Investment Advisor: What work did your broker-dealer do last year that helped during the pandemic?

Amy Webber, Cambridge: About a year to 18 months ago, we made a decision to build an entire digital transformation plan for the next five years.

Within about 24 hours of the start to all of this, we realized that five years was not going to work. We needed a complete digital transformation, or many of the components of it anyway, in probably 18 months to two years, and we made many of them very quickly.

The good news for us is that we were a little bit ahead of the curve. For instance, we had already implemented a digital texting solution, … and the number of advisors using it jumped through the roof within about the first week — for all the reasons you can imagine.

We were in the game and actually accelerated the adoption. It’s about getting advisors almost across the board to accept that they needed these digital tools, that they needed to adopt them — which was very impressive — and putting much more staff [focused on] training them in a virtual world, … as well as converting a lot of our events and the way that we communicate. This is a relationship business, right?

It was interesting not to have — both for our advisors and ourselves — the ability to actually interact with them on a face-to-face basis. Still, we’re going to have our best recruiting year ever, and we’re doing all of that in a virtual world.

Another thing we quickly realized is that our advisors are going to continue to need assistance and to do prospecting virtually. They all wrote to and took care of their clients when this started. They’ve trained and prepared their clients [for volatility]. Clients took a lot of this in stride. Prospecting in a digital world is another area that we’ve had to spend a lot of time on.

Lon Dolber, American Portfolios: This was a question of culture meets reality. About four years ago, I told my team that I wanted our employees to participate in our national conference [while, at the same time,] they’re going to have to work. We realized that they would have to work remotely.

Four years ago, we completed our digital transformation. The first thing we did was to remove our desktop computers and go to laptops with docking stations. The second thing was to move our phone system to being totally in the cloud and … our email and our data, too.

In March, I literally told every employee to go home and take their phone and their laptop with them. We have … a very secure network perimeter with our firewall. But when they’re working remotely, we knew we’d have to get their network perimeter into the cloud. We spent a lot of time on that.

You might say that we did a pandemic exercise four years ago without even realizing it, because we did it for cultural purposes. I want my employees to be in a position to spend some time with my customers, the advisors. And that’s pretty much how it started.

Ryan Diachok, Geneos Wealth Management: Similarly, we’ve had our systems cloud and digital based for five or so years now. The main systems our advisors use — our home office system — has everything in the cloud and everything remote.

Where we were on the spectrum of enhancing the digital platform — what we were doing in the past year — has helped us. We’ve been making a concerted effort on the operational side of the business, too, getting electronic signatures in place.

As for the things we worked on a lot last year, the timing couldn’t have been better. While the adoption wasn’t necessarily huge as we were rolling these things out, having that infrastructure built for when everything hit the fan in March was great timing for us from that perspective.

Also, we have had business continuity for years, … which we test monthly. When March hit, it was a quick and easy decision to say that everyone go home, and it was completely seamless.

Dolber: That’s a good point. Our industry was a perfect candidate for the remote working environment.

Diachok: I’d add that we’ve been working … with our clearing firms on mobile banking. We’ve really made a push for mobile banking solutions, … so that there’s automated checks flowing to our home office. That helped us tremendously in processing business when everything was so crazy there in March and April.

Webber: Lon hit on a good point, which is in some ways our industry is absolutely equipped … to pivot quickly, because we’ve been able to leverage the cloud and the digital transformation.

It gave us all the ability to strike while the iron was hot, and get out there and push adoption that we may have been struggling with for many years had this not occurred.

John Burmeister, Lion Street: [The pandemic] gave us a shove that we needed to move forward, without a doubt. Also, it’s great to see insurance companies, whether it be variable or fixed, starting to accept electronic signatures. [These shifts represent] the silver lining of the pandemic, if you can actually have one.

As for some things that we did in 2019, we rolled out a cybersecurity monitoring system at the home office … and to our advisors. Had we not done that, I don’t think we would have been nearly as well prepared to go remote. As a relatively new broker-dealer, we started with 100% cloud-based systems. That made it very easy for us to [execute] our business continuity plans. Also, we got the phone system set up so it could go through wireless.

Like others have said, we made the determination on a Friday to go remote, and on Monday we were up and running. Our advisors … didn’t know that we were remote. We didn’t make a big announcement. It was business as usual.

We had to make some changes in how we operated, for things like checking the mail and ensuring people’s safety [against infection]. We set up a rotating schedule, so if somebody went in on week one, then somebody else went in week two, three or four. We’re continuing to do that in today’s environment.

As the pandemic went on, we had to adjust so people could go back into the office and grab phones and monitors. We ordered more monitors, so they can work from home for a longer period of time.

For a rundown of what the leaders of the 2020 Broker-Dealers of the Year think about the industry today and other topics, as well as a summary of the Runners Up, please click on these story links: