The COVID-19 pandemic has been an adjustment for most financial advisors, who have had to work from home and meet with clients virtually amid extreme market volatility, but the experience has been a bit different for those at smaller firms.
Accessing resources to work out of the office, such as additional computers, telephones and extra internet bandwidth, has been a challenge for smaller firms – especially when competing with bigger counterparts seeking the same equipment and services.
But for smaller firms and their advisors, this size has allowed them to be more nimble when it comes to helping clients find solutions and cope with the fallout from the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has also been a test of these firms’ business-continuity plans, with mostly positive results.
“When you’re smaller, it’s much easier to mobilize,” says Debra Hewson, president and chief executive officer of Vancouver-based investment management firm Odlum Brown Ltd., which has about 100 advisors across five offices in British Columbia overseeing about $15-billion in client assets.
Odlum Brown has invested heavily in its remote access platform over the past 18 months, ensuring it was accessible and secure. The inspiration, in part, was an increasingly mobile workforce – as well as the possibility of an event that could force staff to work away from the office, such as a power outage or earthquake.
“We did it for business continuity reasons,” Ms. Hewson says. “We certainly didn’t plan on a pandemic, but when COVID-19 hit, we were fortunate to be able to mobilize our people to work from home really quickly. When they turned on their computers at home, they had the same experience, technology-wise, as if they were in the office. That was really helpful.”
She says the client experience was relatively seamless, except for the inability to meet in person due to physical distancing requirements, which was difficult for some during the market meltdown in March.
During that volatile period, in particular, the firm spent a lot of time communicating with each other and with clients through different channels including e-mail, telephone and video calls, “because everyone takes information differently,” Ms. Hewson says.
“I’d like to say it was business as usual for us, just a bit more frequent. I’m quite proud of that. It’s not like we had to come up with a new way of doing things. A lot of this we were already doing, we just ramped up the regularity,” she says.
One of Odlum Brown’s biggest challenges was finding computer equipment for advisors who suddenly found themselves working from home, in particular monitors to use as second screens. It turns out many companies, across many sectors, were looking to buy the same products.
“The challenge was finding stores that still had them in stock,” she says, adding that they were able to source a large supply of monitors through an advisor’s connection.
For Montreal-based PWL Capital Inc., which has 26 advisors across four offices managing more than $4-billion in client assets, a challenge at the start of the pandemic was getting its telecommunications provider to boost its internet bandwidth to enable employees uninterrupted access to its virtual private network.
Telecom networks were under a huge strain when the pandemic first hit as so many companies were relying on remote access to support their at-home workforces.
“We’re not the Royal Bank, saying, ‘Improve our VPN.’” says Brenda Bartlett, PWL’s president and CEO. “Being a smaller firm, we don’t always get the telecom provider’s attention right away.”
It took a couple of weeks before their connection was smooth, “which seems like an eternity,” especially amid the market upheaval at the time.
PWL itself was well prepared for the pandemic, Ms. Bartlett says, having made a significant investment in its technology and infrastructure three years ago, including beefing up its remote access capabilities for advisors.
“We did it to ensure that our client-facing teams could go out and meet clients and be fully functional … and didn’t have to be nailed down to a chair at the office to get anything done,” she says.
“When COVID-19 hit, it was the best test of our business continuity plan. If it happened three years ago, I don’t think I could’ve made that statement. … I’m very proud of my team who mobilized to do everything to make it work,” she says. “From a client experience, it has been virtually seamless.”
Meanwhile, Dahlin Sabey, founder and CEO of Calgary-based Belay Wealth Inc., a mutual fund dealer with about 30 advisors across Canada who manage about $750-million in client assets, says the pandemic hasn’t had much of an impact on his firm’s operations. In part, that’s because Belay Wealth was created in late 2018 as a mostly digital firm relying on its own proprietary software platform to run client accounts.
“When COVID-19 hit, it didn’t actually change our operations at all [because] we were already 100 per cent online,” he says.
In addition, having a small team meant the firm didn’t need to implement blanket protocols. Instead, the dealer worked with advisors individually to come up with their own ways to do business safely.
For example, one advisor in Victoria purchased plexiglass screens to put between him and clients who still wanted to meet in person.
“Being a smaller firm, we know our advisors and what they need … instead of just sending out a memo to everyone to saying, ‘These are our rules,’” Mr. Sabey says.
He points out that these small-firm advantages have attracted more interest from outside advisors during the pandemic.
In normal times, Mr. Sabey says he’d receive about five calls a week from advisors potentially interested in joining his firm.
“Now, we’re fielding about 40 calls a week,” he says, many of which have been unhappy with how their larger firms have handled the pandemic.
Smaller firms can be more flexible and agile, including during times of crisis, he says. “That’s how we compete [with the bigger firms].”