Sir Allen Who? Stanford not on Houston's radar
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Ask Houston residents what they know about Stanford Group Co, the privately held financial services firm accused of an $8 billion fraud by the U.S. government, and many mention oak trees.
In 1999, the Houston company cut down six 20-foot tall oak trees to make way for landscaping and a fountain bearing the company's militaristic eagle and shield logo in front of its U.S. headquarters, even though local officials said the company had no right to do it.
Stanford's action sparked outrage from conservationists and civic groups and a wave of media coverage. Ten years later, the company with 500 workers here appears to have done little to mend fences in the nation's fourth largest city.
Allen Stanford, 58, the fifth-generation Texan and billionaire accused of a "massive ongoing fraud" by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, does not spend much of his time or money in Houston.
Although his financial empire has a global center on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and his Stanford International Bank is based in Antigua, Stanford Group Co is based in Houston, and those were the offices that federal agents first swooped down on this week.
"I've never seen his name anywhere," said David Jones of Dini Partners, a fund-raising consultant for nonprofit organizations including Allen Stanford's alma mater Baylor University. "And I don't see the firm showing up on donor lists."
It is in sharp contrast to the high profile of Enron Corp, the infamous Houston-based energy company that collapsed in 2001. Former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay was a leader on the city's business and charity circuits.
The Greater Houston Partnership, a local organization aimed at promoting business, sought to minimize Stanford's importance to the city's financial industry.
"Stanford has approximately 500 employees in Houston," spokeswoman Christina Garza wrote in an e-mail. "That's 3/10 of one percent of all employees in the financial services/banking sector in Houston and less than 2/100 of one percent of all employees in the region."
Stanford Executive Director Jay Comeaux, a polo lover, is the company's public face in Houston, attending charity functions and appearing as a bold-faced name in society columns.
The company has a quirky, insular culture. Employees are required to wear a lapel pin bearing the firm's ubiquitous eagle and shield logo. Company publications are peppered with devotional mentions of "Sir Allen," a reference to the title given to him in 2006 by Antiguan authorities, not the Queen of England.
The company's two executive buildings are in the same Galleria neighborhood that is home to the city's high-end restaurants and luxury boutiques including Versace, Hermes, Chanel and Tiffany & Co.
Despite Stanford's visible presence in the area, the head of the neighborhood chamber group said he has no dealings with the firm.
"I've never had any interaction with them," said John Breeding, Uptown Houston District President. "They are not a significant player and are not involved in this area."
The squat headquarters building, set far back from a busy street, is lushly landscaped with palm trees and tropical flowers. Stanford has a 5-star corporate dining room, called the Eagle Room, used to woo potential clients.
"The Eagle Room remains my secret weapon," gushed one Stanford broker in a company publication highlighting the dining room's importance to the firm.
Like the restaurant, the high-profile sporting events and art exhibits the company sponsors are ways for the firm to entertain their clients and win business.
The firm sponsors a number of golf, polo, cricket and sailing events. And each year it awards a prize to one employee who shows "genuine virtuous leadership," a characteristic that workers are expected to exhibit.
"We strive to recognize excellence in achievement, as reflected in our deep commitment to sports and in the annual recognition of a Stanford employee who personifies excellence," the company wrote on its website.
Stanford does give to some pet causes in Houston. For example from 2004 to 2008, Stanford was a sponsor of Latin American and Asian Art at the city's Museum of Fine Arts. A spokeswoman for the museum described the firm as a "mid-level" donor.
"Latin America is a key market for Stanford Financial Group," Allen Stanford wrote on his website, wwww.allenstanford.com. "As a company whose North American headquarters is in Houston with a significant number of Hispanic employees, the firm sees the importance of showcasing this part of Stanford Financial Group's culture to the Houston community."
Even so, the relationship between Stanford and the museum ended in June, the museum said.
(Reporting by Anna Driver in Houston; editing by Richard Chang)
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