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.

During renovation work last year, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based firm sent half of its staff home to work — a good test for what was on the horizon.

“While this was done prior to any knowledge of what was about to come in 2020, the timing was invaluable, as we proved our remote abilities in phases, which greatly assisted in providing a seamless transition,” said President Michael A. Baker.

The IBD also had “rebranded and enhanced” its software tools in 2019 to host webinars, Zoom meetings and podcasts, and these efforts benefitted advisors in 2020, he adds.

The biggest challenge was making sure employees felt connected. To do that, the firm used “proactive” communication strategies with both employees and advisors.

For instance, Baker sends out videos (of about five to seven minutes) with company updates and news several times a month. “We never did [this] before because we always had in-person meetings,” he explained.

Another challenge, and one he says was welcome, has been recruiting. The firm has been “bombarded with calls, because advisors at some firms are experiencing dramatic decreases in level of service during the pandemic,” Baker said.

Some of its advisors have said service has improved, “as employees are not traveling, are in their ‘office’ more and are not spending an hour or more each day commuting to work,” he added.

Teleconferencing will continue beyond the pandemic, especially as millennials prefer this format, Baker says.

For Dallas-based Prospera Financial Services, with 131 advisors and $9 billion of assets, contacted all advisors as soon as the pandemic started to be sure they could work from home.

It also “offered to help set up remote meeting software at no charge, so they could begin to get used to talking to clients in that manner — before they had to,” said David Stringer, president and principal.

Earlier, the firm had rolled out COREngine, a cloud-based CRM that allows advisors to access client account data in a remote setting.

Its biggest challenge has been “continuing to grow and cultivate our office culture without everyone being together,” Stringer explained. “We have always had some remote employees, but having virtually 100% working remotely is new to us.”

The IBD has encouraged video conferencing “as a standard rather than the exception, regular check-ins, continued weekly culture-alignment routines that include ‘huddles,’ service discussions and monthly firmwide staff meetings,” according to Stringer.

These efforts have kept communication open between management and staff and serve to encourage discussions beyond the standard “business stuff,” he adds.

“A silver lining through all of this is that we have learned we can support remote staff successfully, and that remote staff can support our advisors successfully,” Stringer said.

Video conferencing should remain par for the course at Prospera, as advisors and staff have “learned to do ‘virtual home office visits’ pretty well, and we’ll add these into our repertoire when an advisor is unable to visit us at the home office,” he explained.

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For a full rundown of the 2020 Broker-Dealers of the Year winners and what their executives have to say on a variety of topics, see these stories: