EPIC Spotlight: Theresa Fette

The trust group was failing. It was in such disrepair that the state of Nevada was considering receivership.

For many, the task of resurrecting the Las Vegas company would be too daunting. Theresa Fette, however, saw the sinking business as an opportunity. Only 28 years old and a practicing lawyer, she and a business partner not much older pooled their resources to meet the company’s seven figure price tag a whopping sum for two people early in their careers.

“I think entrepreneurs have to be opportunists,” Fette says. “We have to be able to see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

That was 2008, and Provident Trust Group had only four employees with about $300 million in assets under custody. Fette, who was single and childless at the time, worked the long days as she and her partner tried to get Provident back on track. It wasn’t easy, she says. “There was a lot of self-doubt in the first six to eight months,” Fette admits now.

But not anymore. As Provident Trust Group’s chief executive officer, she has seen the company soar to 30 employees with $3 billion in assets under custody.

It also led to something else: Fette, a Sam M. Walton College of Business graduate, was one of 10 named as Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs for 2012. That designation, Fette says, caught her completely by surprise.

“I have to admit, I don’t know how I made the list,” she says. “I feel honored to be listed amongst some of the most incredible female entrepreneurs of our time.”

Fette, who grew up in Fort Smith, shares the distinction with actress and entrepreneur Jessica Alba and women leading the world in software applications, nanotechnology, home furnishings and more. She and the others were recognized during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Part of the process involved writing an essay about how she was a game-changer. She says she focused on the technology that facilitates Provident’s unique self-directed services, which has allowed the company to quickly grow a large client base. While the oldest self-directed IRA company took 30 years to obtain 60,000 clients, it took Provident just four years to reach 30,000, Fette says. The growth comes, in part, through offering some good ol’ “Arkansas values” when providing services for the company’s self-directed IRA and trusts clients.

Fette graduated from the Walton College with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. Her three younger sisters earned degrees at the college as well, and all four were active in Students Acquiring Knowledge through Enterprise (SAKE), a student-run, nonprofit business operated through Walton College. Fette says she served as co-CEO for SAKE when it made its first profit.#

Her Walton College experiences were defining. “It was the spark that started the wheels turning of what was I going to do with my life,” she says.

She says the most practical knowledge came from the accounting department, such as when Dr. Karen Pincus, Walton College accounting professor, provided lessons on how to identify fraud. As a result, Fette says graduates were able impress their bosses quickly.

After earning a graduate degree, Fette enrolled in the University of Arkansas School of Law because she says she felt it would give her a good foundation no matter what direction she decided to take.

She worked as a tax lawyer in Kansas City, where she brought in clients from the West. Fette created a niche in her field, which led to an opportunity to buy Provident.

Now married to her husband, Dan Farrow, and the mother of two, she says she tries to spend as much time as she can with her family. She thinks of Arkansas often, too, and the opportunities afforded her while at the Walton College.

“The University of Arkansas, in general, gives you applicable skills for the real world,” she says.