Exec headshot of BNY Mellon's Jim Crowley

About a year after he became CEO of clearing and custodial firm BNY Mellon | Pershing, Jim Crowley paused his busy schedule to reflect on the whirlwind of change he’s seen at the firm due to the coronavirus and remote work.

Pershing — which serves about 725 RIA firms with over $850 billion in advisory assets — lowered its minimum asset level to $100 million (from $250 million) earlier this year ahead of Charles Schwab’s acquisition of TD Ameritrade, and gave its RIA clients two more pay options for custodial services — subscriptions and zero-transaction-fee pricing.

Since the start of 2020, it’s also tapped Ben Harrison to take the reins from Mark Tibergien as head of Advisor Solutions and Emily Schlosser to become its chief operating officer — a role previously held by Crowley. 

Here are highlights of the CEO’s interview with ThinkAdvisor:

THINKADVISOR: How has the clearing and custody business changed since the COVID-19 pandemic?

JIM CROWLEY: The pandemic proved to be one of the greatest tests for our industry. Stability, resiliency and business continuity — always critical, yet not always the most exciting, topics — became hot-button issues overnight.

Historic volatility in the markets led to unprecedented levels of activity, where trading volumes on our platform at times reached three times the normal levels. This, paired with a completely remote environment, resulted in a situation no one could have planned for.

The biggest lesson we learned as an industry since the pandemic is that there is no substitute for business continuity planning and testing systems on a frequent basis.

Further, the new virtual world that’s emerged since the pandemic has made it a business imperative to shift to a digital environment and become paper-free.

Moving forward, we will all need to put more effort behind helping our clients adapt to this digital environment and become comfortable using tools such as e-signature, e-delivery and electronic processing of checks and disbursements.

For us that means now more than ever, business is about making it simpler and easier to use digital tools and tap into expertise so our clients can continue to serve their clients and drive growth.

How has the pandemic changed your and your clients’ priorities?

The pandemic forced us to rethink everything from how we conduct business to how we manage our teams and employees and how we interact with clients.

Communication has become a central pillar of our client and employee management strategy. Over the past six months, we have significantly increased the frequency of our employee communications to try to ensure we are addressing employee concerns in a highly fluid environment.

While we have always been a people-first company, the well-being of our employees has taken on a new importance. We are making every effort to provide our employees with added flexibility to help them juggle multiple priorities and challenges, as well as bringing them new resources to help them manage stress and build resiliency.

The rapid and unexpected transition to a virtual world has essentially forced everyone to rethink and redefine their technology strategy. Adoption of new technology went from being optional to being essential.

In light of this profound shift, we have significantly increased our touch points with clients to support them in their transition to the new normal.

What are you doing differently to address the changes in the business environment? What are your focus areas?

Our focus has been — and continues to be — on helping clients run their business more efficiently so they can serve their clients more effectively.

In many ways, the pandemic validated our long-held strategies and ongoing investments in modernizing and strengthening our platform, simplifying and streamlining the user experience and helping our clients drive profitable growth.

We are adding new features to make it easier and more secure for clients to access our platform. We recently introduced fingerprint and facial-recognition capabilities for advisors using the NetX360 desktop.

We are also delivering better operational efficiencies and making our processes even more user friendly. For example, to accelerate adoption of e-delivery, we implemented an easy button so clients can enroll all documents in e-delivery via the NetXInvestor client portal.

We are digitizing the asset movement experience to help advisors speed up the time it takes to obtain client signatures. We are working on digital authorizations for asset movements like fed funds, journals and ACH, replacing the need to wait for the client letter of authorization.

We are also deepening integrations with best-of-breed providers in high demand by our clients to make it easier to access different technology solutions.

And we hired a new chief operating officer, Emily Schlosser. Virtually onboarding a C-Suite executive was a first for us. Emily’s background at industry leaders and startups, leading operations and change management will bring a new perspective to our operations.

What are the specific initiatives you have in place to help clients drive growth?

The rapid shift from conducting business the way we have for decades to going all-in on digital was unprecedented. Clients had to pack the advancements they would have normally made over years into weeks.

We are spending more time with clients to understand their emerging needs and developing solutions and capabilities to help address those needs.

Overall, what we are hearing is that the rapid shift to an all-digital environment now needs to be supported by behavioral changes to institutionalize tech adoption and set them up for the long term.

To that end, in addition to providing the tools to deliver more digital experiences, we have formed Go Digital work streams across the firm to help clients go paper-free and gain new efficiencies.

We are helping them increase adoption via new programs and channels, including educational videos, online tools, virtual training sessions and, of course, ongoing direct communications.

And our efforts are bearing fruit. We are experiencing record growth in use of tools, such as e-signature, e-delivery and mobile check deposit.

We are also producing educational webinars and thought leadership pieces to help inform strategy and provide insights on how to drive business in a virtual world.

What has been the biggest surprise for you in your role as CEO, what has been the biggest challenge?

The biggest surprise was how fast we went from going about our normal lives to dealing with a global pandemic and the social unrest that has deeply affected our communities and our team.

For me, one of the biggest challenges has been managing the personal and professional stresses of the current environment while seeking to ensure — to the best of my ability — that our employees are safe and healthy, first and foremost, but also that they are being heard and are being given the tools and resources to help manage the anxieties of the many different challenges we all face.

When we spoke last year, I mentioned how much I care about my team and value what they do for our company each day. A year later, that has become more important than ever.

I am incredibly proud of how we’ve come together as a team over the past six months, demonstrating resilience, empathy and support for one another, while delivering exceptional client service.

Having been through this experience together, I feel more connected than ever to our team and the entire Pershing family. We were able to get to know each other on a deeper level through video conferencing — meeting kids, pets, significant others.

It has created deeper bonds. As challenging as these past few months have been, I am truly grateful for these silver linings.

What have you learned through this unusual time?

The events of the past six months have been extraordinary in every sense. Like many of us, our leadership team has taken time to hit pause and reflect on the racial and social injustice and inequality that is deeply affecting our communities.

As an organization that has always prided itself on having an inclusive culture, I realize how much more we still have to do to become a true force of change in our business, in our communities, in our society. Being part of one of the nation’s oldest financial institutions with almost 50,000 employees around the world, we have a huge role to play in that regard.

To that end, we are taking a series of concrete actions to change the environment and seek to ensure the well-being of and opportunity for our employees, our communities and our business. For instance, we have implemented listening forums and educational opportunities for our employees.

We are developing concrete, measurable goals and creating personal commitments to affect change. And we are using our voice as a catalyst for the betterment of our communities.

Could you comment on any changes to your own routines? What do you think work life is likely to look like for the next 6-12 months?

Like everyone, I’ve been balancing being on the computer with staying healthy. I have made a conscious effort to maintain my daily routine — getting up as if I were going to the office, eating well, getting enough exercise and rest, and taking periodic breaks from the screen.

I have also been making sure to check in with colleagues and clients consistently and have been encouraging everyone to do the same. In that sense, virtual coffee hours, lunches and even virtual walks have become routines for many of us.

Looking at the rest of the year, we anticipate the remote work environment to be the norm — with perhaps the exception of critical in-person meetings on a selective basis. As we go into 2021, we are evaluating when and how we go back to the office and what the workplace may look like.

I do think there will be lasting shifts in the way we approach flexible work arrangements, how we design and utilize the office and how we seek to ensure health and safety of our employees while we continue to foster a productive and innovative environment to keep driving our clients’ business forward.

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