In search of adviser tech’s holy grail

An ecosystem is emerging whose ultimate goal is to increase advisers’ wallet share by enabling them to unify a client’s entire financial world onto a single platform.

There’s a saying that failing to plan means planning to fail, and when it comes to technology, advisers need to have a clear vision of what they want to achieve to build a tech stack that works.

A growing tech ecosystem is emerging with the ultimate goal of increasing wallet share by building systems that unify a client’s entire financial world onto a single platform. A confluence of industry trends — like the upcoming generational wealth transfer and the growing investor appetite for environmental, social and governance investing — has driven advances in financial planning software and created new capabilities.

“For advisers and investors, there’s a lack of coordination,” said Steve Zuschin, executive vice president of enterprise technology adoption at LifeYield. Advisers today are also held to a higher standard when it comes to technology, and need to aggregate client accounts in order to give suitable advice, he said, adding that an all-in-one platform is likely to become the norm within the next five years.

Connecting the tech dots also lets advisers establish a unified managed household, which is the process of comprehensively managing portfolios at the household level to improve investor results. When all the siloed pieces of a client’s financial life are connected, investors can benefit from optimizing their holdings while advisers present personalized advice to help clients reach their goals, Zuschin said.

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More than half of wealth management clients are willing to pay more for personalized service, according to the 2021 EY Global Wealth Research Report. In exchange for greater personalization, the majority of wealth management clients (71%) are willing to share personal data with their primary wealth manager, a higher proportion than those willing to share with doctors, retailers, technology firms and media platforms.  

INCUMBENTS TAKE THE LEAD

It’s critical for firms, especially the largest financial institutions, to establish their technology North Star, said Michael Liersch, head of advice and planning at Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management. For example, advisers can eliminate hours-long annual meetings and instead establish incremental touch points using connected technology that enables their clients to be involved in managing their financial life along the way.

“What you’re doing is engaging with clients for moments, maybe each week or each month through digital interactions or quick phone calls, so you’re actually building toward a comprehensive approach to managing their financial life,” he said. “It feels much more incremental, manageable and actionable along the way.

“In that way, too, you’re always reminding the client that the planning components are a living, breathing document that adjusts as external factors come into play, like their own behaviors,” Liersch said.  

In September, Wells Fargo announced a partnership with eMoney that enables Wells to offer eMoney’s full-spectrum planning solutions to its nearly 13,000 advisers. “The eMoney decision became very clear because they have a goals-based planning platform, foundational planning, and then they have a cash flow platform and advanced planning,” Liersch said. 

Establishing organizational constructs within Wells Fargo was a key component as well. 

“We all attribute our behaviors to ourselves or to other people, when really we should be attributing behavior to how we’re organized,” he said. “In financial services, we need to move away from this project-based waterfall mentality and just say we’re never going to be done, we’re always going to be changing, and there’s always going to be opportunity.”  

Account aggregation, the process in which data from many — or all — of an individual’s or household’s financial accounts are collected in one place, is also a key component. However, financial services firms are going to have to move away from screen-scraping technologies to more API-driven approaches. 

“The data information they grab from other providers is done with more convenience, and sustainable for the client experience,” Liersch said.  

Today, wealth management clients are more informed than ever before, and thanks to advances in technology, have greater access to insights and tools, said Rose Palazzo, head of financial planning at Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc. To address this, the wirehouse built a “new house” that allowed its legacy systems to bring together planning advice and implementation so advisers can see external assets all in one place, she said.

In 2018, the firm launched WealthDesk, a comprehensive household platform bringing all of the pieces of its adviser technology suite together in one digital dashboard that the firm had been building in the three years prior to the launch. WealthDesk provides Morgan Stanley advisers with a consolidated view of their entire book of business and integrates account aggregation, risk analysis, financial planning, proposal generation, portfolio construction and tax optimization into a single workflow. 

“The challenge is dealing with legacy approaches and how we connect these things in a way that you’re not ripping the Band-Aid, and that we’re methodical with the approach because we have a very large user base,” said Eric Lordi, managing director at Morgan Stanley, who leads efforts across WealthDesk.  

“Nirvana is an integrated ecosystem for wealth so that you’re not wearing multiple hats and that you can kind of walk across these things to provide holistic advice,” Lordi said. “Legacy challenges are probably the biggest barriers to entry.”   

WEALTHTECH STEPS UP

Orion Advisor Solutions is one of a number of technology platform builders racing to assemble wealthtech ecosystems, with big companies snapping up smaller fintechs to stay ahead of the pack.  

In June, Orion rolled out the first tech tool that incorporates its merger with Brinker Capital and its acquisition of risk management software HiddenLevers. The tool, called 3D Risk Profile, helps firms understand investors’ emotional reactions to market volatility. 

“Either you build it or you buy, and for us the choice was to buy because we could get to market quicker,” said Jason Moore, chief solutions officer at Orion. “There could be future acquisitions that can be added in areas, but we have the basic foundation at this point in place to meet the specific needs of the tech ecosystem that we want to have for the adviser.”

Another major player, AssetMark Financial Holdings Inc., announced its $145 million purchase of financial planning software Voyant, while SEI acquired defunct Oranj’s technology platform, and Envestnet Inc. announced a deal to purchase fintech Harvest Savings & Wealth Technologies.

Global technology platform InvestCloud is building its seat at the table with the fintech giants. In May, it announced the purchase of financial planning software developer Advicent and its NaviPlan. The acquisition follows InvestCloud’s merger with Tegra118 in February, which pushed it to unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation.  

DRIVING FORCE

The driving force behind this broad trend toward the development of coordinated ecosystems is that the wealthtech market has exploded with innovation over the past decade. The number of choices advisers and firms have are through the roof. All of these platform builders want enterprise-level deals because the direct-to-adviser market is saturated at this point.

“If they want to keep growing, they will need to replace incumbent systems and work with large wirehouses and other big institutions, and that means providing the tools to build an API-friendly, end-to-end ecosystem,” said Jack Sharry, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at LifeYield.

However, this M&A activity isn’t a guarantee that a tech ecosystem will work out. The opportunity is in the data and the technology’s ability to take notes from each other so that data can convert insights and appropriate actions over the course of the accumulation and drawdown of assets, according to a Money Management Institute study.  

“Big data can help you plan better,” said Jud Mackrill, CEO and co-founder of Milemarker, a data integration platform. “Most firms have silos of data left unutilized. Getting data into central repositories and creating APIs can help firms make better business decisions.” 

At the beginning of the year, Mackrill left his role as chief marketing officer at Carson Group to start his own wealthtech to help the financial advice industry manage data so that advisers can focus on their core businesses. Without integrated technology and data, advisers cannot effectively create cohesive client experiences. 

Think of Amazon.com Inc., Mackrill said. The e-commerce behemoth drives value through its use of data to prompt its customers with suggestions and perspectives on what they could be doing next. Financial advisers can, and will, be held to a standard to do the same.  

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