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The Changing Relationship Between People and Tech with Christina Townsend

In this episode, Jack talks with Christina Townsend, Managing Director and Head of Relationship Management, Consulting, and Platform Strategy at BNY Mellon’s Pershing.

Christina coaches RIA firms on how to make smart technology decisions and how to devise strategies to strengthen their relationships with investors. For more than two decades with Pershing, Christina was able to work directly with clients and was responsible for product management and implementation.

Christina talks with Jack about choosing what goes best in your tech stack, balancing the roles of people and tech in business, and the future of wealthtech.

What Christina has to say

“The balance between people and technology is different and it doesn’t have to be the same. You have to look at where your value proposition is and what you want to differentiate and then apply the people in the technology.”

– Christina Townsend, Managing Director, BNY Mellon | Pershing

Read the full transcript

Jack Sharry: Everyone, welcome to WealthTech on Deck. Each week we talk with industry leaders about the future of wealth management, and the confluence of human and digital advice. I’m looking forward to my conversation today with Cristina Townsend Christina is the Managing Director and Head of relationship management consulting and platform strategy at the BNY Mellon Pershing. Christina, thanks for joining us today. Welcome.

Christina Townsend: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you.

Jack Sharry: Looking forward to our discussion. So, Christina, let’s start by talking about that lengthy title, all those things, you don’t want to describe what that looks like what you do on a day to day basis. So people know where you’re coming from on your day to day role at BNY Mellon, Pershing.

Christina Townsend: Sure it is a it is a mouthful, I’m glad that you had to say it and not me, so I won’t repeat it. But listen, it is an amazing, amazing role. And so what I do and what my days look like I oversee and lead a team of relationship managers who are basically the quarterbacks in our clients lives. So they are basically the main person responsible for overseeing all of our registered investment advisor clients. And so I get the pleasure of spending time with not only the team, but also going out. And while back in the day, visiting a lot of clients, now we do a lot of zoom, and getting to know them and understanding what they’re up to what their challenges are, how they’re interacting with their clients, the investors. And so we decided to actually create an Agile team to the relationship managers, as you mentioned, with business and technology consultants. And what’s amazing there is we get to pull them into these client relationships, as they’re trying to rethink what is their tech stack look like? What is their succession plan look like? What’s their growth strategy, and really get into solutions and how we can help. And what we hear often not surprisingly, is they want to grow. And whether organically or in organically, and they want to do it at scale, you know, therein enters the technology portion of the conversation. So I get to really help define what does that strategy look like? And what do we get to work on for these clients? And I know we’re gonna get into two more of those examples later on in the conversation.

Jack Sharry: So essentially, what you and your team are doing are coaching or a firm’s with how to be more productive and effective. Is that a short version of what y’all do?

Christina Townsend: Absolutely. Well said, we could shorten my title and just use that.

Jack Sharry: And how’s that going, particularly in led to the pandemic, and zoom and all the rest of the ways we now communicate is better, worse, same different.

Christina Townsend: You know, it’s, it’s different. And I hope we take some of what we’re doing, and we lose some of it. So I’d love to be back on an airplane and to spend some time with clients in person. So I missed that. However, I’ve gotten to interact with so many more clients and get to know them using this technology. So just like in our personal lives, I like to say that there’s things that we want to keep like I like the six feet distance thing, you know, when you’re in line, I like that that personal space. But the QR codes for menus at restaurants, I kind of want to get rid of those. I want the menus back. So there’s a little bit of what do we want to keep? And what do we want to get rid of, but we’ve made the best of what is definitely an interesting period of time.

Jack Sharry: Sure. I don’t know about you. But I actually find that more productive and effective. I think via zoom, I can talk to more people, I sort of learned how to have more in depth conversations. So they’re not not just surface level and arm’s length, they’re much further length. Well, how about you? Is that what you’re finding? Or do you find you’re missing something by not being there in person?

Christina Townsend: Definitely more productive, I definitely can tell you that I am not a fan of looking at myself on the screen. I do like looking at others. And so definitely productive. But I feel like some of the energy when you’re walking in the room, and whether it’s someone you’ve never met, you’re a little nervous and you have kind of that that energy, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time and you finally get to sit down and have that cup of coffee. That’s the part that I am looking forward to getting back to.

Jack Sharry: Share with our audience, if you would what’s a day in the life of one of your consultants are described the kind of firms you work with the kind of issues that you find, you know, what are the what is the conversations? What are you guys talk about? What are you working on? And I’m sure at the heart of it is fintech. So talk about that, if you would in terms of your day to day conversations with teammates and clients.

Christina Townsend: Sure, a lot comes down to technology. I have more conversations with people using big technical terms like API’s than I ever thought I would. And it’s only increasing Every week, every month, every year, as we as we continue to see the infiltration of technology as kind of the backbone of these advisory firms.

Jack Sharry: So what are the issues that you talk about? Obviously, there’s all the elements that comprise the tech stack of data and aggregation and planning and proposal and rebalancing, and so on and so on. But talk a little bit about what are the sort of specific things that they’re trying to figure out, I’m assuming it’s about connecting dots, that seems to be clearly a trend we’re moving towards. So maybe address the kinds of conversations and the kind of issues that advisors are grappling with.

Christina Townsend: Yeah, and just before I jump into that, I would just say the advisory firms we serve, we serve over 750 advisory firms about a trillion in assets. And so they’re challenged with primarily, what’s their growth strategy, but how do they do it at scale? And what that really means is, how do I create amazing solutions beyond investment management? How do I become that holistic wealth manager and do that across my clients, but I can’t do that with Excel. And Excel, unfortunately, is still very present in different parts of these firms offices. And so the conversation is about and we always start with what are you trying to achieve? Right? Are you trying to garner new clients? Are you trying to enter a new market? Are you trying to grow through an inorganic growth strategy? And then once we all agree on what that is, then we focus on how do you implement the technology? And not surprisingly, to your point, a lot of it is okay, I’m going to have more than one piece of technology, no one only has one piece of technology anymore. And so integration, and selecting the right pieces of technology becomes the challenging piece. How do I fill up the tech stack? What are the right tools? How do I how am I sure I’m picking the right ones? And then once I’ve gone through that analysis, how am I connecting them. And we know that integration is an overused term. But we also know that if you don’t connect those pieces properly, then you’re never going to create a good experience. And you’re going to be constantly leaking information. And as an industry, you know, we still have work to do. We’ve been talking about it for a while. But that is still the primary challenge of these firms that are desperate to serve more people, and not have to hire a whole bunch of employees to do so.

Jack Sharry: So people like you and me talk about unified managed household all the time. And we know that that’s largely not present in our in our world in our universe. But clearly, that’s the objective is how to connect and coordinate all the different accounts and assets and products and capabilities and tech tools that comprise a household or the service of a household. How prevalent is it with advisors? Is that what they’re shooting for? What’s their orientation? Is it efficiency? Is it better outcome? Is that onboarding? Is it prospecting? What is sort of the if you were to prioritize what firms are working on those broader categories? Where are they spending their time? And what are their issues as they look to manage more of the household assets?

Christina Townsend: Well, listen, we see just like you do that they want to be it starts with them wanting to be the quarterback right for their clients. And it is rarely any more than that means just looking at one investment account or one 401k account, those days are over, it’s more complex than that. And so part of their core value proposition and what they really love to do is to be that that quarterback, but the infrastructure, as we both know, has been built on individual accounts, and there are different places. So we’ve seen over the years exactly what the industry seen in terms of firms wanting to move towards more of a UNA construct. But we also know that that is only a very small part of the solution, in my opinion, because of course, you’re going to have taxable accounts and non-taxable accounts. And you’re gonna have accounts that are sitting in many different places. And that really gets you to this point about the unified manage household and recognizing that the tools to your point, some of them can do it. Maybe it is during the prospecting or maybe it is during the onboarding. But I’ve rarely seen a firm throughout that entire client lifecycle have a consistent way that they look at that household in a way that they can tell that prospective client, I’m going to understand your entire household. I’m going to be that quarterback and all the things I show you from the time that we’re first meeting and I show you what I can do for you through when we’re opening the accounts through when I’m garnering more information about those other accounts. I’m not managing all the way to effectively managing the portfolios and then through the reporting. People have done it in pockets. That’s the dream, right? That’s where we need to get in from a technology perspective. We have to get there for them because that’s what their clients are demanding. And right now, there’s I still I think a little bit of steal some bubblegum and scotch tape to make it to make it work really

Jack Sharry: I am shocked to hear that just a little bit, just a little bit. It was the way the world although the good news is and love to have you come in on this, we’re making progress. It’s not like we aren’t it does seem that people are catching on that they’re better off whether they’re called an advisor or client, they’re better off if they coordinate all the all the assets and all the accounts and all the products that they own. Because there are ways to improve outcome through tax management through risk management through cost management, those are the I guess, the key levers but talking about what you’re hearing on the other side, or, or advisor, do they recognize it? Are they embracing it? Are they frustrated by it, talking about that improved outcome? quest that we’re all on? And as you indicate, and I agree is a lot of bubble gum and safety pins? And who knows what masking tape trying to cobble this all together? So what are you finding from the advisor and in their firms?

Christina Townsend: You know, I actually hear an equal amount. And this is funny because sometimes it’s with the same firm that I hear to two sides of the coin. One is we’re excited about that vision, we’re excited about what we can do, right that we’re not just managing a portion, we are garnering a higher degree of wallet share with these clients and the clients are becoming more wealthy. And so the solutions they need from us are extending into things like Bill Pay, and all sorts of other solutions. So they, they have this excitement about it. But then in the same conversation or the same breath, they say, but gosh, you know, Can you can you help me figure out how I can gather a list of those clients accounts without having to have them email me statements, because right now, it’s taking me you know, a bunch of time to get that data. And they describe the process. And in my head, I’m thinking, gosh, there’s technology to do that. There’s tools to do that. Maybe not perfect, but we have a lot. So it’s like almost, you know, this, this excitement about the vision and the growth. And for many advisors, not surprisingly, that’s what they’re excited about. They’re excited about their clients are excited about their business. And they haven’t necessarily grown up in technology as a trade. And they recognize its importance. But unless they have dedicated resources, looking at it, you know, you almost feel like you are having two different conversations when then you pivot to this Excel conversation from the one that you’re having about this tremendous opportunity. So it’s pretty down the middle, in terms of this excitement, but then this feeling like I really need to upgrade how I approach technology.

Jack Sharry: And of course, the technology is improving every day. So combination of that future vision becoming a reality is happening today. But before we get into the future, because I do want to spend a little time talking about that. Why don’t we just back up a little bit. Thank you for sharing with our audience what you do on a day to day basis sounds like it’s important and useful for your clients. But how did you wind up in this business? How do you wind up doing what you’re doing? If you’d maybe give our audience a little bit of background on how you got started? And maybe a little bit on the career arc? That would be that would be great.

Christina Townsend: Jack, you wouldn’t believe it but went to school in Maine and I graduated and said, I got I love.

Jack Sharry: Where in Maine, if I may ask?

Christina Townsend: Went to Bates College and Lewiston Maine

Jack Sharry: I was up there in that neighborhood not too long ago, like last week.

Christina Townsend: Well, I haven’t been back in a while and I love me and it’s a beautiful place. However, after four years at a very small school, I was desperate to spread my wings and move to the big New York City and did so without a job, which in hindsight was a little challenging. And after a couple weeks of being shocked that all the big-name firms had not rolled out the red carpet for me. I was I was really in my last days before my parents pulled the plug on the rent. And a friend of a friend of a friend I kid you not said there’s an internship program at this little company. It’s in Jersey City, New Jersey, and it’s called Pershing and it’s owned by a Donaldson Lufkin and Jenrette and I said, Well, I’ve never heard of them. And I’ve never heard of Jersey City. But I’m desperate. And that was 21 years ago in July. Yeah. So it’s been my one and only job or a place of employment. And I describe my path is a winding path that in hindsight, it’s almost like I had drawn a map, but I hadn’t. And I say that because I spent a lot of time in our kind of transformation efforts in the beginning technology, program management, business analysis, reengineering the architecture of the firm, and really fell in love with products and went on to manage a lot of Are advisory and managed to count products and found that enlightening and started to work more with clients. And then we had this need, which we’ll talk about later. It’s not just about what we have to offer. It’s about all of our partners, many who are listening here, right? How do we work together? So that’s when I got to know you. And I was on the conference circuit and meeting lots of people and figuring out how to how to work together. And once you have all that background in both the broker dealer and RA business, I guess it makes sense that relationship management and kind of overseeing that holistic client view makes make sense. So it’s been, it’s been a fabulous 21 years, I wouldn’t have changed any of it.

Jack Sharry: So I have to ask you, I know Bates is a very fine liberal arts college, what was your major? If I may ask.

Christina Townsend: Ah, it was economics. And I barely made it. I barely made it. In hindsight, that was probably I could have been a psych major, and probably done exactly what I’m doing today. But I made it through statistics. Yeah, it was it was tough. But I did it.

Jack Sharry: I actually was an English major. And I, at the time when people would say, What do you want to teach? I said, No, I want to be able to read and write and think and talk. That was my answer back then. And so guess what, that’s what I do every day. It all it all worked out. I love it all works up and how it works. So we’ve talked about the past and present, let’s talk a little bit about where the world is headed. Both from an industry standpoint, as well as what you’re doing at Pershing. So maybe what’s your view where we all headed?

Christina Townsend: Where are we headed? I wish I had a crystal ball. I feel like if we both did this would be super interesting. I would say that there’s a few things that I think are in our future. And it probably describes and it makes sense a little bit about what you know what we are working on these days when I painted in the context of where I think we’re going. So, you know, I think we’re going to a place where people plus technology is the future. So I believe you talked about people and fintech, I think there’s a real balance between people and technology. And I think talent is a huge area of focus that we need to really pay attention to. I think we’re going to see consolidation, there isn’t a day that goes by that you and I don’t read about someone buying someone whether it’s a FinTech, or it’s an RIA or a broker dealer. I think that has implications on you know, the work that you and I do each and every day. And I think the concept of holistic advice, and I think that’s probably an overused term, but that concept that we were talking about earlier, where it doesn’t matter if I’m deciding if I should rent or buy a house, or lease or buy a car, or if I should encourage my kid to take a gap year, it’s well beyond my investment account. This is where we’re we’re going to go and where advisors need to go. And so I think there’s a lot of elements at play. And each of those has to your point, which we can talk about implications and things that you, me and all of the partners listening need to do to really show up the way we need to for these for these advisors.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, actually, it was talking the other day with Noreen Beaman on our podcast. And I think I heard that brought this up. It’s been brought up before it was talking about the robots. Remember the robots from a few years ago, they kind of woke her industry up, really, they served a very important purpose. And she’s specifically pointed to betterment, which I think did the best job of least getting the word out to the marketplace, both at the consumer level, as well as the advisor level is that you needed to make the experience simple and easy and approachable. And that technology is enabling capability. It’s not an end in itself. But if you can create a user experience, whether it’s the adviser or client level, that you’re going to be able to make better decisions and do better things. And I’ve always been a proponent of that. My hunch is you were right there with me, but I’ll let you speak for yourself. What do you think about all that? Is that were the robos. Good, and are we better off for it?

Christina Townsend: So interesting. You mentioned Noreen, so it’s a small world we live in. So my husband actually works at Noreen’s firm. So yeah, we’re a very small, tight knit clan here. The way I like to say it is technology is a means to an end, right. And so I agree with you. It’s an enabler. I agree that the robo woke us up. And I think that we don’t have as an industry another decade before we catch up with the experiences that we see in our personal lives. And I think we’re on bought time here like we need to really make changes and make them quickly. I like what I’m seeing in terms of firms. In the beginning advisory firms that had more traditional ways of managing clients and managing investments. They at first said we just need to tack on a robo or digital solution and we didn’t See a lot of success with that, because not surprisingly, they didn’t have a business case, they just said, Well, I better get into this. So I’m going to offer something on a website that does something. And not surprisingly, they did a lot of what they currently were doing managing clients and having conversations and managing portfolios. And they didn’t have a lot of adoption. Now we’re seeing a resurgence in firms saying, you know, what, I gotta step back and say, How do I want to incorporate or more robo digital experience into my history and where I’ve come from? And is that for the next generation? Is it a purely Robo solution? Or is it more hybrid? Is it a different market segment, maybe down market that I’m trying to appeal to, and with that focus on business of what you’re trying to do and who you’re trying to attract different from your practice that you’ve had for a long time. Now we’re seeing them really approach it in a different way and gaining Not surprisingly, a lot more traction and adoption.

Jack Sharry: Right. But my hunch is, you will agree with my thesis, which is that technology is enabling as we’ve discussed, and that all this sort of operational stuff that used to be done by hand, like the rest of our lives, as that’s been taken over by technologies doesn’t require it’s just technologies more precise, it’s more capable in a lot of ways than just that operational aspect. But increasingly, as we move forward, particularly as people age and have more assets and have more complex decisions to be made, that it’s really important to have a human being there to help sort through just the questions, let alone what technology can do, because where we’re headed is technology’s going to be able to do any at all, the more different accounts you have, the more different circumstances or situations you have to deal with, with the complexity being at the core, how are you going to manage that. And I think that’s increasingly where the advisor comes in and use this technology, once they understand what the client is trying to achieve. Often, by the way, the client is not clear in their own mind exactly what they’re trying to do, they have a rough idea, but often they need to get some guidance. That’s where your psychology degree would have come in handy. But boy, well, that is a joke. Point of all that is that it’s much more about that interaction, and then enabled by technology to come up with the best solution. I’m assuming you agree.

Christina Townsend: Totally agree. And I don’t actually have this capability. But I’m excited to get it is, you know, these new refrigerators and things where it actually monitors and knows that you’re out of milk or knows you’re out of something, right, and it creates a grocery list for you. So the analogy is right, it’s going to tell me that I need more cheese and the cheese drawer because the kids eat a ton of cheese. But when I go to Whole Foods, I actually want to talk to the person behind the cheese counter, and I want to talk to them about you know, do I want this kind of blue cheese or that kind of blue cheese. So and that’s talking about cheese, not my life’s worth. So I do and there’s a use case for everything. And to generalize across every human being who wants some sort of advice is really an impossible thing to do. So it’s not a one size fits all. But if you were to look at on average, the majority of people, I think there is that that balance? Absolutely, yeah.

Jack Sharry: It’s exciting. And so we’re, as we talked about earlier, it’s not happened as fully as it will, we’re certainly making progress literally every day. So it’s an exciting time to be in the business. So we’re gonna start moving toward the end of our time together, we shoot for 30 minutes on these podcasts. If you were to suggest to our audience, three key takeaways that might be beneficial in their day to day life, what do you have to share?

Christina Townsend: We’ve touched on a couple of them, but I would just underscore, for every firm, as we just said, right? The balance between people and technology is different. And it doesn’t have to be the same. You have to look at where your value prop is and what you want to differentiate that and then apply the people in the technology. So I think firms need to really look at that. And look at this intersection of the two to figure out how do you create that awesome client experience at scale. So it’s not just people, it’s not just technology, it’s the intersection which will create again, that awesome experience at scale. The second one is digital, and integrated experiences are table stakes. So we talked about digital capabilities, you know, we’re doing everything is go digital, digital, this digital, that everything has to be digital. But if you have digital account opening or digital lending calculator or digital capability, and then you have all of these different tech tools, and they’re not integrated, we talked about it, that’s a that’s a recipe for disaster. And so as an industry, I would say, Let’s build bridges, not build walls, we all do different things. Let’s build those bridges. Let’s not let’s not build walls. And third is around this concept of you know, keep using the quarterback analogy, that we as an industry and we’re always very kind of intentionally thinking about how do we help that advisor become that quarterback provide that holistic planning and bring some of the solutions that historically have only been available because it’s time consuming to the higher net worth? How do you bring those two different wealth tiers so that But as a complete industry, we’re providing as much advice as holistically as possible to the most amount of consumers who need it. So those would be, you know, the three things that I think we as a group listening today and our conversation really need to think about.

Jack Sharry: So as we, as we do each week, Christina, we ask our guests to share something that others might find interesting or unique stuff that you do outside of work. Maybe some of your colleagues might find either interesting or surprising, something you’re particularly passionate about, what do you have to offer?

Christina Townsend: Well, I’ll tell you that the not surprising and the surprising, but not surprising is I talk about my two girls all the time. So got the husband got the eight and a five-year-old girl’s got a yellow lab puppy, COVID Puppy, and when I’m not doing those things are working. I’m on the peloton. So that’s all pretty well known. I would say the thing that I would say that people don’t know about me is that I have my dad’s almost whole side of the family is in Argentina. And so South America and visiting Argentina, we have a ranch down there. That’s a working cattle ranch. And we’ve brought the girls down. And so it’s, it’s really fun to have a reason and family to leave the country and explore new things. So I’m also looking forward to COVID being not over, it probably won’t be over. But getting to a point where I can go back and see my family.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. So your father was he born in Argentina?

Christina Townsend: Actually yeah, he was born in Germany years and years ago and left during the Holocaust and fled to Argentina. And so yeah, so we could do a whole podcast on that story.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, my four sons. And my number three sons spent a semester in Buenos Aires, and it was fabulous, just when my wife and I visited as we must as parents visiting their children abroad, which we’ve had the opportunity with all of our children. But we just fell in love with Buenos Aires. It’s just a beautiful, wonderful, little broken down, but wonderful place.

Christina Townsend: I would say next time we see each other we’ll have a steak and some red wine to remember.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, I actually got to the point we were there for I think it was a week. And I think I had steak at every meal. I just didn’t want it every meal. I skipped breakfast, but it was a lot of fun. It was That’s great. That’s what that’s why I love this. Our final question each podcast I learned something new and interesting. And for our audience if you’ve not been to Ben way this is it’s just a fascinating city. It looks like Paris from many years ago. So highly recommend it and fun to watch some Tango while you’re there as well, and maybe participate but that’s I was more of a observer. Christina, thank you. This has been a lot of fun as I expected it would appreciate your insights and sharing your perspective. So thanks very much for joining us. For our audience. If you’ve enjoyed our podcast, please rate review, subscribe and or share what we’re doing here at WealthTech on Deck. We’re available wherever you get your podcasts. Once again, Christina and this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for joining us today.

Christina Townsend: Thank you so much for having me. It was a great conversation.