a man interrupts a cascade of falling dominoes

This article appears in the June 2020 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Life seemed relatively normal when Jamie Coulter was getting ready to board a flight from Calgary to Toronto on the afternoon of March 11. Covid-19 had been in the news, of course, but the virus had yet to bring the world to a standstill. “I got on the plane and everything was fine,” Coulter recalls.

Things were far from normal when Coulter, executive vice president of Toronto-based Raymond James Ltd.’s wealth-management group, landed in Toronto. “I got off the plane,” says Coulter, “and the [National Basketball Association] had suspended its season, [the World Health Organization] had declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita [Wilson], had been diagnosed with Covid-19.”

That was the day the severity of the pandemic began to feel “very real” to Coulter. Raymond James executives, he says, took the next few days “in stride,” but knew big changes in the way the company did business were coming. “We convened our own crisis-
management team to discuss next steps and get the ball rolling on business continuity,” he says.

At first, that team considered having some financial advisors and administrative staff work in the office while others worked from home. However, that option wasn’t viable, which became apparent very quickly. By the week of March 22, almost all Raymond James employees were working from home.

The firm had already invested in a virtual private network and an enterprise Zoom account for video conferencing. As a result, the transition to remote work “wasn’t terribly disruptive,” Coulter says. “The kudos coming in from the field to the IT team was non-stop.”

Ann Felske-Jackman, principal, branch team talent acquisition, with Mississauga, Ont.-based Edward Jones, was on vacation in South Carolina when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. She recalls that she drove home “fairly quickly” after hearing the news.

“I don’t think anyone in our industry had experienced an event of this magnitude that wasn’t strictly market-related, but also human-related,” Felske-Jackman says. “We had to look at business continuity differently. Before, [business continuity] was just about systems and processes. Now it’s about protecting our associates, our clients and our business all at once.”

Before any provinces began implementing lockdowns, non-essential Edward Jones employees began working remotely. “That allowed us to stress-test our systems,” Felske-Jackman says.

It wasn’t long before Edward Jones stopped letting clients into its neighbourhood branches — although advisors still could work from the office as long as they practised social distancing.

“We found that we were able to organize very quickly around a decision-making framework that allowed us to make all the right choices in real time,” Felske-Jackman says.

Shaun Hauser, co-founder and president of Winnipeg-based Wellington-Altus Private Wealth Inc., says his firm began having “management-level” discussions about Covid-19 in February, when the infectious disease “started to become a newsworthy topic.”

By March, Wellington-Altus was planning to have its advisors work remotely. Wellington-Altus has had the infrastructure to support remote work in place since its inception in 2017, a provision that made the transition “quite seamless,” Hauser says. “We created a ‘virtual first’ environment with our IT provider. Everything is cloud-based,” he says. “We can have people ‘virtualize’ their desktop at home, and they’re as functional at home as they are at work.”

When new advisors join Wellington-Altus, the firm ensures they’re set up for remote work from the outset, Hauser says.

And a new advisory team — Garriock Manning & Associates, based in Markham, Ont. — just so happened to join Wellington-Altus on what many would have considered an especially unlucky day: Friday, March 13, just when the severity of the pandemic was beginning to sink in with the public.

Typically, when Wellington-Altus welcomes new advisors, an IT team is sent to the advisors’ office for about two weeks to install Wellington-Altus systems. In this case, the IT team spent only four days in Markham, and much of the setup work was done remotely.

“[The pandemic] actually caused us to look at our model and say, ‘How important is it that we have bodies on the ground vs just doing it remotely?’” Hauser says.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, firms have ramped up their communication with advisors, providing them with updates on the business and news about the pandemic, as well as resources they can share with clients. (See story on page 33.)

Wellington-Altus has been sending out daily emails to staff and hosting weekly companywide conference calls. “In times of crisis, it’s impossible to ‘overcommunicate’,” Hauser says. The firm also launched a Covid-19 web page for clients.

Edward Jones’ managing partner has been sharing weekly video updates from her home. The firm hosts virtual town hall meetings with its Canada country leader and weekly “coffee chats” with senior leaders. Edward Jones also has ensured that new advisors get support from more seasoned colleagues.

“We have 200 new advisors who’ve joined us over the past three years,” Felske-Jackman says. “They’ve not had a market downturn, much less a pandemic, that they’ve encountered with their clients.”

These newer advisors have been paired with veterans “who have been through various crises before,” Felske-Jackman says. She adds that Edward Jones’ advisors have been onboarding clients successfully during these trying times.

“What’s interesting is that [advisors] are actually adding clients and assets to their practices,” Felske-Jackman says. “Both March and April have seen very successful client creation.” (In March and April, new client assets under management at Edward Jones grew by 5% year-over-year.)

Raymond James has “revamped its entire intranet site” with a resource-heavy Covid-19 response page, Coulter says. The firm now hosts weekly town hall meetings on Zoom that have proven more successful than the company conference calls held before the pandemic.

“We used to be excited if we got 200 people on a companywide conference call,” Coulter says. “Now we’re disappointed if we get fewer than 800 on the Zoom calls.”

With gyms closed, Raymond James launched what it calls its Sweat Equity program. Twice a week, the firm hosts live virtual fitness classes led by Raymond James staff members.

“Although we can’t get into a gym anymore, it turns out we have a bunch of talented people here who are Pilates instructors or spin instructors who can run their own strength and conditioning programs,” Coulter says.

Of all the lessons financial services firms have learned from Covid-19, the most valuable one may be that there are more efficient ways of doing business than the traditional methods. When the pandemic subsides, clients may not want to do face-to-face meetings with their advisors if they’re now used to video conferencing.

“We recognize that if there’s going to be a change in client preferences, it will impact the decisions we make,” Felske-Jackman says. “It could accelerate timelines for the digitization of work, for instance.”

Edward Jones is already thinking about how advisory practices will operate after the pandemic, says Felske-Jackman.

“What I think [Covid-19] will force everyone in the industry to do is review their strategic priorities and make the right investments in the people, the technology and the capabilities to help us through what we call the next normal,” Felske-Jackman says.