In-house 'universities' gain traction as the latest RIA perk

The pursuit of talent has advisory firms rolling out structured career training, job skills, even CE credits

Feb 14, 2019 @ 1:31 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

The latest sign of the tight labor market for advisers is showing up in the form of in-house "universities" that offer a range of practical job skills along with team-building exercises and general life skills.

The universities, which some advisory firms refer to as academies, make sense on multiple levels, not the least of which is providing another perk in a highly competitive labor market.

"It really speaks to how difficult it is to recruit and retain talent," said April Rudin, president of financial services marketing firm The Rudin Group.

"No longer is a good health care plan and paid time off enough of an offer," Ms. Rudin said. "And these universities are really attractive because everyone wants to get better."

Despite the name, these are not accredited schools offering formal degrees, but they can be highly structured programs displaying limitless creativity.

Bridgeworth, a $1.5 billion Birmingham, Ala.-based advisory firm, launched its university in January to cater specifically to younger advisers at the firm.

"The idea is to teach some job skills," said Patti Black, partner and financial adviser at Bridgeworth. "Some of the senior partners had worked together for over 30 years, and they were discussing what were some of the things that led to success in their careers."

Once the concept was identified, the monthly program kicked off with a reading assignment and a 90-minute discussion.

The roughly two dozen participants were given a copy of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, 1989).

The February class will focus on marketing and business development, and all participants are asked to schedule at least two coffee or lunch meetings with prospects.

"We asked the younger people what they're looking for," Ms. Black said. "We're new at this, so we decided to build out six months of meetings, then we'll regroup. We joke that we're building the airplane while we're in the air."

If firms like Bridgeworth or others want some inspiration, they need look no further than St. Louis-based Moneta Group.

The $20 billion advisory firm, with 300 employees, has a long history of educational programs, but officially launched Moneta University in March, and currently offers 150 courses in eight learning categories.

"We wanted to roll out Moneta University to the entire organization so they could see the opportunities for clear advancement, and that's a big differentiator for talent acquisition," said Nancy Whatley-Blaine, Moneta's director of talent and organizational development.

Not only is the curriculum diverse, including specialized courses on communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, investing, retirement planning and tax planning, but the programs are designed to accommodate work schedules.

All classes are held during the workday on the firm's campus. For those not able to attend or not interested in the classroom setting, there are virtual courses and micro-learning sessions that last between three and six minutes and can be viewed on a phone.

Many of the courses even include continuing education credits.

"We have partners and advisers involved, as well as people at every level of the organization," Ms. Whatley-Blaine said. "The entire firm is behind this initiative, and we have listening sessions to determine needs."

The $7.8 billion Carson Group in Omaha, Neb., has also embraced the university concept.

For the 300 Carson partner firms, Carson University provides annual week-long programs at the corporate headquarters that target next-generation advisers.

Carson Group managing partner Scott Conroy said the program includes role-play scenarios, technology training and the sharing of best practices from veteran advisers.

While there are many ways to launch and manage in-house universities in the advisory space, Ms. Whatley-Blaine said the key is tailoring the programs to the employees.

"My advice is to listen carefully and be tuned in to the priorities of the organization," she said. "Stay focused and look at the needs you're trying to address."

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