Balentine at the 2019 Barron’s Regional Summit
Business Lessons in How to Weather Change, Scale Successfully, and Put Your People First
Barron’s, one of the nation’s most respected brands in financial news and intelligence, hosts a series of invitation-only Regional Summits. The Summits are attended by top financial firms as ranked by Barron’s and allow wealth management professionals to share new ideas and promote overall excellence within the industry. Last month, Balentine executives had the honor of sharing with peers their learnings on running a successful business during a Summit panel discussion on the topic of “Assembling a Top Advisory Team to Create Scalability and Superior Service.”
Our esteemed industry peers attended the event, but the lessons shared are relevant for any business leader concerned with building teams and staying competitive. Below are a few highlights from Barron’s discussion with Balentine Chairman Robert Balentine, President Brittain Prigge, and Chief Compliance Officer Erica Farber.
Nurture a Strong Culture First; Revenue and Clients Will Follow
“You can and should spend a great deal of time focusing on your client service, but you better spend just as much time focusing internally or you’ll pay for it one way or the other,” asserts Farber. At Balentine, as in many companies, one of the most visible manifestations of culture is a set of core values. “But don’t be afraid to update your values from time to time. They need to be true to who you are as a firm, and that can change over time,” says Prigge. She adds that in addition to values, it’s essential to talk about behaviors as a part of culture. What behaviors are expected of employees? How do those behaviors relate to your values? And don’t just place your values on a wall or a website, talk about them regularly. At Balentine, any meeting with three or more people includes time devoted to discussing values and behaviors recently seen in action. It’s a routine Prigge put in place to ensure the firm’s values and behaviors remain top of mind.
“Culture is what your employees say about your company at a backyard barbecue.”
Farber added that values and behaviors should also apply to clients. She recounted a rare time when she watched Prigge make the difficult decision to fire a client. “The client had mistreated an employee, and the echo that sent through our organization was incredibly, incredibly powerful,” recalls Farber.
Lastly, Prigge emphasized the importance of placing your people over revenue in clients: “Place people and culture first, and revenue and clients will naturally follow.”
The Importance of Focus as You Prepare to Scale
There will be times in any business when you need “all-hands-on-deck,” but it’s not a sustainable way to drive long-term growth or to scale processes. Be alert to when it’s time to sharpen the focus of your business, your job descriptions, and even your client roster. There was a time in the firm’s early years, Balentine said, when he was happy to work with any client who met the firm’s minimum threshold. Five years in, the partners were at a retreat. “We looked at other and said, ‘The best firms in our industry focus,’” he recalled of this simple but profound realization. “We decided to focus on business owners because as entrepreneurs, we felt we knew what it was like to start and to sell an operating company”—and to weather trials such as economic downturns—Balentine added.
Balentine’s leaders also reminded fellow business owners to avoid the traps of being a jack of all trades or of asking your employees to wear too many hats. The latter can work early in the life of a business—say, the first five years or so—but then it can become a detriment.
“The best firms in our industry focus. We decided to focus on business owners because as entrepreneurs…we knew what it was like to start and to sell an operating company.”
Institutionalize Onboarding Processes for Employees and Clients
A deep, shared understanding among employees of what your business does and who you are as a team is more important than anything else. But how does a company achieve this? One example among many is to have a consistent employee onboarding process. This process makes it easier to instill institutional knowledge in new hires and can make it easier to monitor progress and capture feedback across their first 30-60-90 days on the job. And for your clients, an effective onboarding process is vital; it helps you understand each client’s unique needs and preferences from the outset and fosters a sense of relationship. Farber shares that one of the best decisions the firm ever made was to create a dedicated onboarding role to act as a concierge for new clients. The staff member walks clients through account openings and transfers and develops a service profile for each client. Ultimately, this process ensures that the Balentine team communicates in a way that works best for the client.
“We went through a process of institutionalizing service. We needed to make sure that we can all stand in for each other and that we have the data necessary to understand each client.” —Brittain Prigge
Stay Ahead of Growth as You Plan for Hiring, Technology, and Other Infrastructure
Balentine urged businesses to hire ahead of growth to avoid tiring out staff and creating turnover. He added that, for his team, scalability and superior service are a result of specialization. This specialization creates the operating leverage needed to stay ahead. “Our relationship managers are not making decisions about asset allocation,” he shared. “Instead, they are focused on mobilizing the firm’s resources around the client’s highest-order objectives while our Investment Strategy Team focuses on its areas of expertise in asset allocation and picking underlying investments.”
Balentine, Prigge, and Farber also advise fellow executives to keep a close pulse on critical systems to help anticipate what you’ll need to grow and scale efficiently. For example, don’t drag your feet if it’s time to update outdated technology. Erica shared the case of Balentine’s planned 2020 update to its customer relationship management (CRM) system. These backbone systems can be daunting to update, but they’re vital in ensuring teams have useful data and can deliver seamless service.
If Your Business is Becoming Commoditized or Automated, Focus on Differentiated Advice
Many businesses face market forces such as crowded playing fields, price pressures, or automation that threaten to encroach on human expertise and service. Wherever possible, Balentine advises taking a step back and taking a value-based view of relationships, offerings, and pricing rather than a transactional view. He cites the wealth management industry, in which technology such as robo-advisory is becoming widespread. Firms with the ability to offer advice and consultation above and beyond the transactional level can find room to move beyond pricing and to position themselves as trusted partners and advisors to clients, regardless of industry.
Balentine shared an example of how they could help a client think through a financing and restructuring dilemma. If a business owner with multiple office locations and real estate holdings needed guidance, the engagement could become about much more than the management of assets in exchange for a fee. It could focus on helping the client build a broad, long-term solution he could not envision or execute on his own.
There’s just one caution Balentine shares on this front: if you shift your business model, be sure your people, procedures, and back-office systems can keep pace.
When Things Go Wrong, Be Willing to Look at Why—But Refrain from Finger-Pointing
Look closely at the learnings and focus on what can be done better next time. “We’ve committed to engaging in what we call blameless problem-solving. We’re not going to sit in a room and point fingers,” explained Farber. Instead, the team does deep dives into what they’ve learned and “what we can take along with us to our next adventure.” For instance, if you have a symptom like high turnover, be willing to shine a bright light on the “why.” Are you being honest about roles and work ethic? Are you giving employees time to breathe and be creative away from work? Did you have a system implementation that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped? Whatever the issue, be willing to look at what went wrong and share those learnings openly so you can apply them as a team going forward.
Why Documentation Matters
In highly regulated industries such as wealth advisory, robust documentation is a legal and compliance requirement. But regardless of your business, be disciplined about documenting everything from client records to projects to onboarding processes. It can be helpful to view documentation not as a chore but as a commitment you make to one another as a team.
“I tell my team that documentation isn’t what you do for you, it’s what you do for the people who come after you.” —Erica Farber
If you’d like to talk through challenges or opportunities you face in your business, our experts welcome the opportunity to consult with you on a wide range of issues to help you arrive at the best solution.
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