwards of 20 clients at a time, ensuring their needs were met. She also did relationship sales, which at SEI means helping clients design novel ways to make use of the company’s wealth management platform to solve unique challenges or take advantage of unique opportunities.

One of the more unusual experiences Ewing had, however, grew out of the role SEI and she played in helping the U.S. government with Indian Trust Reform and “one of the biggest settlements in American history,” a payout worth $3.4 billion to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

It had to be reliable, scalable

ItFragmentation of Lands was 1995 when Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet tribal member who was also an accountant by training, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a half million Native Americans against the Department of the Interior. The suit alleged that for more than 100 years the U.S. government had squandered billions of dollars in oil, gas and other royalties owed to tribal members, most of who lived on reservations in the West.

In 1887, the U.S. government had set aside millions of acres of land for the benefit of certain American Indian tribes and individual beneficiaries. The feds then assumed a stewardship role in managing it. The government was tasked with managing the land assets and, when possible, generating income from them. Today, the U.S. government continues to manage roughly 56 million acres of land. The Department of the Interior created the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) in 1994 “to improve the accountability and management of Indian funds.” The OST went searching for someone to help them accomplish the impossible: bring order to data chaos.

To do this, the OST needed a commercially available, off-the-shelf trust accounting solution that could be customized. It had to be reliable, scalable, handle hundreds of thousands of accounts simultaneously, calculate interest and yield to the last decimal point, calculate and distribute income payments to beneficiaries and generate accurate statements to account holders. Only a few companies could conceivably provide this.

The complexities faced by OST were vast. For more than a century, the tracts of land held in trust had been bequeathed to the beneficiaries of the original Native Americans to whom the land was originally allotted. So a 40, 80 or 160-acre tract of land allotted to a single tribal member in 1887 was handed down to the tribal member’s children, who handed it down to their kids, who handed it down to theirs, and so on. By the end of the 20th century, that same parcel might have had upward of hundreds or sometimes even thousands of beneficiaries, each of whom then held an undivided fractional ownership in that land.

SEI is accustomed to confronting enormously complex situations. Its employees are known for their determination and commitment to their clients’ success. There’s a reason SEI supplies wealth management solutions to nine of the 20 largest U.S. banks. The issues plaguing the OST were at least an order of magnitude tougher than a typical wealth management platform implementation. But as complex and intractable as the issues were, they were not different in kind from the business challenges routinely solved by SEI every day.

SEI was awarded the contract in 1998 and pulled together a top-notch implementation team to install their market-leading solution at the time, TRUST 3000®, and convert financial trust fund data across 12 Bureau of Indian Affairs regional offices to the SEI platform. The conversion took two years, an incredibly fast track given the complexity and nature of the task at hand. By April 2000, more than 260,000 accounts had been established on SEI’s platform. But there were still challenges to overcome before anyone could say the administration of those accounts was running smoothly.

Finally someone who understands

It was critical to SEI’s and her new client’s success to form a trusting partnership.

Enter Ewing. As she later recalled “I figured out there were some typical post-conversion challenges and frustrations, and I led the effort to stabilize the environment.”

As Ewing took over responsibility for the relationship, she flew to Albuquerque to meet with Donna Erwin, then Principal Deputy Special Trustee of the OST. Ewing understood that it was critical to SEI’s and her new client’s success to form a trusting partnership.

“How are things going?” Ewing asked Erwin.

There was a long, awkward pause, and by reading her new client’s body language, Ewing could see Donna Erwin was not pleased. “If I were sitting in your chair,” Ewing added, “I’d be concerned.” For some reason, Ewing felt it was the right place to start a conversation. And it was.

As Ewing recalls, Erwin said, “Finally, someone who understands.”

Erwin’s agency was in the midst of tremendous change; they were all learning new procedures, learning how to use the TRUST 3000 system and having to train others, while simultaneously addressing other components of Congress’s mandates to reform the Indian trusts and responding to inquiries related to the ongoing suit.

For Donna Erwin, this came with the territory. Being a leader means helping to manage change, great and small.

In consultation with Erwin, Ewing and her SEI team brought stability to the day-to-day activities involved in the OST’s management of the Indian trust funds. As stability came to operations, the partnership between SEI and OST strengthened and OST’s “executive leadership leaned on us more and more to help them with new and ongoing challenges,” Ewing says.

SEI has proven to be a valuable partner

One comprehensive statementIn early 2002, the OST informed Ewing it wanted to start showing percentage of land ownership on account holder statements and asked how that might be done. This is a staple of how SEI does business. A client identifies a need, and SEI comes up with a way of achieving it. The only difference in this case: Ewing and her team couldn’t whiteboard it like they usually did. By law, all materials and records connected with Indian lands must be kept in perpetuity — even the records of the planning process that SEI was being asked to undertake. Whiteboards, of course, get erased. Consequently, Ewing, her team at SEI and Erwin unfurled rolls of butcher paper to begin requirements gathering.

Over multiple sessions and several days, Ewing gathered all the information needed for SEI to come back with a solution. (As for those rolls of butcher paper scrawled with the product of their collective brainstorming? They’re still safely stashed in a secure location at SEI.)

A year later, with SEI’s assistance, the OST began, for the first time, providing land ownership information on account holders’ statements.

A joint press release in 2003 announced the Department of the Interior’s renewal of the SEI contract. In the release, Donna Erwin, is quoted saying, “Federal management of Indian trust funds is a one-of-a-kind situation in the trust business and SEI has proven to be a valuable partner. We continue to deal with issues that fall outside the traditional trust model and we count on SEI to help us find long-term solutions to these complex challenges.”

It runs smoothly because of what we do everyday

The ability to reliably manage the Indian trusts helped pave the way for the Department of the Interior to announce in 2009 that it had reached a settlement of Cobell’s lawsuit. President Obama, who as a presidential candidate had promised to resolve the issue, hailed it as an “important step towards a sincere reconciliation” between the U.S. government and American Indians.

Ewing’s leadership with the OST is representative of what makes SEI a unique partner and a unique company. It’s well known that many of SEI’s strongest leaders are groomed by putting them in the line of fire with clients. For her part, Ewing says she first learned about managing money from growing up on a farm in Wisconsin. While her father tended the fields, her mother ran the farm business, accounting for every dollar that came in and went out. Mother helped daughter manage her babysitting earnings by slicing the data into how much each family was paying, how often they needed her and how much money she grossed.

This lifelong obsession with numbers has served her well. She started her first job at a regional trust company in the Twin Cities two weeks before her 18th birthday in the early 1980s, when automation was beginning to hit the banking sector. She quickly learned the basics of employee benefit trust accounting and became fluent on Wang computer systems. Back then, those who knew their way around word processing programs and computerized spread sheets were in short supply and high demand. During the ‘80s she became an expert in all aspects of employee benefit plan accounting (which also ran on Wang computers). It wasn’t long before a bank in Oregon poached her. After six years there, SEI hired her.

Her favorite part of her job, she says, is problem solving, which came in handy, of course, in helping to fix the sticky situation afflicting the Department of the Interior. Sometimes problem solving has meant identifying and fixing a glitch on the fly; other times it was helping SEI clients invent new and sometimes novel ways to use SEI’s solutions.

Today, Ewing leads SEI’s Private Banking TRUST 3000-based organization supporting more than 100 firms who have partnered with SEI to manage their trust and wealth management businesses, including the OST. SEI continues to support the platform the OST relies upon to manage the Indian trust funds and service the current account holders. By sheer number of accounts, the OST remains SEI’s largest client with more than 400,000 accounts on its platform.

“It runs smoothly because of what we do every day,” Ewing said recently, “not because it’s easy.”

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