Integration continues to be a hot topic within the financial services industry. With custodians, broker-dealers and vendors all focusing on integration you may have thought the struggles had concluded. No such luck.
Although the industry has had its share of successes - TD Ameritrade's VEO Open Access is one that comes to mind - much work remains to be done. In the most recent Financial Planning Tech Survey, only 10% of advisor respondents were "very satisfied" with the overall level of integration among their various software applications. Among independent RIAs, the picture is even bleaker, with only 7% "very satisfied" with the overall level of integration.
Netherby Advisors' AdvisorWorks is one of a number of relatively new products looking to help advisors solve their integration problems. Billed as an "outsourced infrastructure solution," AdvisorWorks calls itself a "fully integrated front office wealth management platform ... [that] places the power of integrated workflow solutions onto each advisor's desktop."
AdvisorWorks targets three types of financial service firms: bank and trusts, family offices and wealth management firms. I decided to see just how integrated and comprehensive AdvisorWorks is, and whether it is appropriate for wealth management firms.
It turns out AdvisorWorks has some smart ideas, and the product has some strong potential, but a few key obstacles remain. Read on to see what the software gets right and where it falters. One note on pricing: For a single user, the cost is about $500 a month, but for firms with multiple users, discounts may be available.
When you first log on, you arrive at a landing page highlighting the program's key offerings.
Along the top of the page, tabs link to various sections of the program: dashboard, clients, account groups, presentations, catalog and reports, along with advanced search. An expanded search box at the top also contains links to recent searches, saved searches and predefined searches.
A number of "actions" - what I might call workflow wizards - are below the search functions. My system came with the following defaults: create prospect, firm introduction, investment policy statement, portfolio construction, asset allocation, multi-goal planning, add notes and convert prospect to client.
The main portion of the dashboard is populated by widgets. In my demo edition, there were three widgets available: an activities/task list, a quick reports list - which offers at-a-glance reports on, say, portfolios without a recent presentation, portfolios out of balance and portfolios not in compliance - and an alerts list. (Alerts can be both actionable and informational, generated whenever an investment guideline is violated or a rule is triggered, for instance.) There will also be a data widget with market indexes and benchmarks.
Let me dive into a few of the program's sections.
The client section is extensive. You can create a four-level account hierarchy that lets you roll up views by an individual account, a single client, a client's immediate household or an extended household.
The platform does not include performance reporting, but rather pulls the information from the advisor's performance reporting, portfolio management and accounting system. Unfortunately for independent RIAs, none of the providers that they typically use (with the exception of Orion) are integrated with AdvisorWorks. I am told that a PortfolioCenter integration is planned and that AdvisorWorks has opened integration discussions with Black Diamond.
Holdings are displayed with cost basis, unrealized gains/losses and total market value. Liabilities and operational cash accounts can also be linked to this page for a more comprehensive view of a client's finances. AdvisorWorks also lets you designate locked positions, which can't be altered, and carved-out assets that can be reported separately or excluded from reports.
A parties function lets you create connections, mapping internal or external parties to a prospect or a client. You can identify each party by his or her role - such as accountant, advisory board member, custodian, granddaughter, lienholder, partner, spouse, trust officer, etc.
One of the program's strengths is its presentation capability. A set of intelligently designed templates and wizards can help advisors create new presentations, using firm branding and logo, choosing pages from a default set and then using a wizard to input information. The program will then generate a well-designed presentation that can again be templated, shared or modified.
Customizable views allow users to see either all of the organization's presentations or a limited set. Other information displayed includes who the presentation is assigned to, the type of investor it was prepared for and when it was last updated.
For example, a templated firm introduction presentation can encompass up to 30 pages, outlining the firm's investment philosophy on diversification, risk/reward, portfolio structure and more.
Reporting is another strength; if the information exists within the system, you can find it and report upon it. In addition to client- and advisor-facing reports, there are useful firmwide reports for administrators and principals - all proposals generated by a specific employee, for instance, or all accounts with no associated portfolio.
AdvisorWorks doesn't always use standard industry terminology. The "catalog," for instance, is a list of investment products (mutual funds, ETFs, etc.) that the firm is authorized to recommend. They can be grouped in various ways - DFA mutual funds, for instance, or Vanguard ETFs.
AdvisorWorks comes with a variety of well-designed, flexible wizards (which it calls actions) to help advisors develop prospect profiles, presentations and other documents. The detailed new prospect profile, for instance, allows for dual citizenship, offers varying risk-tolerance assessments and allows spreadsheet import of holdings. Once you have a profile, you can then create a firm introduction presentation, selecting from a default set of pages to produce either a PDF file or a PowerPoint presentation.
Creating an investment policy statement is similarly easy, with a drop-down menu of various restrictions that you can add and customize. You can create target ranges for asset classes, as well as acceptable bands; you can also select two target benchmarks for comparison (although you cannot create a blended benchmark). Finally, create a cover letter template and customize it, as needed. Once a client has signed a statement, it can be uploaded to the system for storage.
A goal planning module allows you to create goals or cash flow objectives and do some modeling around them, but is not as intuitive or as flexible as better financial planning programs. It may be sufficient for those who only do this sort of modeling occasionally and who are unwilling to pay for a dedicated financial planning application.
WHAT WE LIKED
To start with, AdvisorWorks' log-in security is better than average, using multifactor authentication. In addition to a username and password, it will require you to answer questions if you log on from a computer the system does not recognize. To protect you from logging on to a spoofing site, the page that requires your password also contains a picture that you have associated with the site. If the picture does not match the one you expect, you know not to type in your password. (Vanguard and others use a similar picture/password scheme on their retail investor sites.)
As mentioned, AdvisorWorks really shines in its presentations, which are well designed and well written, and its reporting capability. The workflow actions are also very helpful, although I'd like to see more of them. AdvisorWorks can help advisors who manage their own investment models build attractive, professional tear sheets for clients that contain up-to-date information on their various models.
The software has some drawbacks, however.
AdvisorWorks calls its dashboard configurable, but I found customization options to be limited. You can configure the individual widgets, but AdvisorWorks should include more widget options and additional flexibility on the landing page. Although I did not test it extensively, I can't imagine that AdvisorWorks is mobile friendly. (I tried logging on with my Windows 8 phone; let's just say that it didn't produce the desired results.)
The software also seems to have some browser compatibility problems. The first time I tried to launch an action, I was extremely frustrated by blank pages, frozen screens and the like. Tech support couldn't help me, but I eventually changed browsers - to Internet Explorer from Chrome - and everything appeared to be working. The compatibility issues are disturbing, especially in view of the fact that Explorer has just a 30.9% share of the worldwide market compared with 36.2% for Chrome, according to StatCounter.
I had to re-key data on a number of occasions. The software does not save data if you get caught in the middle of a workflow or if you inadvertently hit the browser back button, which winds up freezing the application.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the lack of integration with the custodial platforms and applications used commonly by advisors. In order to provide independent RIAs with a comprehensive solution, AdvisorWorks must integrate with all of the major custodians and with most of the industry's leading CRM, portfolio management and financial planning applications. While building a profile, for instance, advisors who have a relationship with a client or prospect should ideally be able to download this data from custodians or other applications where the client may have the data stored. That's not the case now.
AdvisorWorks has great potential. By itself, it is not a total integrated solution, but if it builds out the necessary third-party integrations, it could serve as a hub of all advisor activity. For firms looking to grow aggressively, the workflow wizards are very valuable. If you bring in one or two additional clients per year as a result of using AdvisorWorks, the application will pay for itself.
In order to be really useful to independent RIAs, however, the developers need to build out the integrations, make the system compatible with all major browsers, build out mobile functionality and save data automatically as it is entered.
For now, AdvisorWorks is probably best suited for enterprise usage, but if it can add the necessary features, they may attract interest from independent advisors as well.
Joel Bruckenstein, a Financial Planning editor-at-large, is co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today newsletter and conference series, and co-author of Technology Tools for Today's High-Margin Practice. For more info, visit JoelBruckenstein.com.