This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the September 2011 issue of Investment Advisor announcing the independent broker-dealers who were named by their own reps as the 21st annual Broker-Dealers of the Year.
The day after our roundtable discussion with the 2011 Broker-Dealers of the Year, Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. government debt in a historic move that left an already weakened economy reeling. Not that the heads of these venerable firms were somehow unprepared, but nonetheless it should be noted for posterity’s sake; a “sign of the times.”
It was one more thing to add to the long list of what these broker-dealers (and by extension advisors, the financial services industry and the country as a whole) are dealing with. The struggling (scratch; flailing) economy, Dodd-Frank, fee compression, increased competition, baby boomers at age 65, succession planning issues—and on it goes.
So why were they so relaxed?
The interview was punctuated with laughter, good humor and mild ribbing. Being named one of this year’s winners was no doubt a factor, but the real reason was revealed soon after the start of the discussion. For them, it’s all opportunity. Not that anyone took glee in, or made light of, the nation’s travails, but the excitement over their ability to help—to “do their part”—was palpable.
The men whose firms won Broker-Dealer of the Year honors—as chosen by their own representatives—gathered in Chicago with Editor John Sullivan and Group Editor in Chief Jamie Green to answer prepared questions, but their easy manner had them largely talking amongst themselves.
This year’s winners (or their firms) aren’t new to the process, with three of the four capturing top honors over multiple years. They are Ralph DeVito of The Investment Center, Timothy Murphy of Investors Capital Corporation and Patrick McEvoy of Woodbury Financial Services. The only newbie to the group, Bradley Shepherd of Founders Financial Securities, confidently predicted we’d soon see him again.
Each had a lot to say (including Ralph DeVito, who was detained due to travel issues) and, as with every year, editing the transcript alone took a bit of doing. An excerpt is provided here, but the 21st anniversary BDOTY celebration continues online at AdvisorOne.com, where readers can find the full, uncut interview transcript, individual interviews with this year’s winners and behind-the-scenes video at the magazine’s photo shoot. We’d also be remiss if we didn’t point to comments made in past years by some of this year’s winners, provided in this month’s BD Briefing. They proved to be entertaining, as well as surprisingly prescient about the issues with which the industry is currently dealing.
REGULATION: WHAT’S KEEPING THEM AWAKE AT NIGHT?
Timothy Murphy, Investors Capital Corporation: The biggest thing that concerns me is the Department of Labor’s ruling on the fiduciary issue. I know there’s been a slight reprieve, but they seem steadfast in changing the role or definition of fiduciary as it applies to IRA accounts. A significant amount of accounts in our firm are IRAs and could be greatly affected. The end result is that the people who need the advice the most are less likely to get individualized, customized advice.
Patrick McEvoy, Woodbury Financial Services: I agree. My feeling is that for years we worried about NASD and then the SEC and FINRA. We have so many competing regulators. Everybody is trying to compete for who can regulate us the best. Now we’re into the legislative world with Dodd-Frank and all of the unintended consequences from that. If I hear another politician tell us that we have to pass the bill to understand what’s in it I’m going to go crazy. We used to have a rules-based regulatory environment; now we’re regulation by enforcement. And I think that’s really hard for firms to stay ahead of. To Tim’s point, those whom we’re trying to protect are the people we’re going end up injuring the most.
Bradley Shepherd, Founders Financial Securities: You’ve also got many different competing methods of engaging in the financial services business. Trying to capture banks, wirehouses, independents and IRAs all under common types of platforms; the nature of distribution forms is different. And so you have one set of all-encompassing rules in an environment where you’ve got lots of different ways people are going about getting advice and engaging in a relationship. It makes it very challenging. We’re a small firm and we don’t feel like we are necessarily as well represented as Woodbury might be. At the end of the day, I think it boils down to the fact that the intentions might be right, but the execution is very poor.
John Sullivan, Investment Advisor: Is there a way to be proactive?
Murphy: Absolutely. I think through FSI, through SIFMA, through political avenues. Firms have been active and engaged at various levels, but what we really need is advisor participation. The independent channel represents the largest single distribution channel by number of advisors. That’s a significant amount of constituents to take to Washington. So if we get our advisors engaged in the process, we have a better chance of influencing the outcome.
Shepherd: I personally would love to see greater advisor engagement with FSI. FSI in my opinion is the voice of the collective independent channel. And it’s very easy for an advisor to get engaged in the process by joining FSI. They’d have regular, direct communication about what’s important and what’s happening. Somewhat related, FINRA is a self-regulatory organization, which means they are, in theory, our partner. Yet I don’t know that we, as broker-dealers and people in this industry, feel that they behave as a partner all the time.
McEvoy: Great point, Brad. We kind of self-regulate ourselves too, as broker-dealers. We constantly see things, we’re testing things, we’re doing oversight. We identify problems, then we take action to discipline a rep, or even terminate a rep. If that happens, it leads to one of two things: The rep sometimes gets involved with another firm because FINRA doesn’t take action as a result of what we’ve uncovered. They then show up at another firm and harm another client. What’s worse is when we take action and then a rep comes back to us and says, “You wrongfully terminated me.” And FINRA allows arbitration to happen.
Jamie Green, Investment Advisor: What about harmonization of broker-dealer and advisor rules? Are you optimistic that it will make regulation a little more rational for everybody involved, including the client?
Murphy: What that would do is grant oversight to the RIAs of the world who aren’t regulated at this point, in practicality. You know you’ve got advisors who have been out there for 10 years who have never had an audit of any kind. Now they are moving [regulation of] advisors with under $100 million in assets to the states. Some states don’t have the resources or even an audit program in place. What I would love to see is coordination. Without it, we’re in a constant tug of war with different regulators.
Shepherd: But we, as an industry, have to look in the mirror. We’ve allowed some bad cats into the business. When your goal is to get someone a license and hand them a phone book and have them start making phone calls and try to make a living doing that, its risks bad things happening.
McEvoy: For reps entering this business, the barrier [to entry] should be high. We’re now looking at not just their regulatory background but the personal credit history. Brad is absolutely on the money. We have to get tougher and tougher, and I think most good firms are doing that.
TECHNOLOGY: USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
McEvoy: The less that we pay attention to it, the more trouble we’re going to get in. We’ve got to put [advisors] in a position to use social media tools. I don’t think it’s going to be as hard as we think because we’re doing a lot of this and have been doing a lot of this with email and websites.
Green: You mean as far as archiving the materials?
McEvoy: Archiving, supervision and oversight. There are tools we’re rolling out shortly that will allow reps to take advantage of social media, but it will be in an environment in which we can help them to keep from harming themselves.
Shepherd: I think that’s the key point. It’s keeping advisors from harming themselves. You know there’s nothing that I can personally think of that’s productive about using [social media] as a great way to market yourself. Our guys and gals don’t use the social media tools probably the way others intend. We spend a lot of time helping our members understand that once you type it, once you post it, you can’t take it back. There’s a significant generational gap between the uses of these social media tools. As more young people come into the business, we have to have an effective way of teaching them to pause, stop and think before they push that button.
Murphy: For the younger generation, not just of advisors but of investors, that’s their preferred way to communicate. So we, as an industry, have to embrace this. We’ve demonstrated the ability to conduct surveillance of websites and email, and this will just be incorporated into our electronic surveillance programs. I think we need to embrace it, teach your advisors how to use it, even teach the clients how to use it. We deliver nearly 50% of our conferences and statements electronically to our investors; that’s something we didn’t see two, three years ago.
Shepherd: I think the advisors with independent broker-dealers have a different, more personal relationship with their clients than traditional bank and wire houses, where they have a more transactional type model. Because it’s my belief that the independent channel has a more personal relationship with its clients, the use of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter results in the lines getting blurred more easily. If I’ve got a client I’m managing with a couple of million dollars and they’re also a good friend, I may travel or play golf and put up some pictures, but that might not be the professional image I want to have them know me by. I think independents have a different level of accountability with social media probably than do others.
Green: How much do you rely on your clearing firms for technology?
McEvoy: Five years ago–it seems like light years–but five years ago we might have looked at outsourcing things like reporting and billing. Now we look at our clearing partner to do a lot more than we’ve ever asked them before. They need to provide us with knowledge of what other firms are doing. Pershing is our partner and they’re very good at providing good solutions and coming to us to say, “Oh, by the way, you know we have other firms that are using this kind of a style.” But on the outsourcing process, we can’t outsource hardly anything anymore that has anything to do with client information, that has anything to do with billing and of course anything to do with client information. We are so careful about protecting the information that we’ve got to own, just because we have to own it not because we like to and not because somebody couldn’t do it more efficiently.
Murphy: We also clear through Pershing, but it’s not just clearing a trade and paying you the commission. The folks at Pershing have come in and done an analysis of our operations, our use of technology, the integration of it and have provided us with tremendous feedback. With that said, we rely heavily on our clearing firm for solutions, but we also now have more developers than we’ve ever had. It’s not a question of build or buy; now you buy it, but you’ve got to integrate it in too.
Shepherd: We’re smaller and only five years old, so we’ve made part of our business model outsourcing. We became a broker-dealer not because I want to hire the person to type the commission data into a commission spreadsheet or have the person actually sitting in my office to open new accounts. There’s going to be a move for smaller broker-dealers to find better and stronger outsource partners as time progresses. Our margins are different than these guys’ obviously and our 3% margin on something is dollar-amount-wise different than his 3% margin on something. For us, having the outsourcing has been a very effective way to be profitable from day one and be effective day one.
Green: Could you give one example of an outsourcing deal that you’ve made that you think has done well for you in terms of an operation?
Shepherd: Legal is an example. We don’t staff an in-house attorney. We have an outsourced legal relationship. We could go staff the attorney, pay the salary, pay all the things that go with that or we can have an outsource and use as we need. Yes, we pay more as we need, but again we don’t have a great need for it, so it balances out.
McEvoy: There used to be these organizations that would perform due diligence on third-party products. Boy, you can’t let that go anymore because when it comes time for a lawsuit they are nowhere to be found.
Shepherd: In the independent space, there’s more diversity of firms than there are in the bank channel or in a brokerage channel, so within the independent space I think you’ve got multiple ways of doing an effective business model both in size and sophistication, and in in-source versus outsource. Some of that to me is beauty. I think we as—I’ll use the term “artist,” I don’t know a better one—but as artists get to craft something a little bit different from the rest. And we get more ability to influence and make a difference than I think the rest of the distribution channels in our industry get to.
McEvoy: Brad, you’re absolutely right. Hence the word “independents.”
Shepherd: Yeah, right. Exactly.
McEvoy: And you know you have all sorts of choices. You take it back to the formation of the United States; if you didn’t like certain laws in Massachusetts, you moved to Virginia. We’re sitting here now and we do have a great deal of artistry for our firms. I want to make sure that I’m delivering the tools that I think my field force is looking for, but there is no bad and there is no perfect environment. Some firms are much better at technology than we will be, but maybe that comes with less flexibility. It all comes to what’s best for you.
Murphy: Well, just to comment on both of your comments about artists, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Impressionism versus renaissance versus neo-modernistic, and every firm can be very different—different sizes, different cultures, geography, coupled with technology—but somebody’s going to be attracted to that business model.
McEvoy: Tim, it’s not a zero sum game. If I’m in a competition with an office and they get along with Brad better, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be harmed, that just means that’s not a relationship that fits.
Murphy: That’s one thing about this business that is unique. The amount of collaboration that goes on among us as competitors is incredible.
RECRUITING: THE PERFECT PROSPECT (OR NOT)
McEvoy: I’m not sure that I would say what my perfect prospect is. It comes back to who you’re comfortable with. But, from a broad scale of recruiting, one challenge that will continue in the independent space is the firms that are offering unbelievable up-front money. I keep telling my team, “I want to be right versus write.” I want to find the right relationship versus writing a check.
Murphy: Recruiting this year has picked up significantly, but it’s about quality over quantity. All of us are focusing more in that area. Our ideal recruit is somebody you would have over to your house for dinner on multiple occasions. Just as clients have a relationship with the advisor, we also have a relationship with the advisor. We clearly are looking for folks who are productive. We’ll take everybody’s personal situation into consideration, but recruiting is very expensive. Just the transition from one firm to another is expensive and there are firms out there writing significant checks. But we have no plans of being the biggest firm, so I’m not in a recruiting race. We need to grow and we need to continue to recruit. We’ll do so responsibly.
Shepherd: Recruiting for us is a fairly intense process. We really are focused on finding a person who can fit into the community of Founders. And that’s not just anybody. Production isn’t something we necessarily focus on. We think our industry en mass has done a poor job of teaching people to become CEOs of their businesses. We think they’ve done a great job of teaching people to become income producers, but they become trapped by the lifestyle of the income they produce. Founders spends a lot of time focusing on finding people who are hitting ceilings of complexity in their business model. Productively, that’s probably $250,000 dollars of GDC. They need to begin to find somebody they can partner with to build a business now. If we add 10 or 15 new members a year we’re thrilled. We certainly have aspirations to be bigger. We need to be bigger. But we’re going do it one relationship at a time.
McEvoy: I keep telling my team, “Let’s not confuse activity with progress.” If we want to recruit 1,000 reps in any one year, any firm could do that if they are looking for body count. I want to get the right relationships, but I’m focusing on growing our current base, too. One thing that you always chance when you are out in front of the rest of the pack is that your current advisors ask themselves, “Well, are you spending more time trying to find more people or trying to help me grow?” So my use of capital has to be very carefully considered.
Green: So retention is as important as recruiting?
McEvoy: Retention is critical. My growth strategy is three-pronged and our registered reps should be thinking about it the same way. It’s retaining the business that makes them successful. It’s organically growing it through same-store sales. Then you want to find new sources of business that mirror your strengths.
Murphy: Recently, we performed a transaction where our advisors and their clients bought a majority stake in our firm. Hopefully, that’s attractive for them to stay with the firm to protect what we’ve got.
Shepherd: The remnant of 2009 is that your advisors want to know that you’ve got their back. We’ve created an environment where they know we’ve got their back. The focus is on them, not on the profit/loss statement. It’s not on a massive growth acquisition.
Green: Is it harder to differentiate yourself when there are so many options for the advisors to affiliate?
Murphy: I think the term “independent” crosses multiple platforms. The firms sitting in the room today used to be considered the independent firms. Now you have Schwab and TD “breakaways,” so the term independent I think is confusing.