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Boston Capital

Investment firm’s secrets slip out

By Steven Syre
Globe Columnist / February 11, 2011

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If it hadn’t been for a strange turn of events at the state’s highest court, sensitive details about the vast wealth of secretive Boston investment firm Wellington Management Co. might have never seen the light of day.

But for about three hours yesterday, information about the Wellington partnership was posted online, cited in a court decision in a long-running divorce case between well-known hedge fund manager Nicholas Adams and his wife, Nancy. The lengthy written decision from the Supreme Judicial Court incorporated many well-guarded financial facts about the company that manages more than $600 billion.

Among the revelations: One estimate put the business’s worth at $9 billion. And some of the 100 or so partnerships in the firm may be worth more than $80 million each.

Then, without explanation, the high court withdrew its decision and pulled the document off the Internet. The court docket indicates the case files have been impounded. However, a half-hour video of lawyers Alan Dershowitz and Joel Kozol arguing for their respective clients before the SJC remained available online, providing still more bits of information.

Dershowitz was representing Nicholas Adams in his appeal of a probate court assessment that he said valued Nancy Adams’s share of the marital estate at about $120 million. Matthew Kozol, a lawyer for the money manager’s wife, called that one of the largest divorce court decisions ever in Massachusetts.

The $9 billion estimate of Wellington’s worth came from an expert working for Nancy Adams. By comparison, privately owned giant Fidelity Investments is thought to be worth between $30 billion and $40 billion.

Wellington has grown dramatically while trying not to draw attention to itself over the past decade, often managing billions for better-known companies such as Vanguard Group and The Hartford Financial Services Group. Overall, it acts as financial adviser to 1,900 institutional clients in 50 countries.

Investment firms tend to shun the limelight, but Wellington is in an entirely different league. The old-line firm, founded in 1928, doesn’t hold public events and never comments for stories about its business. It doesn’t publish annual reports or disclose partnership profits. Predictably, a spokeswoman declined to comment about the information on Wellington contained in the Adams court case.

The Adams court papers go into detail about how Wellington pays its partners, both while at the firm and for as long as a decade after they leave. Some compensation is based on measurable investment performance, but millions in pay also depends on the subjective views of a three-member panel of partners. It decides how big a slice of Wellington’s profit each partner has earned in a given year.

An independent special master appointed by the probate court, retired judge Rudolph Kass, had appraised Nicholas Adams’s partnership interest at $81 million, although the court said it wanted that figure recalculated.

Adams, who managed more than $2 billion in hedge funds and other investments for Wellington at the time of the divorce filing, earned more than $46 million in 2008, based on his investment results from the previous year. It appeared to be the most Adams had earned since becoming a Wellington partner in 1993.

Like other partners, a relatively small amount of Adams’s total compensation is from his base pay — just $300,000 in 2008. Hedge fund mangers also earn a percentage of the fees Wellington charges investors. In his case, that incentive compensation ranged from $45,262 in 2000 to more than $20 million in 2008.

This compensation can vary a great deal from year to year because it is based on the actual performance of Wellington investments. Hedge fund managers can earn millions — or nothing — in a given year.

Adams also earned more money as a partner in two ways, based on the firm’s overall profits. The most important thing to know is that each partner is allocated a share of those profits based on a series of intangibles: Did the partner offer the firm valuable advice? Is he or she a big star who attracts business to Wellington?

Adams received an average of about 3 percent of Wellington profits during his years as a partner, according to the high court’s withdrawn decision. In 1993, his share amounted to $135,403. By 2008 it had grown to more than $26 million.

The millions made by Wellington’s partners certainly sound shocking, but they amount to relatively small change compared to the billions earned by some of the hedge fund industry’s highest fliers.

Wellington’s compensation almost seems conservative by the gaudiest Wall Street standards. Nonetheless those numbers are the last facts Wellington would ever want you to learn.

Steve Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.