Knowledge, experience, commitment: Bleakley leverages fintech
Bleakley today has a team of some 43 advisors on its team, managing more than US$6bn in client assets. In 2015, it decided to go independent and spin out from the umbrella of Northwestern, opting to provide advisory services through LPL Financial’s hybrid RIA platform for its custodial and brokerage services. Since then, Bleakley has doubled assets under management, attracting more than 15 new advisors since the beginning of 2018 alone.
Bleakley has expanded its footprint to a dozen offices nationwide, the latest at Dayton, Ohio. The headquarters, where most of its 80-plus staff work, remains at Fairfield, NJ and the sum the firm manages is between advisory, financial planning brokerage and 401(k) retirement planning business, according to Kyle Wesley, who joined Bleakley’s leadership team early in 2016 and has been Chief Digital Officer (CDO) since May 2019.
To an organisation like Bleakley Financial, financial technology or fintech is the key to not only to the reliable and smooth running of its operations, processes and communications, but also to its ability to continue to expand. “I am responsible for all of our internal digital technology, setting up compliant practices when new offices are onboarding, making sure they understand that technology, making sure that we're reviewing our internal technology and generally ensuring that we function day-to-day,” explains Wesley.
Before he came on board, Bleakley had committed to Morningstar’s tRx (Total Rebalance Expert) solution for household rebalancing alongside its core portfolio accounting platform Orion. It was an ad hoc decision that worked well at the time, he explains, though after a while tRx showed it wasn’t flexible enough to service clients’ portfolios across the book in a tax-efficient way and update their legacy positions. Rebalancing portfolios at scale when Bleakley has more than 10,000 accounts on its books, each containing a complex mix of assets, is a hard-to-solve challenge. “This led us to look at other platforms: we eventually went to RedBlack, which we felt was by far the best fit specifically for our business.”
Bleakley needs to be flexible around its standard portfolios and also to be able to move tactically to take advantage of movements in the markets, something that was not easy under the former system. “Now when our advisors make a decision to buy a particular asset we can see at once what the sale price is, and then go back and prorate other securities down to move fast and at scale, seamlessly across our entire database. As the firm continues to grow we need that flexibility to satisfy our clients’ needs. At the same time we need to be able to administer it: our analysts do most of the trading, and we need to segment out different groups because one group may operate a little bit differently than another.”
The need to have multiple users of the system doing 100 tasks simultaneously and efficiently is what led them to RedBlack, he says. “We can run hundreds of accounts a minute, where previously we didn't have that ability. So as we grow, it's just become more and more important that we can trade seamlessly right across the whole book of business.”
For Kyle Wesley, Bleakley’s commitment to its clients from corporate executives and large institutions to small business owners and retirees dictates the focus of the digital transformation he leads. Last year has been a busy one for him and his team. As well as onboarding new businesses in some numbers and concluding the shift from tRx to RedBlack they have affected a radical upgrade in their approach to CRM. For a company whose credibility lies in the trust of its customers, this was an operation that had to be carried out with sensitivity.
The functionality within Salesforce had served well, but once again, added flexibility was felt to be needed in the CRM platform, tying in advisors and clients with sales fluctuations and a number of other variables. The platform chosen was Practifi, which now overlays Salesforce. “The move was in response to the growing number of requests we were getting from users,” says Wesley. “We encourage staff to speak up when they have an idea. We couldn’t execute on a number of those ideas given our current Salesforce environment.” We were telling them they could make small changes like adding a field here and there, but we couldn’t make big changes which is what an office our size needed.”
The migration from standard Salesforce to Practifi involved a true database migration as opposed to a plug and play implementation, and carrying this out successfully is, he says, the achievement he and the team are proudest of since it was so challenging. “When you are making changes to a trading platform you are perhaps affecting a quarter of the office: when you're dealing with a CRM migration, every single user in the office has their business disrupted. As advisors prepare to review for a client I need to know all the past interactions and planning notes. Now I have AUM, my clients, their family members, dates of birth, emails – everything – on a one page tear sheet, something we couldn't even have dreamed of in the old system.”
And at the same time he’s able to get metrics more reliably through Salesforce, with neat data integrations with Orion. “Orion is definitely the data hub of everything,” he explains. “Data flows from custodians like LPL, Pershing, Schwab, TD and Fidelity into Orion where it’s reconciled and made available by 0830 Eastern Time each day. We can migrate that information to Practifi/RedBlack to display it to our advisors. This is a very robust system.”
At a guess he reckons the new systems have doubled the internal efficiency of the business. It has definitely increased the capacity of Bleakley’s analysts and client service associates to get data to the advisor quicker, prepare for their meetings, and made them more proactive in growing their business. Within such a diverse organisation people accept change at different speeds, Wesley admits. “Some people struggled with the CRM migration but now we’re getting feedback that it was the best decision we've ever made, and that they love the Practifi migration!”
Bleakley’s vision is to become the top wealth management firm in the Northeast area, doubling its size in the next four or five years. It will depend heavily on digitisation of its operations to achieve that. “We're recruiting heavily right now,” concludes Kyle Wesley. “Unlike some of the big wirehouses, we're trying to create a company and a culture that allows advisors to do what they're best at and make sure we actually align with their goals. When someone asks: what does your advisor do for you? We want our clients to say, "Everything – Bleakley literally does everything for me!"