Will Ron Carson’s $52M tech gamble finally pay off?
Ron Carson's goal is to become part of a select group of “super firms” that he thinks will dominate the industry in the decade to come. The plan hinges, at least partly, on the success of his firm’s $52 million investment in technology.
As chief of one of the largest advisory services firms, Carson has already sunk millions of dollars into the firm’s technology stack in the past five years. It may finally start to pay dividends. Revenue is up 243% over the last five years, the firm says, and it expects to tack on $3 billion in new assets this year alone.
After rolling out a new client portal where clients access their net worth, account balances, and performance data all from one dashboard, Carson Group Partners Division has brought in $1.5 billion in new committed assets, according to Carson Wealth Management COO Teri Shepherd.
“The question we were trying to answer was: How do we put together a consistent client experience that every partner across the country can use?” says Aaron Schaben, executive vice president of Carson Group.
Called the Digital Client Experience, the tool optimizes features from products offered by custodians and other third-party vendors, like CRMs, and ties them together in one client-facing program.
For example, Salesforce is fully integrated with heightened features not available elsewhere on the back end, along with Cetera's platform and those of custodians Fidelity and TD Ameritrade, and Orion Advisor Services' rebalancing tools, according to the firm.
“Having multiple custodial platforms causes challenges, but we’ve built a platform where advisors can go to a different custodian and not have a lot of extra work and effort in back office,” Shepherd says.
Clients can also fill out forms that sync directly with the back office meaning data only has to be entered once. And the firm says advisors won't have to go into multiple online portals to log into separate systems. “We’ve really tried to paint the whole picture in one place,” Shepherd says.
Independent advisors will need to invest in technology as Carson has done to be on par with wirehouse rivals, analysts say.
“Tech scales in a way that humans don’t,” says Davis Janowski, an analyst at research firm Forrester. “Much of what advice used to mean from an RIA was manual, and now were seeing tech finally catch up and eliminate those processes and that is what allows firms to grow up and into billion-dollar firms.”
One advantage is showing value in real-time with detailed financial plans, says the firm. At annual client meetings, advisors can utilize the interactive "Value of Relationships" timeline that allows clients to dynamically review milestones they have been achieved by working with their advisors — like putting their children through college or buying a home, Schaben says.
“Ron’s new portal does a really good job calling attention to all the things advisors are actually doing for clients because they don’t always intuitively know and advisors don’t always do a good enough job explaining all the value adds,” says Joel Bruckenstein, co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today conference series.
Prospecting may become easier, too. In one case, the tool’s features helped lock in a new client after a single visit, Schaben says. “The client was with another firm for 12 years and had never seen that level of data in only a few hours,” Schaben says. “By the following Tuesday that person was a client.”
The Carson Group has the size and scale to invest heavily in proprietary technology, Bruckenstein notes, and other RIAs may be willing to follow suit.
“Ron’s argument is, ‘If you can’t beat him, join him.’ Some people will try to replicate what Ron, or a Ric Edelman has done, and others will join those firms because they don’t want to have to try figure it all out.”
So, how will Carson’s bet on tech play out?
More than a year after leaving LPL, Carson has hit the road on a nationwide speaking tour to tout his new tech and explain to potential advisors why he left the nation’s largest BD and why his firm is a better choice for RIAs than his larger rivals.
“It’s taken about a decade to get to this point — and Ron Carson is a perfect example of this — of firms being on par in terms of their reputation around technology,” says Janowski, adding that technology stacks available to average-size RIAs through partnerships are now on par with the wirehouses.
Part of Carson’s plea to RIAs is the firm’s staunch commitment to technology.
”I was at LPL for 28 years. I had some of the best memories ever. I built a great business, but the time came where I had to move on for the benefit of my existing clients, internal stakeholders and the people I needed to serve," Carson said in a video posted last month on LinkedIn, promoting his first speaking engagement in downtown Los Angeles.
Carson said technology stacks at “broken dealers” like his previous firm are "brittle" and that his new offering works like a "genie in the bottle."
Other industry experts aren’t so sure. “The execution risk to firms [striving to become one of the top firms] is that they try to do too much with too little,” says Mark Tibergien, CEO of Pershing Advisor Solutions, adding that pressures for more growth from private equity backers may eventually become vexing.
Long Ridge Equity Partners bought a 29% stake in Carson's holding company, Carson Group, last year. The transaction was part of a major industry trend of private equity firms, including KKR, Stone Point Capital and Genstar Capital, buying into the independent advisory space over the past two years.
“Carson has built his current business based on his rock star status and his understanding of the affluent clientele of the IBD market,” says Jeff Spears, the former CEO of platform provider Sanctuary Wealth Services, during an interview with Financial Planning in September.
Since unveiling the new client portal in October, Carson says that advisors have generated 635 new leads. “Ron is a visionary that has the ability to always be looking to the future and challenging his own business models — even to the point of putting himself out of business,” says Eric Clarke of the technology provider Orion Advisor Services.
For Bruckenstein, further innovation will be the key to Carson’s future success. “What he can’t do is rest on his laurels,” he says. “Technology is evolving at more rapid pace than it ever has in the history of this business. You can’t sit still.”
But, Carson certainly has a sizable leg up on competitors, he says. “He certainly positioned himself to succeed. Having the tech doesn’t guarantee success, but not having it is going to guarantee failure.”
Some suggest the future of the Carson Group might have less to do with Ron Carson's savvy tech platform and more to do with Ron Carson the businessman.
“He will need to adjust his offerings to meet the needs of the breakaway brokers,” says Spears. “But I wouldn’t bet against his tenacity.”