Cold rains, preceding snow, splashed down on Boston last week but Fidelity Investments heated things up by convening an internal conference practice management think tank.
What stood out about the October 27 event held in a meeting center in Boston’s financial district was that it brought in top practice management and technology voices from around the country. It also invited some top RIAs, who talked about recent deals. And in a gesture that spoke to the open spirit of the event, the host, David Canter, Fidelity’s executive vice president of practice management and consulting, said it would be OK to share some thoughts about it in a column.
Fidelity is investing aggressively in further building out its already-impressive practice management and consulting platform. And when an organization with the heft and horsepower of Fidelity takes notice, usually big things result.
To prepare and plan for its initiative, Fidelity, at its all-day meeting, featured a series of panel discussions, brainstorming sessions and networking opportunities for executives from across the firm’s various business lines to engage an all-star set of industry experts — many of whom literally pioneered practice management in the RIA industry.
David Welling, a practice management pioneer who currently leads the sales, product strategy and client service areas for Black Diamond Performance Reporting, a division of Advent Software Inc., and Dan Skiles, a technology and operations practice expert who is now executive vice president at Shareholders Service Group Inc. The latter two executives headed up practice management and technology for Schwab Advisor Services immediately prior to taking their current jobs. Greg Rogers, founder and president of leading family and family business consultancy Raylign Advisory LLC, was also featured.
They had a rapt audience of more than 50 top Fidelity product managers, sales specialists, marketing mavens, operational, technology and compliance gurus engaged with these industry experts to get a lens-eye view into the nuances of running an RIA firm.
The Legends of Practice Management
Kicking off the conference was a panel discussion titled, “The Legends of Practice Management.”
This humorous, wide-ranging and compelling discussion was led by Canter, as he asked the experts the best ways to build out practice management resources to help advisors better manage and expand their businesses.
“Benchmarking is the foundation of any practice management offering,” noted Welling. “A former boss of mine said once, 'In God we trust, but all others bring data.’ So if you want to have a meaningful consulting engagement with a firm, then you need to have the relevant data that backs up your conclusions and recommendations.” This was a key piece of advice and validation for Fidelity, which plans to release the results of its first broad-ranging benchmarking study next month.
Skiles, a noted industry technology columnist, offered up solid thoughts on how to structure a technology consultation. “You need to formalize it and ensure that the principals of the firm are engaged in the process. Otherwise, they don’t communicate the importance of change to the staff and their focus on driving efficiencies. All too often, advisors and staff fall into a rut of running their various softwares, don’t take the time to learn about the new features and are underutilizing the capabilities of what they already own.”
Rogers, a unique blend of an advisor and consultant, echoed the main focuses of practice management that RIAs need. “It’s all about being efficient, productive and building a solid infrastructure,” he said. “Without that, all other issues such as the ability to grow, scale your firm??? and continue to attract talent are just symptoms of that underlying problem.”
As the advisory industry continues to gray and cycle towards retirement, the topic of succession planning and mergers and acquisitions took center stage as what many experts predict will be the dominant theme for practice management over the next decade. Leading this discussion was Mark Hurley, president and CEO of the Fiduciary Network, and the pioneer of the communication tool that has influenced the RIA business the most: the industry white paper.
Hurley provided insight into the dozen deals he has done in the wealth management business since founding Fiduciary Network, including the innovative financing services his firm provides. He also suggested in his unique, thought-provoking style that there may be change on the horizon for the majority of the industry. See: What to make of Mark Hurley’s latest prophesy that most RIA firms will go out with a whimper.
As potential proof points for how the industry is moving to accept the future reality Hurley has predicted in his research, the concluding discussion for the day featured Dan Silver from Adviser Investments and Michael Nathanson from The Colony Group LLC. Both of these $1-billion-plus AUM RIA firms had recently completed a transaction to bring outside financing and capital into their firms for a variety of reasons. See: E*TRADE unwinds its RIA roll-up, and a giant RIA rises in the Boston burbs.“We kept an eye on what Focus Financial was up to and observed them for several years,” explained Nathanson. “Ultimately, we wanted to maintain control of our firm, create some liquidity and enhance our ability to be a strategic acquirer. The recent deal with Focus gave us the additional capital and expertise to do that and now we are well-positioned for the future.” See: A look inside Focus Financial’s big deal with The Colony Group.
Silver echoed those thoughts on how important the succession issue was and why his firm did the deal with Hurley.
“We agree that there will be industry dominators that will arise and we wanted to fall into that category.”
The Hosts with the Most on a Snowy Boston Day
The weather might not have been welcoming for us fair-weather Californians, as the rains turned to snow, but Fidelity certainly was. I had the opportunity to dine with all of the industry gurus and a small set of Fidelity executives the night before the conference to compare notes and prep for the next day’s sessions, including a discussion I led on how best to market practice management content, services and messages.
For what it’s worth, Canter also did single me out as a Legend of Practice Management, a great compliment that echoes back to my days in corporate life when the industry first began to experiment in ways to directly add value to advisors from the custodian point of view. (Editor’s Note: Tim Welsh is a former director of marketing for Schwab Advisor Services)
As I reflected on the day’s events, it occurred to me that this may well be a seminal event for Fidelity, and the industry, as they dive deep into the practice management pool. See: Fidelity lures a 'game-changing’ West Coast practice-management star.
Timothy D. Welsh, CFP®, is president and founder of Nexus Strategy LLC, a leading consulting firm to the wealth management industry, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NexusStrategy.