Williams Financial Group in Dallas is emblematic of a trend among independent-broker-dealers.
Its 300 advisers and representatives use a mix of third-party technology offerings in their day-to-day work, some of it self-selected and some of it recommended — but not required — by the broker-dealer.
Alan McAulay has worn the hat of both rep and technology expert at the firm. Since 1997, he has been the firm's “tech guy,” and has seen it all.
“From e-mail to telephones to CRM,” he said recently in an interview at the second annual TechLeaders conference in Las Colinas, Texas.
The conference brought together representatives of 26 broker-dealers and almost two dozen technology vendors to discuss operations issues and technology integration, among other topics.
In addition to its reps, Williams has 90 home office staff members and relies on Salesforce customer relationship management software.
“Something unique about us is that we have our corporate intranet on Salesforce, so home office staff and reps get a license for it,” Mr. McAulay said, explaining that reps do not have to use it but can get it gratis.
A driver for adoption, though, is how easily Salesforce can be integrated with other applications. Mr. McAulay said that the firm has done this with several of its internal core pieces of technology, including its account management system, which is accessible after a single sign-on to the CRM system.
“We try to make our integrations a value-add for the advisers,” he said. “It makes things easier for us to manage and we set it up for them. They don't want to be their own IT administrators any longer.”
Mr. McAulay said another good example of integration is the firm's Docupace document management application, which probably has been the firm's biggest technology investment to date.
“We basically have mandated Docupace among all our reps, and it has worked out pretty well for us,” he said.
“Anything not requiring a wet signature, we are going to roll that out through Docupace,” which in turn gets pushed automatically to the systems of the firm's clearing partners, National Financial Services LLC and Pershing LLC.
And on the fee-only side of its business, Williams' Salesforce system is integrated with Orion Advisor Services, which processes its fee billing. Neither system is mandated but makes life much easier at the firm, he said.
Similarly, Williams provides options on the financial planning front, including access to the popular applications MoneyGuidePro and eMoney Advisor.
This model seems to be the trend among broker-dealers.
Few, if any, will go the route of Commonwealth Financial Network, which built a platform from the ground up, maintains it and keeps advisers satisfied. The process has not come cheap: The firm spent $33.4 million on technology in 2011 and just shy of $40 million in 2012.
But even Commonwealth is turning to third-party providers. Two years ago, the firm looked to the outside for a provider to handle its social-media archiving and management needs, and chose Erado Message Control Solutions. That company's chief executive, Craig Brauff, said that for Commonwealth (and the 90 other broker-dealers with which it works), it simply made sense not to reinvent the wheel for a tool that had an established track record.
“I think we are going to see more of that,” Mr. Brauff said. “It just makes sense. It allows the broker-dealer to better support the reps and RIAs, and do so more quickly.”
There simply is neither the budget nor the will at most firms to develop certain applications from scratch. Instead, those firms prefer applications that have flexible application programming interfaces that make the task of integrating easier and more straightforward.
When it comes to sheer numbers, probably no single technology vendor can top the integrations of Laser App Software Inc., the ubiquitous forms-filling provider.
It works with 340 broker-dealers, including all the major independent firms, as well as insurance and banking broker-dealers, and an almost equal number of product providers. Arguably the most im-pressive statistic is the more than 28,000 forms in its online library from 700 companies across the financial services industry.
Last August, the firm launched its cloud-based Laser App Anywhere application, which is the cross-platform, HTML5-based descendant of its previous offerings. In a nutshell, it will make its technology even easier for broker-dealers to adopt and use on their own platforms and those of mobile devices.
“Aside from the common data-mapping model, we have an ongoing, constant relationship with all these companies across the industry,” said Chris Maury, RIA channel manager at the company. “Many times, they see their forms updated in Laser App before they are available on their own websites.”
Albridge Solutions Inc. is another provider that is expanding its flexibility to give it a leg up in an ever-more-competitive technology environment.
“Performance reporting is how advisers have traditionally looked at us, while enterprise data management is really how we position ourselves, and now we are aiming for that holy grail of real-time data flow between applications,” said David McClellan, director of strategy and execution at Albridge, an affiliate of Pershing LLC.
The firm is at work on a rewrite of its Albridge Wealth Reporting application and all the linkages it has among the company's 110 data partners, 36 of which can connect directly with Albridge. That happens through the firm's Applink, which can be thought of as a framework for external systems to pass data on demand, via web services.
“You are looking at a holdings report in Albridge and want to have hyperlinks inside accounts or conversely within your CRM, from which you could open reports in either,” Mr. McClellan said.
He explained that behind-the-scenes development work is under way to increase performance over the Internet. The goal is to allow upwards of thousands of transactions at a time to be conveyed seamlessly over the web and into an adviser's desktop or mobile application.
And that is the sort of flexibility and transparent ease of access advisers will expect in the years ahead.
Pete Giza has spent the past nine months establishing his own technology consultancy to advisory technology firms, Spitbrook LLC. Before that, he spent seven years as co-founder and chief technology officer with Redblack Software, the creator of an eponymous custodian-agnostic re-balancing application.
He made the point during a recent conversation that advisers of all types favor best-of-breed technology products and are going to rely increasingly on others to provide them, especially those advisers working with a broker-dealer.
“With 80% of an adviser's time every day being spent working with clients, prospecting or on sales, it just leaves me little time as an adviser to wrestle with choosing the right technology,” he said.