Chances are good that Joe Deitch is the only chairman of an independent broker-dealer that can claim a Tony Award for his work as a Broadway producer (for “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” in 2012).
Commonwealth Financial Network, the independent BD founded by Deitch in 1979 out of his retail advisory firm, is used to getting other kinds of awards—through 2014, Commonwealth marked its seventh straight year as one of the best places to work (from The Boston Globe for its Waltham, Massachusetts headquarters) and was on the San Diego Business Journal's best places to work list for six years, in addition to multiple honors from the likes of Computerworld and J.D. Power. Oh, and it's won Broker-Dealer of the Year honors from this magazine 10 times.
But the most unique part of Commonwealth isn't its numbers or accolades, but its culture. Deitch and his long-time partners, including CEO Wayne Bloom, act like a functional family: firmly committed to a common goal, wary of outsiders (such as might be the case if they acquired another BD and its problematic reps), fond of pushing each other's buttons in an affectionate way and committed to each other—not just the partners, but all the employees and, by extension, the reps who throw in their lot with Commonwealth.
You can clearly hear Boston in Deitch’s speech—he was born and raised there, was educated at the Boston Latin School (where he has since funded a leadership program at the nation’s oldest public school) and the University of Pennsylvania before completing a management program at Harvard Business School. But moss doesn’t grow on Deitch—his interests and passions are many and he’s an intrepid traveler. While he handed over the CEO role to Bloom in 2009, he remains deeply involved at Commonwealth. “I continue to derive enormous pleasure and satisfaction from both the people and the projects that we work with,” Deitch said in an email. “My own role is primarily strategic, [but] our entire senior management team, myself included, meets together every week to discuss issues and opportunities.
In a separate email exchange, Deitch answered the following questions.
Jamie Green: If you looked back over your career, what are the big changes you’ve seen in terms of delivering financial advice; looking ahead, how do you think advice delivery will change?
Joe Deitch: Technology is the one big game-changer that affects all of us on every level. But aside from being able to do so much more – better, faster, cheaper – there’s a certain level of analysis and service that wasn’t possible before. And it’s only going to accelerate.
There is also a new level of competition that technology has enabled, which is challenging everything as well as creating new pathways, pricing and possibilities. On the one hand, tech has enabled us to become so much bigger and better; but it has also raised the bar on expectations and choices.
So far these changes have benefited advisors and investors alike. Some people see us at a tipping point today where automated solutions (e.g., “robo-advisors”) will replace people. In a sense, that’s the history of the industrialized world; however, up until now the standard of living has lifted us all. My own belief is that man and machine will continue to merge and improve […] and that will usher in a brave new world. The big variable is whether people will embrace, ignore or reject this evolving reality.
At Commonwealth, we simply try to make intelligent decisions. And while we have always embraced technology and invested the required resources to take full advantage of our opportunities, we also understand that our results are only as good as our people. That is one thing that has not changed. It’s the people who choose the goals, chart the course and execute accordingly. So far so good!
Green: The Commonwealth culture is admired throughout the industry. What was the genesis of this unique culture, and how do you keep it alive?
Deitch: Well, you know the firm pretty well, and you know that we’re a bit utopian in terms of having high expectations. But why would anyone want anything less?!
Commonwealth is the foundation from which our professional and personal lives grow and prosper. It’s both our business and our home. We all spend much more time at work than anything else in our waking lives, so if we’re not trying to make it wonderful, then we’re missing the point!
Commonwealth has enormous clarity about these two critical components. In order to thrive and be true to ourselves, we choose to be the best in the industry at everything we do; and create and nurture a great community. It’s literally all about quality and community. All things good come from those two goals.
It’s totally selfish and totally clear. But once you have clarity about where you’re going and why, and once you have consensus from the entire team, after that it’s pretty straightforward. That dual vision drives our business planning, our hiring and training and retaining, our tech strategy and everything else. Oh, and by the way, this commitment to quality and community attracts exactly the type of people we want and need to keep it going. Besides, at this point, we have a fiduciary responsibility to keep it going. It’s an honor.
Green: Commonwealth has remained independent while many independent broker-dealers have consolidated. What’s the value of independent ownership for employees, advisors and even end clients?
Deitch: The most obvious benefit is that we don’t have to serve many masters with contradictory agendas. Our employees, owners and advisors are all on the same side of the fence: quality and community. It’s a symbiotic relationship – we need each other to succeed.
However, that doesn't mean that all private companies are good or that all public companies are bad. The fact is that all enterprises are run by the human beings at the top. The personality of a broker-dealer, or any business, will always mirror the personalities of those making the big decisions. They’re the ones who set the goals and the tone. They’re the ones who decide who to hire and fire. Creating and sculpting an organization is both a science and an art.
Resources are another critical component. While Commonwealth has always been private, and our senior management tenured and talented, the fact that we’re financially strong and consistently profitable makes it much easier to do what we want, what we need and what makes the most sense for the long term.
Green: In a recent interview I did with Tom James [of Raymond James, another member of the 2015 IA 35], he brought your name up, fondly lamenting that you were one who got away. Could you name any mentors or great personal influences you’ve had over the years, and what you learned from them?
Deitch: Tom James is one of the good guys and a class act. I've always enjoyed listening to what he has to say.
No one has ever asked me the mentor question before, but I think about it a lot. My father died when I was a teenager and I've always wanted a mentor; but it wasn't to be, at least not in the traditional sense.
Over the years I have heard people, met people and read people, constantly trying to glean knowledge and wisdom. I like the expression, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And so it has been for me. Looking back, there were so many key concepts that appeared when I needed them the most. I chuckle as I write this because the knowledge has always been there, […] the difference is that we’re finally ready to hear it.
More recently however, I find that the feeling and energy of a person has become much more impactful and memorable for me than words. For example, I may read a manual or a biography and only remember a few words to live by; but when I meet certain remarkable people, I never forget their energy imprint. Over the years I’ve had the enormous privilege to meet with leaders like Jack Welch, Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa, and their energy imprint (and their embedded wisdom) was powerful and unique. When I experience their energy, I better grasp how they were able to accomplish what they did.
But wisdom is not only the province of public figures. I have learned enough from my wife (a brilliant psychologist who passed away in 2006), my son, my business partners and my friends to feed me for a lifetime. The trick is to be open to it!
In a separate email clarifying his role now at Commonwealth, Deitch added this coda: “Another important thing that has never changed” among Commonwealth’s senior management, he said, “is that we are all totally accessible to our advisors.”