Ed O’Brien typifies the type of person that this year’s IA 25 seeks to honor. A person of deep competence in their specific field (in O’Brien’s case, advisor technology) who exhibits broad knowledge of advisors’ challenges (gained over 30 years toiling in Fidelity Institutional’s technology trenches) and a record of producing solutions for advisors matched by a passion for the independent advisory industry.
Holder of a U.S. patent with experience overseas, in March, O’Brien was named CEO of eMoney Advisor, which Fidelity majority acquired last year, replacing the estimable eMoney founder Edmond Walters. While it began life as financial planning software for advisors, eMoney’s trump offering may well be its emX digital wealth management platform, designed for end clients but provided through advisors. As Michael Durbin of Fidelity Wealth Technologies said in announcing O’Brien’s ascension, “I’m confident he will help us further establish eMoney as the strongest ally of advisors seeking to meet the growing high-tech and high-touch expectations of their end clients.”
When asked in an April interview whether advisors need new technology or just need to make better use of their existing tech tools, O’Brien said advisor technology is “far better than we’ve had historically.” While some advisors haven’t made enough of an investment in their technology, others have, he said, but failed to invest “in the people or the processes.” A central focus of eMoney, O’Brien said, is to help advisors “not just in [providing] efficiency but in deepening the relationship with clients; making the relationship more productive,” with the eMoney platform being the “ennabler of that relationship.”
It’s one thing to gather demographic data on clients — “any CRM can do that” — or provide more transactional efficiency, he said, while it’s quite another to “gather the emotional needs of the client” and then meet those needs. First determine, he said, “What are they passionate about? Is it wealth transfer or philanthropy?” and then use technology to collaboratively achieve those goals.
“The beauty of technology” is its ability to provide different ways to meet client needs. So, for example, if a client wants a face-to-face relationship with an advisor, use supporting technology like video or a WebX application to make that personal meeting not just possible but easy.
That may be why, as a self-proclaimed “optimist for this industry,” O’Brien sees the robo-advisor movement “as an opportunity” for human advisors to take advantage of technology to provide an “easier-to-use interface,” which will soon become “table stakes.” He argues that “the most successful advisors will embrace technology” to meet client expectations while the knowledge and experience of professional advisors will allow them to meet client needs “when things get complex” in clients’ financial lives.
Will there be pricing pressure on the industry as a result of robos? “That’s a trend that’s not new,” O’Brien said, expecting advisors to continue to find ways “to drive efficiency while charging for other discrete services.” And will there be further consolidation in the industry? That’s “absolutely happening,” he said, but also believes smaller advisors can survive. “If you’re connecting with a really good custodian to drive efficiency, and then connecting to the front office with tools like eMoney, with the right technology they can be more efficient” as long as they continue to offer and highlight their “strong value propositions to clients.”
One way to build that value prop is to “acknowledge that non-boomers will be different” clients, and that as the great wealth transfer plays out, “a lot more [female] investors will be making those decisions.” He also urges advisors to think about attracting and serving the “HENRYs of the world,” i.e., High Earners Not Rich Yet clients.
Figure out how to “pivot your business more to them,” he suggested. He added, “that’s where the role of segmentation might come in,” for example young doctors, and warned, “if you don’t get them now, chances are good you won’t get them in the future.”