New exchange traded product innovation, data security threats, increased competition and more stringent regulation - the big leadership issues facing executives in the asset management industry have multiplied in just a year, one reason why attendees at the upcoming NICSA Strategic Leadership Forum in Hollywood, Fla., might be hard-pressed to agree on a common concern.

"It's an interesting moment in the fund industry, because you can ask six different operations professionals for their highest priority, and you'll get six different answers," says NICSA president Theresa Hamacher. "Last year at this time, virtually everyone would have said that responding to new regulation was top on the agenda. But, today, I don't think that there'd be a consensus.

"Cybersecurity, data management, supporting changing distribution efforts, globalization of operations, and integration of administration for traditional and alternative product are all major challenges for NICSA members. I'm sure that there will be a lot of discussion about whether any of these issues have displaced regulation as priority one."


The conference will explore the growing competition between firms as they experience upswings in AUM and revenue.

Coming to speak about growth and segmentation trends in ETFs, which are spurring much of the competition between firms, is Frank Polefrone, senior vice president, product development, at Access Data, a Broadridge Financial Solutions company.

Among his messages, Polefrone says he will speak about how fund manager distribution is playing and important role in an ETF finding market success.

"The leading providers of ETFs have sales teams that call on retail distribution channels to ensure advisors know and understand their products," he says. "We see a special focus on the RIA and IBD channels. In addition, many of the largest ETF providers are joining the commission free platforms offered by the large custodians. Finally, we see increased sales of ETFs as investment products within portfolio models used by advisors."

Discussions on competition is important since firms are looking to expand or claim business from one another; a deciding factor as a result, Hamacher says, is how lean a firm can be.

"The fund industry keeps getting more and more competitive," she says. "While the markets - and AUM - have rebounded since the dark days of 2008, profit margins are still getting squeezed for many companies in the industry.

"As a result, budgets aren't growing even if the business is. In this environment, operations matter more than ever, because they can make the difference between profit and loss. Operations executives will need to think creatively about how they can operate efficiently to boost the bottom line while still supporting growth on the top line."


The conference also will devote a large block of time toward discussions on technological change and its effects.

One focus of discussion will be on the potential entry of Internet innovators such as Google or Amazon into the asset management space. Though the search engine giant previously told Money Management Magazine that it had no plans on entering asset management, concerns and speculation continue to drive asset managers to debate the possibility.

Another technology focus at the forum will be on the rise of big data and the challenges it poses for management and security, with events such as the recent data breach at Morgan Stanley and hacking attempts of Fidelity putting the issue at the forefront of many industry executives.

"Data just keeps getting more important," Hamacher says. "The majority of our breakout sessions are focused on either using data effectively or protecting it from misuse."


State regulation is also something that the conference will focus on, Hamacher says, with sessions on state "blue sky" registration and abandoned property rules. "While the states have limited control over securities regulation, they're looking to maximize revenue from the authority that they do have," she says.

The forum will also host discussions on operations. "The general session panels will relate big-picture industry trends to concrete operational requirements," she adds.

"In the breakout session, attendees will be able to discuss real-life examples with subject matter experts and go back to the office with ideas that they can use. This collaboration to develop, share and advance leading practices is what NICSA is all about."


The conference will be bookended by two high profile speakers that hail from wildly different leadership backgrounds.

Launching the conference is former SEC Chairwoman Mary L. Shapiro. She will have a conversation about fund industry trends with Michael J. Downer, a senior counsel at Capital Group and chairman of Capital Bank and Trust Company.

The conference will end with a presentation from former Navy SEAL Rob O'Neill, who is credited with firing the shots that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. No longer in active service, O'Neill has taken to the speakers' circuit, providing leadership advice gleaned from his life as a member of the elite fighting unit.

"He'll be talking about how to approach strategic planning when failure is not an option," Hamacher says. "And I'm excited to hear Mary Schapiro reflect on her days as SEC chair." 

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