Pick any mutual fund company, go to its website and pull up a fund fact sheet. (We’ll wait.) Odds are, it won’t be listed on the homepage; or in the main menu, or in the FAQs. Most financial advisors go through this hunt-and-click exercise on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Few find it rewarding.
“If it’s a company I’ve pulled up before, maybe it’ll take me a few seconds to find their fact sheet,” says Susan Beattie, a financial advisor with St. Louis-based Huntleigh Securities. “But if it’s a fund family I’m not familiar with, it can take 15 minutes or more to filter through their website.” And if a customer asks about a few different funds, there goes an hour or two.
Bookmarking is useless. Mutual funds upgrade their websites, burying relevant information under snazzy marketing graphics and new product ads. Besides, there are too many to bookmark, Beattie says. “Funds change. Customers change. As an advisor, what I’m using today I might not be using tomorrow.”
And the constant meeting requests from mutual fund wholesalers — from the 15-minute “pop-ins” to the hour-long lunches — don’t help, because that information comes wrapped in a sales pitch.
While other areas of the investment world have embraced automated financial technology, like robo-advisors and robo-managers, the mutual fund industry has been slow to go robo.
Industry veteran Laurie Marchel was tired of clicking through endless menus and getting stuck in the loop of “back to previous page” prompts.
“This is all publicly available information. People shouldn’t have to walk over hot coals to get to it,” she said.
Enter RoboWholesaler. The brainchild of Marchel, the company “strips away all the marketing clutter” and simply aggregates fund fact sheets and wholesaler information for the 10 top-performing equity and fixed income mutual funds in dozens of categories, ranked by performance and updated in real time.
The website is minimalist. “It was important to us that someone could get there in three clicks or less,” Marchel said. She collaborated with industry consultants Sky Marketing on the design and program development, but the company is not affiliated with an investment firm. Financial advisors can currently access the site for free.
In launching RoboWholesaler.com earlier this year, Marchel joined the growing number of women becoming entrepreneurs in fintech.
“When I started putting this together, it was about making the broker’s life easier,” said Marchel, who has spent about 25 years in the financial services industry — on the broker-dealer side as a sales manager with A.G. Edwards and Edward Jones; and on the asset management side as a relationship manager with Russell Investments, BNY Mellon/Dreyfus and Invesco.
She recalled meeting with the head of marketing at one of her former employers — an asset management firm — to ask about streamlining the firm’s website or creating shortcuts she could share with brokers.
“I was told, ‘This is the way our system is set up, and the brokers need to get used to it,’” Marchel recalled. That answer didn’t sit right. “If ultimately the broker is our client, and we want them to sell our product, why aren’t we making our sites easier for brokers to use?”
As she traveled the country in her role as relationship manager, the issue would arise again in meetings with broker-dealers. “I would be sitting with my contact (at the firm), trying to come up with easier ways for their brokers to access our mutual funds, and she would say, ‘We can’t change our system, but I can give you a tutorial of shortcuts that your wholesalers can share with our branch offices,’” Marchel said.
She would walk away from such meetings thinking, “There’s gotta be a better way. Shortcuts and cheat sheets are not a solution.” She got tired of waiting for someone else to figure it out.
A solution struck her in 2012, while she was browsing a popular real estate website. “I was looking at all these different properties and all this data, and it hit me: Why isn’t there a way to aggregate all the mutual fund data in one place?” So she went out and hired a team of computer programmers to develop her notion into a viable algorithm.
The idea was prescient. Last year, industry consulting firm Practical Perspectives issued a report suggesting that mutual funds adopt a digital strategy — a “robo-wholesale model” — to better serve financial advisors who prefer doing their own research to facetime with wholesale representatives. Marchel was only a few months away from launching her site when the report came out. She says it just confirmed for her that “the industry needs to evolve to better serve financial advisors’ needs.”
Unlike retail aggregators that give more prominent placement to companies that advertise on their sites, RoboWholesaler has committed to performance-based rankings alone. “I’m not going to let anyone convince me why their fund should be at the top of the list,” Marchel said.
The company’s revenue model does involve advertising, however: Asset managers that want their logo and branding displayed alongside their funds will have to pay for it. They’ll also be paying for their listing to have embedded links to regional wholesale contacts. Various newsletters and sales and marketing materials will be available for a fee.
But in keeping with her pledge to make brokers’ lives easier, Marchel has unilaterally banned popups and banner ads. “They’re the worst,” she says. “Plus, they freeze your screen.”
— Check out Advisors Sticking With Active Investments: Practical Perspectives on ThinkAdvisor.