The FPA Business Solutions conference ran last week from March 7th to 9th in Chicago, Illinois. Located conveniently at the Westin O'Hare airport, the conference drew about 200 total attendees and just under 30 companies that provide financial planning or practice management-related products and services to advisors.
The practice management content followed a wide range, from how to view disruptive technology - or even become a disruptor! - to recognizing that for most firms, the real challenge is not the technology (whatever it happens to be) but how to really utilize it most effectively. No matter what type of practice, every advisor was able to find something of use in the lineup of sessions.
At the same time, though, the conference still is not as large as it could (and perhaps should) be. Attendance by exhibitors was spotty, with most key areas like financial planning and CRM software represented by a handful of providers, but only a handful. Some service providers, like custodians, were sparse, and other types - like broker-dealers - were not present at all. In addition, the turnout of consultants seemed light, despite the fact that practice management conferences are typically a great place to meet experts to help you solve the unique and particular problems of your own business.
Nonetheless, the reality is that FPA Business Solutions remains one of the only independent practice management conferences available for those who want to see something beyond whatever their custodian or broker-dealer serves up to them. From that perspective, the conference remains a stalwart of the financial planning space. Nonetheless, if the goal is to really see a wide range of products and services - and especially technology - dedicated to financial planners, FPA Business Solutions continues to face tough competition from the Technology Tools for Today event and the FPA Experience national conference.
Innovation And Disruption, Or Just Better Utilizing What You've Got?
The opening keynote session for FPA Business Solutions was delivered by Luke Williams, an adjunct Professor of Innovation at NYU Stern School of Business, the author of "Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in your Business" and a speaker and consultant on innovation. Williams challenged the audience to think disruptively about how to change their businesses; the point was that most firms only change when they're forced to, and often kill any of their own nascent innovations by remaining stuck in the "common sense" ideas of how things have always been done. For instance, the rental car industry had always been dominated by the paradigm "See the customer, complete a lot of paperwork, and rent by the day." Companies all competed within that framework. What would happen if you went the complete opposite direction, where you never see the customer, there's no paperwork, and you can just rent as needed? You get the Zipcar revolution. What might happen if you had the same flexibility in financial planning, where you never see the client, there's no paperwork, and you can utilize services as needed? You get My Financial Advice, and LearnVest, and Personal Capital, and other current innovators looking to disrupt financial planning. And as financial planning enters the digital age, there's clearly more change coming, which means lots of disruption opportunities for financial planning innovation.
Closing out the conference was Spenser Segal, CEO of advisory technology consulting firm ActiFi, with a message at the near opposite extreme - real change in your financial planning business isn't about disruptive business models and technology, but about your firm's ability to really implement and execute the technology you've got (or at least are considering). The key point from Segal was that advisors will get little or no real value and leverage from their technology - or buying into new disruptive technology - if they don't have clear and consistent processes and procedures for the practice, and really understand how work flows through the organization and its employees. In other words, process trumps technology, and people trump process, so if you really want your business to succeed, you need the right people driving the right processes first. Otherwise, technology just results in a fancier, more technology-enabled way to still be highly inefficient, and "integrated" software may or may not deliver any real value. The bottom line: success in your business is first and foremost about how your practice can use technology, and what technology you're using is a distant second. And if your business is having problems, yes it might be that some technology improvements would help, but it's more likely a utilization problem in the first place, which means the solution to the real problem lies in people and process, not better hardware, software, or integration.
What Does Practice Management Mean To You?
Between the opening and closing keynotes were 1.5 days of sessions on practice management, with a wide range of topics from leveraging technology, buying and selling your practice, crafting your unique value proposition, and driving more referrals. Ironically, one of the least populated sessions turned out to be by Mary Dunlap, who spoke about pitfalls that advisors face in their practice by being unaware of many important human resources laws. For instance, do you actually know which of your employees are "exempt" versus "non-exempt" and which could potentially sue you for overtime pay? I suspect few practitioners would know the answer to this question regarding their own practice and staff... which means a lot of people who probably should have been in Dunlap's session, weren't! (If you're concerned about this in your financial advisory firm, Dunlap offers a "Human Resource Audit" to review your exposure on this and other workplace policy issues.)
Perhaps the most striking presentation was one by marketing consultant Sam Richter, author of "Take The Cold Out Of Cold Calling" who made the fundamental point that with the information out there on the web today, no effort at prospecting or meeting with a potential new client should ever be a meeting with a stranger. By doing effective Google searches to gather background on people, plus scanning available information from social media sites, you can gain a remarkable amount of intelligence on people you might be meeting for the first time (or trying to contact). In a somewhat impromptu surprise, Richter actually demonstrated this potential by profiling, without warning, another presenter at the conference - Jason Seiden of Ajax - revealing everything from the names of Jason's children to his hobbies to his professional background and even some of the charities he supports. On the less surprising side, the results seemed to shock the audience into a blend of amazement at the potential of the internet to get to know your prospective (and current?) clients better and a bizarre discomfort at realizing how much information is really out there. It was also no surprise that, given his depth of knowledge about how much is out there about us on the internet, in his breakout session Richter strongly recommended using LifeLock or another monitoring program to help keep your own personal identity secure! Nonetheless, the point remains - you should never again enter into a meeting with a prospective client without arming yourself with the background information that's available out there; of course, how much of that information you use without making the meeting creepy is up to you!
Beyond these sessions, the agenda included a wide range of practice management content - so wide, in fact, that it became clear that with a membership base of heterogeneous as the FPA's, the words "practice management" themselves mean very different things for different people. Even within the world of financial planners, firms are so different depending on whether they're solo, partner, or ensemble firms, whether they're under a broker-dealer, RIA, or hybrid environment, and whether they're small, medium, or large (and which one they hope to be in the future!), that it's a challenge to find content that can transcend these dividing lines to remain relevant for a diverse audience. The breadth of content - with four "competing" sessions in each breakout track - helped, although the message I heard from some advisors was that, depending on their own needs and business model, some breakout slots had nothing for them at all, even while other time slots had multiple sessions they wanted to attend (but could only pick one).
Where Have All The Consultants Gone?
As always, one of the key value propositions of a conference - and especially a practice management conference - is a healthy supply of exhibitors, vendors, and service providers in the event's exhibit hall who can provide prospective solutions to those who attend. In this regard, the turnout at FPA Business Solutions was a bit weak, with fewer than 30 companies exhibiting, although not an unreasonable number given that there were "only" about 200 total attendees. Yet by contrast, the recent Technology Tools for Today (T3) conference had nearly 100 companies exhibiting their offerings (to just over 600 attendees), with a much wider range of services; for instance, while financial planning software providers MoneyGuidePro, ZyWave (NaviPlan) and GoalGami were in attendance, MoneyTree, FinanceLogix, and eMoney Advisor were not. While Total Rebalance Expert was there, iRebal and Tamarac were not. CRM providers included some leaders like RedTail CRM, Junxure, the Morningstar Office Suite, and the Orchestrate full process workflow offering built on Salesforce, as well as Advisors Assistant, yet ProTracker, Ebix, Salentica or Tamarac's Microsoft Dynamics solutions, as well as other Salesforce supporters like XLR8 and AppCrown were not present. Portfolio management and reporting solutions were even more sparse; while Morningstar Office was present, as noted earlier, along with Orion Advisor Services and a few others, Allbridge, Envestnet, Black Diamond, Advent, and other popular providers were not there. Even the social media archiving solutions were sparse, with only RegEd and Global Relay there to demonstrate their services. The end result was that FPA Business Solutions did provide some solutions for advisors, but not necessarily the breadth one might hope for from a conference to get a comprehensive overview of all the major providers in a certain area and how they compare.
Similarly, it was notable that the solutions were ever sparser for platforms on which advisors might actually build their business. While Schwab Advisor Services was at the conference, and TD Ameritrade Institutional was the headline sponsor (and also the WiFi sponsor!), Fidelity's institutional unit did not participate, nor did up-and-comer TradePMR, nor any of the popular "start-up advisor" friendly platforms like ScottTrade Advisor Services or Shareholder Services Group (SSG). And perhaps even more surprising, the exhibitors did not include a single broker-dealer or hybrid advisor platform, nor any brokerage general agencies, and outside of the aforementioned social media archiving solutions there were no compliance platforms or consultants either!
And speaking of consultants, it was also surprising to see how few were in attendance at FPA Business Solutions at all, much less exhibiting. A few were there as speakers (like Mary Dunlap mentioned earlier, or Bill Winterberg of FPPad and The Mobile Adviser), and a few more were present networking with advisors, such as Kristen Luke of Wealth Management Marketing and Mary Ann Buchanan of RIA Match, but given the rich breadth of consultants that serve the financial advisory world, the number there to support were few and far between. In an ideal world, a conference like Business Solutions should establish a price point that makes it appealing for consultants to participate in a "Consultants Row" with a wide range of them lined up at tables where advisors can learn more about who they work with and what specialized services/solutions they provide. This would hopefully encourage more consultants to attend and participate, and make the process of meeting a consultant less of a random luck draw about whether or not the advisor "bumps into" the right person in the conference hallways!
The bottom line to me is that FPA Business Solutions is a conference that still hasn't quite found its groove in the world of conferences for financial planners yet, especially when the default for most advisors is to simply attend their own broker-dealer or custodian's conference - which is more assured to be an event that will have a wide range of exhibitors, service-providers, and consultants that will be relevant to attendees, along with an opportunity to network with other advisors who likely run similar business models by virtue of working with a similar custodian or broker-dealer. As one of the only independently run practice management conferences (besides perhaps Bob Veres' Insider's Forum for larger RIAs), FPA Business Solutions has been on my list of top conferences to attend, if only because it's helpful for many advisors to take a step back at least once every few years and look beyond just what their custodian or broker-dealer shows them. Nonetheless, as it stands right now, that is one of the only reasons to check out Business Solutions at this point, as many custodians and broker-dealers continue to put on fantastic events to support the practices of advisors on their platforms, the Technology Tools for Today (T3) conference has a far greater depth of technology solutions, and the FPA Experience national conference remains "The Big Show" for seeing the full range of providers serving the financial planning world.
So what do you think? What do you look for at a "practice management" conference? Have you attended FPA Business Solutions in the past, or intend to in the future? Where do you go for practice management solutions?