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How Top RIA COOs Are Responding to COVID-19

A business continuity plan is not just a document. Here’s how COOs at top RIAs are putting their plans into action under current conditions.

Every registered investment advisor needs a business continuity plan—it’s required by the SEC, and most RIAs are good about updating it every year when they perform their annual compliance reviews. Unfortunately, many firms focus on the document itself, and not the actual plan. If the document is complete, they can check the box and move on to more pressing needs. But that line of thinking was fine before the coronavirus forced widespread quarantines. Many have been caught flat-footed as they’ve been forced to convert their business and employees to a remote environment.

Given these circumstances, I decided to check in with some of the chief operating officers in my network to see what they’ve done to implement work-from-home policies and procedures.

Tom Harms, partner and COO at Summit Trail Advisors, a firm with five offices across the country: “We are lucky. With so many office locations, we are used to communicating with one another virtually. As a test of our business continuity plan, we have asked all employees twice a year to work from home and confirm they can access all systems and perform their normal duties. About a month ago, we alerted staff in all locations to prepare for a remote scenario. Seattle was the first branch to go remote. At that time, we allowed staff in all other branches to work from home, if they could (and felt compelled to). As cities across the country began to lock down, we found it relatively seamless to move our firm to 100% remote about two weeks ago. Now we are focusing on increased communication with extra video calls for the entire firm.”

In speaking with firms in the process of transitioning their teams and business operations to everyone’s homes, it became clear that one of the top priorities was ensuring constant and reliable communication among the firm’s teams. Stacey McKinnon, COO at Morton Capital in Calabasas, Calif., shared an Instagram message from author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek with her team, where he recommended co-workers use a Zoom “huddle” to stay connected. She has instituted Zoom “huddles” with all her team leads every three days and has instructed those team leads to perform daily huddles with their respective teams.  

“This has been very successful as they check in on capacity and projects,” she said. “Because the regular workload has slowed for our client service team, we are having them use this time to record training videos for future new hires. Our advisors are also leveraging technology to track client interactions so that they are proactively reaching out during this time of extreme volatility, rather than being reactive.”

Gary Bonner, partner and COO at Avalon Investment & Advisory, an RIA with two Texas locations, has been able to use lessons learned during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. “Our BCP worked well then, but the one outstanding issue was our onsite phone system. At the time, we just forwarded our Houston phones to the San Antonio office during that disaster. Since then, we moved our phones to a cloud-based provider. I’m currently sitting in my home office with my desk phone plugged in and I can be reached as if I was sitting in the office. We’re also running our reporting and trading software ‘in the cloud,’ which allows our middle office teams to serve our clients and portfolio managers. Other than not seeing my colleagues in the office, things are working great. We are using Zoom for client and team meetings.”

Lucas Winthrop, COO at Winthrop Wealth Management in Boston, has also leveraged his experience with a prior disaster to better ready his firm for today’s crisis; Winthrop Wealth’s offices were destroyed in a fire last year.

“With our office fire in June of 2019 and now, the global coronavirus pandemic, applications in our integrated tech-stack such as Microsoft Teams allow for our team to stay connected internally with a high degree of collaboration and security via video and chat,” he said. “Our VOIP phone system forwards directly to our mobile phones with the toggle of a mobile phone app. Our CRM allows us to keep up-to-date on the fly and keep all team members focused with full transparency into status of client activity such as cases, tasks, or other client related projects.”

Heather Fortner is a partner, chief compliance officer and COO of SignatureFD, with offices in Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. Their 86 employees made the move to remote work relatively quickly and easily, as the firm has allowed every employee to work from home once a week prior to these current events, granted they could confirm basic office supplies in their home offices (printer, scanner, shredder, etc.). The firm was already working through Office 365 and had OneDrive in place for secure document sharing, so employees are not saving documents to their personal computers. Everything is saved in publicly available folders and drives. As the firm’s COO, she feels she has the perfect opportunity to act as a “utility player” for the rest of the organization, as team members are fighting to care for clients during a volatile market, and care for their families who are quarantined at home with them. “I’ve had the privilege to clear my calendar and prioritize my day so I can float from team to team and fill in wherever I’m needed most, from one day to the next. I don’t think anyone but the COO has the visibility across the firm to play ‘safety.’ We have a unique ability to go wherever we are needed most.”

These COOs have leveraged their past experiences to tackle the current environment head-on. Firms need to recognize that now is not the time to create an ideal business continuity plan; emphasis should be placed on simply staying functional and utilizing what is currently available to the firm with as few unnecessary changes as possible. Hopefully this forced remote situation will open the eyes of other COOs and allow them to build more stable and robust disaster recovery plans, and not just documents.


Matt Sonnen is founder and CEO of PFI Advisors, a consulting firm that helps financial advisors build more impactful and profitable enterprises. Follow him on Twitter at @mattsonnen_pfi

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