Joe Reilly, CEO of Circulus Group and Family Wealth Report Award judge, presented Al West with the following commendation at the awards ceremony:
Tonight, we celebrate the founder of a company that was disrupting before disrupting was a word. The company, founded 50 years ago in a basement, is SEI, which today handles $884 billion in assets, has 3,846 employees, 8,900 clients around the world, and made $1.6 billion in revenue last year.
Alfred P. West Jr. was raised in Florida and received his B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. His dream was to be a fighter pilot, but he failed the eye exam and sought an M.B.A. from The Wharton School instead in 1966. It was while studying there that he began SEI, after talking to loan officers and realizing that new computer technology could speed their approval process.
The company grew rapidly, tracking the computer revolution and often pioneering many things that we take for granted today. They had an early form of cloud computing in 1972. In 1983, they built a milestone product called Trust 3000®, which brought flexibility and automation to banks of all sizes. 1992 saw their first TAMP platform for independent advisors. 1995 saw the first significant manager-of-managers platform. In 2007, they launched the very successful SEI Wealth PlatformSM. Along the way, they were early advocates of asset allocation as the key to long-term performance, and goals-based investing as the foundation for investment managers. They recently opened the IdeaFarm, where they explore the frontiers of blockchain and machine learning.
But what is really notable about SEI is their culture. Everyone I spoke to about Al West said the same things: unconventional, innovative, deep thinker, intuitive, authentic, visionary. Someone with a third sense about what is coming. And this is reflected in their famous open culture. West was determined to strip away traditional bureaucracy and all the trappings of status. No titles, offices, secretaries, executive dining rooms, company cars or parking spots. Al sits at a desk in the middle of the floor that looks like everyone else’s.
Asked about the culture, he said, “Innovation really is a process of learning by failure. A fear of failure is often what squashes an innovative culture. That is why you want to promote the idea among your people that it is OK to fail, and fail quickly.
If the failure is the result of trying to do something, you learn from your mistakes. The people who hang on do so because they are afraid that this will be their only chance to prove themselves, so if they admit failure, they basically feel like they’ve lost their job. You can’t ever allow people to feel that way, or you’ll never have any innovation.”
In addition to his business responsibilities, Mr. West is an active member of the Graduate Executive Board of Wharton; the Chairman of the Board of the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management at Wharton; Chairman of the Board of the Washington-based American Business Conference; and Chairman of the Board of WestBridge, a non-profit organization supporting the recovery of those with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
Mr. West is a recipient of the Joseph P. Wharton Award and was named Legend CEO by the Technology Council of Philadelphia, as well as many other awards and citations.
SEI today has 20 offices in ten countries, all of which continue their unique culture. Mr. West has shown over an amazing fifty-year career how to harness the intellectual power of talented teams to move his company ever forward.
It is my honor and privilege to present Alfred P. West Junior, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of SEI, with Family Wealth Report's Lifetime Achievement Award for 2019.