Working virtually — and doing it well — is the new normal for independent broker-dealers being recognized as runners up in this year’s Investment Advisor Broker-Dealer of the Year program. These six BDs earned very high marks from their advisors, who acknowledged their service excellence by casting some 1,300 total votes.
The BDs being recognized as runners up for 2020 are:
- Park Avenue Securities (Division IV, over 1,000 registered representatives),
- Sigma Financial and Independent Financial Group (Division III, 500-999 reps),
- The Investment Center and United Planners (Division II, 200-499 reps) and
- Prospera Financial (Division I, up to 199 reps).
We asked leaders of these firms to discuss actions they’ve taken over the past year that have helped their advisors, what challenges they’ve faced during the pandemic and what recent changes they’ve put in place that are likely to continue.
Working From Home
New York-based Park Avenue Securities, the IBD arm of Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, had many transitions in the past year — and not just due to the pandemic. William Morrissey came on board as president in September “to lead the expansion of Guardian’s wealth management offering,” he stated.
The former LPL Financial executive says a key priority has been guiding Park Avenue Securities’ 1,890 advisors on how to best reassure clients about the impact of the health crisis on their portfolios. “This playbook helped our advisors address the fears or concerns their clients had,” he said.
The firm, which works with about $32.9 billion in assets, is “executing on our strategy to rollout more digital options, [but] the pandemic increased the velocity of our rollout and dramatically increased adoption rates,” according to Morrissey. “We saw an increase in both overall adoption of digital tools and the number of individual advisors leveraging those tools.”
One offering, eSignature, was added to support post-account opening transactions, he says. The firm also “increased the thresholds related to mobile check deposit for both clients and advisors.”
As Park Avenue Securities sees “record attendance” for its new virtual education and training classes, its leaders are “considering how to leverage more … in the future,” Morrissey said.
Similarly, Independent Financial Group, a San Diego-based BD with 615 advisors and $32.4 billion in assets, launched electronic signature submission, as well as Voice over Internet Protocol telephony and device-level cybersecurity prior to the virus, says Managing Director David Fischer.
One challenge has been to maintain a personal touch with its independent advisors, Fischer says, adding: “There is nothing like in-person interaction to foster understanding and feeling of a mutual objective.”
Regularly hosting Zoom meetings and calling advisors to check in on how they’re doing is filling the gap, he points out. IFG also has added more educational practice management and product marketing meetings to its calendar. Video conferencing likely will have a greater role going forward, Fischer notes.
Jennifer Bacarella, director of firm development for Sigma Financial Corporation, which has 648 advisors and assets of $18 billion, says the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based firm has invested in TechStack — which provides CRM, document management, invoice trading and more — as well as SurvivalStack — which keeps advisors up to date on Covid-19, legislation, small business grants and loans.
“As these tools would be cost-prohibitive for many advisors individually, Sigma negotiated enterprise solutions from the tech providers and includes most of the tools within the advisor’s monthly affiliation fee,” Bacarella said. “Recent additions include compliant texting and videoconferencing solutions.”
The change to remote staffing has worked well, she says, so the IBD is not mandating that employees return to the office. Although the office is open to those who want to return, the firm plans to be flexible until management or the state government believe it is safe to “return en masse.”
The Investment Center had implemented eSignature before the pandemic, but once it spread, “the amount of usage increased dramatically,” said Ralph DeVito, president of the Bedminster, New Jersey-based firm, which has 291 advisors and assets of $8.6 billion.
Earlier, the IBD had trained advisors on how to use the new technology, and many were familiar with Docupace, so the transition was “smooth and efficient,” he explained.
To keep advisors and staff informed, the IBD introduced a series of interactive webinars and live videos. Its main challenge was equipping and moving the entire staff to home offices and also finalizing cybersecurity tasks.
The demand for equipment was high, which some suppliers couldn’t meet. “We had some team members go to Costco to buy laptops and headsets, so our back office could quickly begin to work remotely,” DeVito said.
“Having some staff working from home is something that will likely continue,” especially as they’ve seen “significant efficiencies,” he added.
United Planners Financial Services, which has 500-plus advisors and $16.5 billion in assets, has benefitted by expanding its eSignature capabilities through DocuSign a year ago.