When Rodger A. Lawson departs from Fidelity Investments at the end of March, RIAs will be losing perhaps the greatest champion that they hardly knew.

Fidelity announced yesterday that Lawson, 63, the president of Boston-based FMR Corp., is retiring after a grueling tenure during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Lawson oversaw perhaps the greatest two-year spate of investing in an RIA custody platform — and associated services for hybrid RIAs.

During his short second stint with Fidelity [he worked there also in the 1980s], Lawson hired Michael Clark from J.P Morgan Chase to oversee institutional services. Clark [who subsequently departed] in turn went on his own hiring spree in 2008, bringing in Michael Durbin from Morgan Stanley to head Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services and Charles Goldman from Schwab Advisor Services to head all institutional platforms for third-party intermediaries, as Fidelity likes to call advisors. Observers note that these hires were not only expensive but broke the mold because they involved bringing New Yorkers and Californians to a firm of Bostonians.

In June of 2008, Fidelity invested in launching HybridOne, which was designed to better blend Fidelity’s custody and clearing capabilities on behalf of hybrid advisors. It also poured more than $50 million into WealthCentral, a replacement platform for AdvisorChannel. The HybridOne brand is being phased out and WealthCentral is still being rolled out.

Triumphant statistic

Ironically, just the day before Lawson’s departure was announced, Fidelity released perhaps its most triumphant statistic ever as a custody platform.

It brought aboard 190 breakaway brokers in 2009 either to its RIA custody platform or through independent broker-dealers that clear with Fidelity’s subsidiary, National Financial Services.

Lawson’s departure raises questions in the minds of many – including one ex-Fidelity executive I talked to — about the extent to which such enthusiastic RIA support will remain at the company in his absence.

Fidelity has no intention of decreasing its support of advisors, according to Vincent Loporchio, spokesman for Fidelity.

“We’re definitely fully committed to the intermediary business and the RIA business in particular,” he says. “They’re key areas of future growth.”

Hatchet man

What made Lawson’s big-time investments in RIAs all the more impressive is that he was brought aboard in July of 2007 as a hatchet man. Fidelity’s payroll had swollen to 46,000 employees. The number has fallen to 37,000 as Lawson makes his way to the exit. His mandate to cut expenses to the bone only mounted as the economy and the markets faltered in 2008.

When he was hired, Fidelity was also faced with the problem of mounting debts. Moody’s downgraded Fidelity’s bonds from Aa3 to A1 on Jan. 11, 2008, after its debt levels jumped from $4.5 billion in July of 2005 to $8.4 billion at the end of 2007.

Observers close to Fidelity say that Lawson, who was a Prudential executive, was tapped to bring more of a public company system of accountability to privately held Fidelity. In addition, he was asked to separately analyze each of Fidelity’s multitude of divisions and designate the ones to spin off, put on cruise control or build up.

Though he may never have been quoted on the subject in a media article, how Lawson chose to view RIA custody as a business unit would seem to speak for itself. Fidelity faces many challenges in continuing to build its custody business, but nobody will blame the guy who held the company purse strings from mid-2007 through 2009 for not doing his part to boost RIAs.