Publisher’s Note: Many of you may have seen this article already in early July on our sister media property Financial Advisor but we thought it bore one more visit, since the transaction referenced in this piece has since closed.
SUNNYVALE, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Jul. 19, 2018– Financial Engines, Inc. (“Financial Engines”), America’s largest independent investment advisor1, and Hellman & Friedman, a leading private equity investment firm, today announced the successful completion of the acquisition of Financial Engines by funds affiliated with Hellman & Friedman. As part of the transaction, Financial Engines has been combined with Edelman Financial Services (“Edelman”), one of the nation’s largest independent financial planning and investment management firms. Hellman & Friedman owns a majority interest in Edelman. The acquisition was previously announced on April 30, 2018, and closed and became effective today.
Financial Engines + Edelman = LOVE
By Gail Graham
July 2, 2018
When I think about the pending merger of Financial Engines and Edelman Financial Services, I get very excited about two things: consumer advocacy and marketing effectiveness.
I believe that all good marketing starts with a focus on consumers, and I will go further to say that today, to stand out, you must elevate that to consumer passion.
Brands that people love have more than customers. They have followers and ambassadors. We’ve seen such customer passion in other industries—think Whole Foods, Tesla and Apple. Now consider Edelman and Financial Engines together, forging a beloved financial services brand that helps people feel safer, more confident and secure in how they balance life and money. It would be an amazing step forward for everyone.
It’s super early yet. I have zero insider information, and every merger is bumpy and slow. The progress won’t be readily visible. We don’t even know the name of the new organization (for this article, I’ll simply refer to it as FE/E, for short). With those caveats, let me explain why I am so enthusiastic and hopeful about what may come.
A Great Family Tree
Companies that have been started by visionaries carry their founders’ DNA, and the parentage of FE/E is stellar. Bill Sharpe, the Nobel prize-winning economist, built Financial Engines to improve the ways people are served in retirement plans. While I was an executive at Fidelity, I had a chance to be part of a working group with him and other industry leaders talking about the challenges facing both consumers and retirement service providers during the Great Recession.
Frankly, it was a depressing session at first. The asset managers and 401(k) providers in the room wanted product solutions that were self-serving—forced auto-enrollment, mandated lifecycle funds—and all the focus was on technical issues. Bill (the smartest mathematician in the room) chastised this group for trying to solve a human problem with just numbers, rather than understanding the emotions of money. He shifted the entire meeting by being an advocate for consumers and injecting humility and thus setting a tone of empathy and responsibility in the conversation. I believe his good intentions are in the fabric of Financial Engines.
Similarly, Edelman Financial Services reflects founder Ric Edelman’s concern and respect for the average American investor. He has been an outlier among RIA leaders by focusing on the underserved smaller investor. At times brazen, he has had the courage to call out uncomfortable truths about topics like longevity, technology, student debt and the like. My sense of Ric is that he is driven by a personal mission to help people live secure financial lives, and his educational approach fits nicely with the learning programs that were at the heart of Financial Engines.
Serving plan participants as one of the first robo-advisors, Financial Engines excelled at digital engagement and has a younger, fresh vibe to how it does things. Conversely, both Edelman and the Mutual Fund Store, which was acquired by Financial Engines in 2015, were built to serve baby boomers. What’s interesting about the new entity is how the wisdom across generations could be very powerful. For Financial Engines, the opportunity to serve rollovers and retirees is greatly helped by a strong national footprint. In addition, it now has specialized and credible expertise for the issues facing retirees and older people—retirement income planning, Social Security, long-term care.
At first glance, the robo-business and the bricks and mortar distribution system might seem best suited to different segments—digital offered for the young, human advice for the older investor. What I hope to see is a much more integrated digital-plus-human approach for every generation, something that would benefit all consumers and help regenerate an RIA industry past its prime.
Modernizing The RIA Model
The registered investment advisor model faces a set of challenges that must be solved. To grow as boomer assets wane, the industry needs to find a way to reach more and younger investors, deliver the great digital experiences today’s consumers demand and serve them profitably at a lower price point. There has been very little progress on this front, and it should be a concern for everyone who feels that the fiduciary advisor model is good for investors.
Edelman has already cracked the code on small accounts, but his pricing, up to 2%, raises eyebrows. With the scale FE/E will have, there should be economies that allow the firm to be competitive or even be a price leader. We can speculate that the look/feel and engagement experience in the RIA will get a refresh with the tech-savvy and more sophisticated style that the robo brings.
When the combination is complete, we will have the first true, national RIA with a war chest of talent and resources to go after market share from players like Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard and the like.
Power Up The Marketing
Digital marketing for RIAs has been unsuccessful for three major reasons. First, most firms have high minimum account sizes, so they literally throw away leads on people who don’t qualify for their services. It’s awkward, expensive and frustrating for everyone. Secondly, digital responders may want local services, but the advisors don’t have a convenient office. Or clients expect more digital capabilities and the RIA’s model is traditional. It’s easy to mismatch.
Lastly, most RIAs can’t afford the expertise and advertising budgets required to build and sustain a client acquisition program.
Ric is a marketing genius and has more firepower on his team than most, but his radio, public TV and seminar strategies are old school. In the new world of FE/E, I can imagine the RIA having more segmented messaging to broaden beyond the pre-retirees and retirees it serves today, and that new tactics with social media, podcasts and TV and digital advertising will become more prominent.
Ideally, the new brand will emerge as a lovable one. Anyone can turn up the marketing volume if they have money, but FE/E can use its shared DNA of consumer advocacy and connect to consumers who generally distrust our industry. Ric has said his intention is to focus on education, and I hope he remains visible in marketing. It’s ironic that in a business where we deeply touch so many lives, most large institutions are faceless. Having a face and a brand personality that is a champion for everyday investors would be great.
What About Everybody Else?
The muscle that the new Financial Engines/Edelman business will have means they can really shake things up. The pairing of a 401(k) business with a national fiduciary advisory platform is an advantage in the regulatory environment. Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard now have a new and credible competitor for retail market share. One big advantage that FE/E will have is focus and alignment, while those older players have vast channel conflicts and legacy platforms that slow them down. Smaller RIAs who focus on high-net-worth investors may not notice much change, but for the large RIAs competing to be national leaders, the success hurdle just got much higher.
But size is not the most important part of this story. What is really striking to me is that this merger could solve the big challenges facing our industry, not to mention add a guiding light that is good for consumers. It could reach more investors. It could deliver the great experiences they want in the digital age. It could make financial advice cost effective for them, profitable for advisors.
It could help Americans feel better about life and money.
This is a brand I could love.
Gail Graham is CEO of Graham Strategy, dedicated to helping wealth managers build brands people love. As the former CMO of United Capital, she created an industry-leading marketing platform. Previously, she spent a decade at Fidelity Investments.