Going paperless: Advice industry takes on challenge

In an industry notorious for documents and signatures, firms welcome chance to automate

Sep 10, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

By Joyce Hanson

Girard Securities, a San Diego-based independent broker-dealer, has just completed a yearlong project to go paperless.

The paperless project was time-consuming and involved several teams, but it has resulted in better workflow tracking and electronic signatures at the IBD, said Claire Maurer, associate vice president of adviser relations for Girard, which is now in the process of being acquired by Nicholas Schorsch's RCS Capital Corp.

“While it started out just going paperless, it evolved into a whole business automation process for the compliance and operations team at Girard,” Ms. Maurer said.

(Read how adviser Sheryl Rowling went paperless and loves it.)

The paperless office is a perennial topic and an elusive goal for businesses in many industries. But for financial advisory firms, those issues have taken on new importance as workflow processes and compliance concerns increase the desire to go paperless.

Key improvements at Girard Securities included automation of “blotters,” the logs that advisers use to track checks from clients, and archiving of documents, Ms. Maurer said.

ERROR ELIMINATION

The firm's president and chief operating officer, John Barragan, said the IBD's objective was to improve data collection for registered reps, eliminate submission errors due to repeated manual entries and make back-office processing more efficient.

“We're fairly certain we've eliminated lost or erroneously filed documents entirely by using Laserfiche Forms to capture filing data during the submission process,” Mr. Barragan wrote in an email.

Girard has not calculated the cost savings of going paperless, but “there would be some material numbers,” Mr. Barragan wrote.

According to a 2013 survey by the Association for Information and Image Management, almost all business improvement initiatives can be aided by a “paper-free project,” with dramatic paybacks in faster response times and greater back-office productivity. More than 500 members of the trade group responded to the survey.

SLOW ADOPTION

But progress on going paperless is slow, AIIM reports. Only 24% of study respondents had a specific policy to drive paper out of their businesses. While the amount of paper flowing through processes decreased in 41% of organizations, for 19% it increased.

“Most organizations have yet to address more than 5% of the possible processes that could be given the flexibility, visibility and efficiency that are characteristics of electronic workflows,” wrote report author Doug Miles, head of the AIIM Market Intelligence Division.

Certified financial planner Craig Cowles, a partner with Cardinal Wealth Advisers in Dallas, said his firm has adopted a paperless system that includes electronic signatures, with a goal of running at a 95% paperless rate.

“I can't say enough about the whole efficiency and time savings,” Mr. Cowles wrote in an email. “Completing forms has been a challenge due to the number of places a client needs to sign or initial. Now, I have the option of sending them electronically, and the system catches the errors before the documents can be submitted.”

FREEDOM TO TRAVEL

Another Dallas-based CFP, Scott Stratton, president and founder of Good Life Wealth Management, detailed a similar process of moving from a paper-filled to a paper-free office. When he was previously employed at two different advisory firms, paper applications were faxed to the custodian followed by an overnight mailing of the originals, he said.

Mr. Stratton launched his own registered investment advisory firm this year and made the decision to go paperless, even though a paperless office is not always a huge time-saver and some clients prefer paper applications and statements, he said.

Still, he has reduced clutter and saved on printing and postage. And going paperless allows him to more easily conduct business when away from the office so long as he has his laptop, he added. He uses DocuSign Inc.'s e-signature tools. Clients sign documents digitally and Mr. Stratton uploads them to his TD Ameritrade Institutional custodial account.

“Going paperless for me was about freedom and not just about eliminating paper use,” Mr. Stratton said, adding that he is able to work at his lake house 65 miles away from Dallas and his parents' home in upstate New York.

For Girard Securities, going paperless included a week during which Laserfiche technicians came to the IBD to go over workflow processes with the heads of each department, including compliance, operations, technology, new accounts and risk management, Ms. Maurer said.

Finally, she said, there was a “don't look back moment” one day in May when the IBD switched its entire system over. “In the weeks leading up to it, we did a lot of one-on-one training with advisers,” she said.

All documents are now stored electronically, with documents from the old system still available in read-only mode, Mr. Barragan said. Every version of a document is time-stamped in case of an audit – and none of them are on paper.

“We have 30 file cabinets that are empty,” he said.

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