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Empower accuses rival of spying and poaching its financial advisers

On the last day of January, an all-hands meeting was called at Empower Advisory Group, the financial planning division of the massive Greenwood Village-based company.

Nine financial advisors for Empower’s wealthy clients had unexpectedly resigned en masse five days before and the company was scrambling to understand what it all meant.

What it didn’t know then but believes now is that there were corporate spies at the meeting.

On March 1, four more financial advisers resigned abruptly — what Empower called “a second wave” of resignations carefully designed by a competitor to cause it “maximum harm.”

These allegations of corporate espionage and client poaching are spelled out in a lengthy lawsuit that Empower filed in Denver federal court March 13 against a baker’s dozen of former advisers and the New York company they left Empower for: Compound Planning.

“Instead of competing for clients fairly and honestly in the marketplace, Compound chooses to poach employees and clients from its competitors, like Empower,” it alleged.

Compound CEO Christian Haigh declined to comment on those allegations Friday.

The 13 ex-Empower advisors in question, 10 of whom are Coloradans, joined Empower when it bought Personal Capital, a wealth management firm, for $1 billion in 2020. The 13 advisers’ clients had a total of $5 billion in assets under Empower’s management, generating tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for the company, according to its lawsuit.

So, it had reason to be concerned when nine of them left for Compound on Jan. 26. Their resignation letters, which are attached as exhibits to the lawsuit, are identical and tell their surprised bosses to contact a Compound lawyer if they have any questions.

When a lawyer for Empower did so, he learned of the Jan. 31 espionage, Empower said.

“We understand Empower convened an all-hands meeting with its current and prospective advisors,” Compound wrote in a letter Feb. 2 that is also attached to Empower’s lawsuit. That letter threatened to sue Empower for defamation if it bad-talked the 13 advisors.

Then came the second wave of resignations, which cost Empower more clients, it said. All 13 advisers have convinced clients to move from Empower to Compound, the local company, it said. Empower believes this client exodus will continue unless a judge puts a stop to it.

Empower accuses its ex-employees of breaching non-solicitation contracts, stealing trade secrets and conspiring together to harm Empower. It accuses Compound of poaching its employees and clients. Empower doesn’t say how much money it believes it is owed but plans to ask jurors in Denver to award it punitive damages if the case goes to trial.

The 13 financial advisers that Empower is suing are Nathan Bengali, Willem Bloemsma, Matt Buenafe, Rachel Buffalo, Joseph Devorak IV, Aaron Foster, Shannon Lynch, Kevin Mann, Tyler Morris, Whitney Pappas, Bradley Porter, Beau Simon and Ian Wymore.

Empower’s case against them and Compound isn’t its only legal matter. In December, it sued its landlord for refusing to let it leave a downtown lease — one that it inherited when it acquired Personal Capital — early. A trial is set for November.

Empower’s lawyers in the Compound case are Adam Weiss and Mark Deming in Polsinelli’s Chicago office, along with Michael Greco from Fisher & Phillips in Denver.

Compound’s lawyers are James Heavey and Michael Ward at the Barton firm in New York.

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