2010 marks the silver anniversary for Tom Bradley, the outspoken head of TD Ameritrade Institutional. Reflecting on his tenure with the company and the RIA business as a whole, Bradley offers up insight on the importance of technology to advisor success, what financial reform means for the independent channel and what the future holds for the next generation of advisors. Bradley had a lot to say, an excerpt of which is provided here. Look for the extended interview in the October issue of Investment Advisor magazine.
Q: Looking back on 25 years, if you said to yourself, “When staring out, I never would have imagined ‘X’ would have subsequently happened,” what would that be?
A: I wish I could tell you that I had some incredible crystal ball and I knew everything that was going to occur. It was really more of a gut feeling on the direction in which this business was headed. When I first started, the RIA business didn’t really exist; certainly not in the form it is today. Back then it was all about the discount brokerage business. People never really looked favorably upon the stock brokerage business. There was always a level of distrust by the investing public. It was 1992 when one of the co-founders of [TD] Waterhouse came to me and said “Hey, we just got this thing off the ground, this RIA business. I want you to run that along with a few other things, the fixed income area and the mutual fund area.”
Q: Did you know anything about it at that point, or was this completely new to you?
A: Not at that point. It was very early on. I had some general knowledge that one of our competitors had gotten into the business and so we got into the business as well. It didn’t take me long to say “Wow! There’s really something here. And this is different. This is interesting.” At some point in 1992 I made a pitch to focus more on that particular business. And the company was willing to make a commitment to technology. This can be a great business for us but you can’t be half way in. The key investments are generally around technology.
Q: Was that technology a separating factor, a competitive differentiation?
A: No question about it. Technology today is table stakes, so to speak. But when we came out with VEO, it was the first platform that was totally Internet based. Everybody was just starting to get excited about the Internet and the fact that they would be able to manage their clients’ accounts from anywhere in the world as long as they had an Internet connection. Since then, we’ve made a number of upgrades to it. The latest VEO has been completely redesigned by our clients. We worked with a number of volunteer advisors over a two-year period to design next generation. It’s gotten some great reviews.
Q: Was the recently passed financial reform legislation needed, or over the top?
A: Like anything, I think the latest financial reform legislation has some good and bad aspects to it. Specifically as it relates to advisors, we don’t know exactly where this is headed because the SEC is in the middle of a comment period and conducting a six-month study. What comes out of this study will be critical. I think where this whole thing went wrong is with the Securities Act of 1934 that governed stockbrokers, and the Investment Advisors Act of 1940. The “40-Act” was designed to set up rules and regulations for fiduciary advisors. The job of stockbrokers was to sell and broker securities. When the stockbrokers started to provide more services, advisor-like services, without registering as investment advisors, is where it went wrong. That’s where the line started to blur. In my view, this could have all been resolved quickly and simply if you went in there and separated those two lines again. If you want to be a sales person and sell stocks and sell product, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as people know what you’re doing. The greatest risks here are around the traditional brokerage model and trying to harmonize rules that are meant for sales people with rules that are meant for fiduciaries. It’s all about maintaining consumer choice and protecting consumers. So we’ll see what happens.
Q: With so much uncertainty out there, if I’m a young person just starting out, why would I want to get into the advisor business?
A: The first thing I would say to a young person is that investors always come back to the market. The allure of the gains that can be had are simply too great. I saw that after the crash of 1987 and then multiple other mini-crashes since then. And the long-term trend for equities is up. And when you’re in those down periods it always seems to be so difficult and so dark. But the bottom line is that if you have a long-term view, this will be just another blip on the radar screen.