Fund Directions announces winners of Trustee, Small Board, Newcomer, Independent Counsel of the Year

Delaware Funds' Whitford wins Trustee of the Year; Morningstar's Hamacher wins Small-Board Trustee; Wilshire's Levy-Navarro wins as Newcomer; Willkie Farr's Haskin and Sood win Independent Counsel

Fund Directions has named Thomas Whitford of Delaware Funds Trustee of the Year and named Theresa Hamacher of Morningstar Funds Trust Small Board Trustee of the year during the 2023 Mutual Fund & ETF Awards.

The awards, which recognize the best work of independent trustees and the independent counsel who advise them – were held in New York June 15.  

Liz Levy-Navarro of Wilshire Mutual Funds, Inc. was recognized as Newcomer of the Year, which honors the contributions of independent directors during the first five years as members of a fund board.

The award for Independent Counsel of the Year went to the team of Benjamin Haskin and Neesa Patel Sood of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.

Fund Directions also recognized the contributions made by Sidney E. Harris during his 28-year career as an independent trustee of the Virtus Family of Mutual Funds, TransAmerica Premier Funds and former chair of the RidgeWorth Funds, with Fund Directions’ 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award.

You can read the full story of Harris’ accomplishments here, and see the shortlist of nominees for all four award categories at one of the links below:

Trustee of the Year

Thomas K. Whitford, 67 – former audit-committee chair who has been an independent trustee for Delaware Funds since 2013 – was elected chair of the 12-person board as of Jan. 1, following the mandatory retirement of former chair Thomas L. Bennett, who had held the post since 2015.

The former audit-committee chair now sits on all the board’s committees, from which he played a critical role in the selection new counsel and a reorganization that included changes in the lineup of funds and transfer of come closed-end funds to a third-party advisory business, according to a nomination from colleagues on the board.

Whitford chairs a 12-person board with 11 independent trustees that is responsible for oversight of 127 funds in the Delaware Funds by Macquarie complex that is managed as part of the $240bn Americas division of Australia-based Macquarie Group, which holds approximately US$542bn in assets under management worldwide.

Whitford brought to the role considerable experience in the mutual-fund servicing business, according to a Jan. 4 SEC filing that noted his particular experience in the integration of corporate acquisitions, technology and operations and experience as chief risk officer during the 30 years Whitford spent at PNC Financial Services Group before retiring in 2013 after four years as the company’s vice chairman.

He has also held seats as a trustee with several fund organizations affiliated with HSBC USA Inc.

Small Board Trustee of the Year

Theresa Hamacher, has been an independent trustee and chair of the board since 2018 at the nine-fund Morningstar Funds Trust.

In February, the Morningstar board submitted a comment letter critiquing the swing-pricing rule the SEC proposed in November, 2022 for what the board described as a lack of empirical support for the benefits of swing pricing. The letter also suggested that the rule’s standardized liquidity risk-management requirements would increase costs for shareholders, especially at smaller fund organizations, which could deliver similar results at lower costs under liquidity risk-management rules with more flexibility than in the original draft of the rule.

Hamacher is a former chief investment officer for Prudential Mutual funds and for Pioneer Investments, which she left in 2001 to serve for seven years as president of NICSA, the non-profit association founded by investment industry companies to help develop operational best practices, which she took over in 2008 while the organization was going through a realignment prompted by the financial crisis.

She is president and founder of Versanture Consulting LLC – a thought-leadership practice through which she publishes frequently on fund-board governance for publications including Barron’s and the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. She also writes frequently in defense of and for the education of retail investors who are the target audience for The Fund Industry: How your Money is Managed – an instructional guide to investing Hamacher co-wrote that “offers a one-stop depository of data and commentary on the inner workings of the fund industry from the vanilla to the exotic,” according to a Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance review of the first edition after it was published in 2011. A second edition was published in 2015, with a foreword by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller.

Hamacher also co-wrote another consumer-oriented book on investing called The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Investing in Stocks in 2006.

Newcomer Trustee of the Year

Levy-Navarro, 60, joined the board in 2019 and became chair of the valuation committee in 2020. In her role as valuation chair, she led the board’s oversight of compliance with the valuation and derivatives rules.

She also sits on the board’s audit, nominating and investment committees.

She was CEO and co-founder of management consulting firm Orrington Strategies from 2002 to 2017. Prior to co-founding Orrington, she was practice leader and operating committee member at The Cambridge Group, a former management consulting subsidiary of Nielsen, from 1993 to 2002. Levy-Navarro has previously held senior roles at Capgemini Invent, Kearney, and AT&T.

She currently sits on the boards of Munich Re Americas and Eastside Distilling and has previously held board seats at AIG US Life Insurance, Burke Beverage, Inc., Andover State Bank, Gold Eagle Company, and Alper Services, an Alera Group Co.

Independent Counsel of the Year

Benjamin J. Haskin and Neesa Patel Sood, both partners in the Asset Management practice of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, were nominated jointly for their work advising the independent directors/trustees of Delaware Funds by Macquarie, for which they have served as independent counsel since 2022.

Trustees nominating them said that both Haskin and Sood have been diligent and effective in advising trustees on routine regulatory challenges and a range of more unusual situations including a series of internal reorganizations, the repurposing and liquidation of funds, third-party M&A activity involving closed-end funds and the challenge of navigating shareholder-activist challenges to the authority of the board itself.

Their insight, experience and ability to work effectively with the board helped the board navigate complex situations and improve the board’s ability to handle issues of policy, reporting and fund governance, according to the nomination.

Haskin is an investment-management attorney who works with investment advisers, hedge-fund managers and the trustees of mutual funds and ETFs. He is a member of the editorial board of The Investment Lawyer and former chair of the Investment Management Committee of the D.C. Bar. He has been at Willkie since 2004; he left a partnership at K&L Gates, where he worked for 12 years after leaving a stint as a consultant at Bain & Co. He writes frequently on ESG, and changes in reporting, disclosure and fund governance required by changes in SEC regulations and enforcement practices relevant to fund trustees.

Sood has been a partner since January 2009 at Willkie, which she joined as counsel in 2009. She counsels registered funds and fund-board members on regulatory, governance, operational and transaction-related issues, including the structure and launch of registered funds and new products, to which she brings considerable transactional experience. She was named a “Rising Star” by Fund Directions‘ sister publication Fund Intelligence in 2021; her work was included in a National Law Journal article on Willkie insights into ESG issues related to the investment industry.