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Advisor retirements may spur the next big digital transformation

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The next big digital transformation for wealth management firms may coincide with a wave of advisors leaving the business.

"My personal belief is that a lot of the most disruptive change will be tied to advisor retirement models," says Kendra Thompson, North American wealth management lead at consulting firm Accenture, speaking at SourceMedia’s In|Vest conference in New York.

That change would build on the many disruptions brought in recent years by the advent of robo advisors and other technologies. Traditional firms have responded to fintech entrants by racing to upgrade their technology suite. Morgan Stanley, UBS and others have been rolling out new tools intended to make advisors more productive and clients more engaged.

At the same time, the pace of technological change is also picking up.

“Within 12 to 18 months, AI will be able to give a better client experience to my clients than I can individually, and they won’t even know it’s coming from computerized communication based on their individual behavior,” RIA owner Ron Carson said at an earlier conference event. “It’s that good, and it’s evolving that fast.”

The industry's future, Thompson says, may be more defined by adjusting business models, rather than adding digital layers onto existing services. She suggests firms will pursue one or more of three business models: pure digital that doesn't require a human advisor, an advisor-led digital model, and a scaled ultrahigh-net-worth model.

Blending human and digital would mean "redefining wealth management and delivering it in new ways so that clients can dip into and dip out of the advice they want to pursue," Thompson says.

The advisor-led digital experience is proving challenging for some firms to transition aging brokerage forces into, especially when they’re deep-rooted in older business models. Advisors who are 55 years or older manage about 37% of assets and comprise 39% of advisor head counts, according to research firm Cerulli Associates.

At the same time, many of these advisors oversee books of business that are profitable, but not necessarily growing. For example, the average UBS advisor generates $1.3 million in revenue while the average Merrill Lynch advisor generates $1.04 million, according to the companies.

"It might make sense to let healthy business models retire out," Thompson says.

Still, some traditional brokerages are exploring innovative ways to introduce new advisors into the business. One third of the roughly 1,200 trainees at Morgan Stanley are now inducted with a focus on digital skills and technologies. (Trainees still get 80 hours of financial planning education, too.)

Executives see this as critical to the company's long-term plans to introduce more digital tools into its wealth management business.

"If you don't have an adoption strategy, then I don't think you have a tech strategy," Jim McCarthy, national sales manager at Morgan Stanley, told On Wall Street recently.

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