After recording 30 interviews with RIA executives and operations leaders for “The COO Roundtable” podcast, something was clear to host Matt Sonnen, the co-founder and chief executive of consultancy PFI Advisors. When he asked interviewees where they turned to learn more about business operations, many said something similar: There’s not a lot out there for us.
There are executive coaches and designations, but no formal education program to teach RIAs about the best operations practices (which include managing technology and services, human resources, compliance, and other responsibilities). Sonnen says that’s a problem because proper operations are necessary to transform any RIA practice into a more professionally managed business — something better for advisors and clients. “We’ve known for a long time that we’ve got to do something,” Sonnen said.
The consultant thinks he has a solution.
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PFI Advisors has created what it calls The COO Society, a fully digital consulting platform where RIAs can watch different series of short videos about operations and interact with each other. The courses are designed “for anyone from a new client service associate to a veteran COO” and are always available, so employees can watch them any time. Members pay $600 per month, or $500 per month if they sign up for a full year.
Sonnen produced the courses and hired an instruction systems designer (“I didn’t even know that was a title,” he said) to help create the platform. He stars in the videos, sometimes alongside an animated version of himself to “add a little humor to what could be dull operation course material.” There are already dozens of videos available and Sonnen plans to continuously add more courses that fall roughly into three categories: technology, human resources, and business administration.
Video courses on RIA operations are unlikely blockbusters. But Sonnen is recognized in the industry for his expertise and he’s as enthusiastic as anyone about operations, which he’s been focused on for more than a decade.
After a stint at Merrill Lynch, Sonnen helped build the infrastructure for the RIA that would become Luminous Capital in 2008. As the head of operations and compliance he helped the independent firm grow from managing $1.7 billion to almost $6 billion in less than five years. In 2012, after First Republic Bank bought Luminous Capital, Sonnen joined Focus Financial Partners to become vice president of strategic operations and worked with so-called breakaway advisors interested in setting up their own RIA.
He and his wife, Larissa Marcontell Sonnen, co-founded PFI Advisors in 2015 and have since worked closely with operations professionals at 65 RIAs managing an aggregate of $230 billion in assets.
The consultancy worries there is a perception that it only works with RIAs managing a billion dollars in assets or more. It works with many smaller ones, but most are managing at least a couple hundred million and have enough employees and complexity that there is value in hiring PFI Advisors. Depending on the scope of work, PFI Advisors' monthly retainer could be several thousands of dollars, a tough expense for many RIAs to justify, Sonnen recognizes. The COO Society is meant to meet the needs of all the others. (Clients of PFI Advisors will get access to the society for free.)
In addition to the courses and a place where members can post questions and interact, Sonnen will also share exclusive interviews with other operations professionals. He’s already interviewed Mark Tibergien, the former head of the RIA custody business at Pershing; Kelli Cruz, a human resources consultant; and Julie Little Child, a consultant focused on client segmentation.
On his wish list of interviewees for The COO Society, Sonnen has Fidelity Investments to talk about client onboarding and Goldman Sachs to discuss its RIA custody business.
Unlike marketing and investments, “the operations folks in our industry have always been fantastic at sharing ideas and helping one another,” Sonnen said.
Some guests of “The COO Roundtable” podcast and others have been invited to The COO Society, but anyone can request an invitation.
The platform might serve as a prospecting tool, but it is intended to be a thorough, lite version of PFI Advisors’ more hands-on consulting; an effort to make their expertise available to more RIAs. Many, especially those beginning to professionalize their operations, need it.
RIAs have come to Sonnen saying they want to be “the Amazon of financial services.”
“No, you don’t,” he tells them.
Michael Thrasher (@Mike_Thrasher) is a reporter at RIA Intel based in New York City.