Throughout a career spanning soup, beer and finance, Ainslie Simmonds keeps finding herself with the same responsibility: to build something from scratch. Now, she’s doing it again as the president and leader of Pershing X. The startup, launched in October within BNY Mellon’s custody and clearing business, plans to replace much of the software wealth managers use to run their businesses.
Simmonds, a self-labeled productivity nerd, says the opportunities to help financial advisors are clear and abundant.
“I just cringe at how much wasted work that they have to bear because of this patchwork quilt of technology. I want to give them their time back,” she said.
Some venture-backed startups are already working on the same problem (Altruist, founded in 2019, and Vise, founded in 2016, have raised an aggregate of more than $100 million in funding). Although Simmonds doesn’t think Pershing X is starting any race from behind.
In her first interview about Pershing X, Simmonds shared with RIA Intel how she ended up working in finance, why her startup is advantaged, and the biggest challenge it faces.
Before we talk about Pershing, I want to ask you about your career path. I saw on LinkedIn you were a director of marketing at Campbell Soup Company and you worked at Molson Coors. You’ve worked for financial services companies. Was this all serendipitous or part of some plan?
I started in consumer products and I was drawn to that industry because I really wanted to be responsible for a P&L, be close to the consumer. Campbell Soup was my first job out of school. I stayed there for a number of years and then I ended up managing the soup business, which is quite large. I loved it, I thought it was terrific. Learned a ton about being consumer-centered, really listening to your users, all that good stuff. I was extremely interested in the data side of things, using data to make marketing and products better. When the internet happened I was like, "Oh, this is magic." Now you can do things and immediately see the impact in terms of data.
That's when I jumped over into fintech and started at a company that was ultimately called thinkorswim [a trading platform now part of TD Ameritrade].
The reason that captured my attention is because I had this personal question: why was finance so hard? Why was it so hard for normal people to figure it out? That started the long trajectory of my career. I've been in fintech the rest of the time, in digital products, building terrific things that help people manage their money.
Also, I think along the way I realized that if people have advisors they do even better. I’ve really been excited about building things for advisors as well as individual investors or normal people. That was the big career pivot I took and never looked back. Although, as I said, I really enjoyed my time in consumer [goods] and it really helped on a lot of things.
I want to jump back to some of those things, but I also wanted to ask you about what you were doing a little more recently at PIMCO. When I think of PIMCO, a good digital consumer experience is not the first thing that jumps to mind. Tell me what specifically you were working on or why that's much more important than what I've assumed.
PIMCO, a $2.4 trillion asset manager, has clients and those clients are advisors that interact with their investment offerings, and institutional investors who manage pensions and retirement accounts and all kinds of things — your college endowment has probably got a manager behind it, those sorts of things. PIMCO, having been very good in all of those things, had never really made an investment in digital tools for their clients, which again are advisors and institutional investors. I was excited to join them because they were like, "Ainslie, you can build this group from scratch. There's nothing here right now. We're just getting started."
I think this will come out, I'm sure, as we chat: I've sort of lived startups, I've lived larger companies, but the common theme is I love to build from scratch. I love to start new things. I love to get things going. That sounded like a terrific opportunity, so I did that for three years, built things for retail, for institutional, and then ultimately took on all of our global footprint. It was a really exciting time. We got a lot out the door, built some industry award-winning products, and I think it was a really terrific experience.
When and how did you connect with Pershing?
I wasn't looking, I got a call. It was actually really interesting because when the recruiter called me for this role they said, "There's a company, we can't tell who it is yet, who's interested in doing something really innovative." I was like, "Okay, tell me more."
As I got to know the opportunity, and I got to know the folks at Pershing and at BNY more broadly, I came to realize a few things. One, they had a really big, interesting problem to solve and Pershing and BNY had so many assets to bring to bear to solve the problem. Then they aligned that problem with all the right priority and structure. This is a top priority for BNY.
It was to be set up as a separate yet connected entity, so it could be a startup within the bigger company, coming in at ground zero with just a lot of appetite and momentum within the bank. I thought, “oh, this is going to be great.” Everyone that I met, everyone I spoke to, was completely aligned on why we were doing it, the way we could bring it to market, the opportunity. You just don't get that very often, so I made the decision to join.
For anyone that might not know, what is Pershing X? Tell me a little bit about it.
Pershing X is going to be an advisory platform. What is an advisory platform? Advisors today use a myriad of tools to do their job. They can range from a CRM to enter their client data, to an aggregation tool to look at assets, to a portfolio construction tool, to a financial planning tool. I was actually just looking at an industry report and there's something like, I don't know, 20 different tool categories that advisors can use, and there's a plethora of choice in each tool. Advisors today can stitch together, I guess, a way to do their work, but they truly are stitching it together. These tools and capabilities are changing so rapidly, it feels like as soon as they make a decision with a provider something better comes to market, or something changes, et cetera.
They're really wasting an incredible amount of time — not at their fault, but really just in the way the industry has served them — trying to stitch tools together, having data flow across tools, trying to find insights from one tool and the other. You can imagine [the frustration] — if you work in your financial planning tool and it doesn't talk to your portfolio management tool — if you change the plan then the portfolio doesn't change. There's this lack of connectivity and interoperability in the market. What Pershing X is setting out to do is to solve that problem. We think we can build world-class tools, just like anyone else.
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We have a lot within the BNY Mellon ecosystem to leverage, but what we're really focused on is how they all work together, what's called interoperability, and the way the data flows between them so that we can solve that problem, so people don't feel like they have to knit things together.
In October, when Pershing announced Pershing X, the company said it would accelerate Pershing's delivery of a consumer-grade great digital experience, as well as one to the broader marketplace. Why develop and offer things to the broader marketplace beyond Pershing's own clients or universe?
Pershing is a world class clearing and custody platform. It has been world class and continues to be world class. Like every smart player in the industry, Pershing is looking for growth opportunities and the advisory platform world is a massive growth opportunity.
There's a bunch of secular trends that are pointing to the growth that's being projected in advisory. One is that advisors are moving from being broker-centered and stock-trading, to advice-centered financial planning and portfolio construction and management. The other thing that's happening is, and you know this probably better than anybody, is a lot of advisors are going independent, moving into the independent RIA space, and want a world class set of tools, and don't have a home office set potentially to work from.
Then there's tremendous growth in the opportunity around retail investors themselves. The size of the retail investment market continues to grow and solutions for retail investors continue to be innovated in. We all know what's going on there with crypto, and with ESG, and all these things that are drawing people into the market. There's wonderful tailwinds into these advisory platforms. So Pershing looked at all of that and said, "This is a place that's growing, this is sustained, this is a compliment to our business. This makes a lot of sense for us."
Pershing X is something that will supplant tools that exist and is not just something complimentary, and complement an existing custody business, and be a profit center for the company?
Yeah. I mean, to put a fine point on it, Pershing X will be multi-custodial.
What else can you tell me about it? Can you share some near-, middle-, and long-term goals that you have for it?
I would say I'm really working in two areas right now. The first area is a capability assessment; what do best-in-class tools look like for the advisor market? What do we have and what do we need to build, buy, or partner? There's a whole sleeve of work that's going on around, what should be on the platform in terms of tool set? What does great look like? How do we achieve that as quickly as possible? What goes with that is the platform itself and how can the platform itself create value? I talked a little bit about interoperability. I talked a little bit about seamless data flows. We hear every day from clients that they wish they didn't have to mesh spreadsheets together and try to reconcile performance data.
These are problems that are solvable. I'm looking at the tools themselves and the platform, and really putting strategy together on how we're going to build and release that. That's one big chunk of work.
Then the other big chunk of work I'm doing is setting up Pershing X in a startup-style operating model. Truly agile, team-based, all the things you would expect out of a world-class startup within the broader enterprise. That is making sure that we have the agility we need, that we have the talent we need, that we have the user experience and design that we need. That's the other big area of focus. That's what I'm working on right now.
In your research so far, is there any company or organization that you have come across that you think is doing a good job at any of this, even in certain instances? Anybody out there that you're really admiring?
Yeah. All of this is really just productivity tools for an advisor. It's the stuff they need to do their work. I think of Google and Microsoft and their suites. The Google suite, where you have Drive and Meet. You've got Gmail. You've got the productivity tools. They're competitive tools by themselves. But when you get into the suite, and you really start to see what it's like, when you get an email you can quickly save something to drive? You can start to see where that interoperability is.
If you flip over to the Microsoft side, if that's your flavor, they're doing the same thing. We're on a Teams call that I could launch immediately from my Outlook. I can chat while we're talking to one of my colleagues, if I needed to do that. This interoperability, I think the vision we have for it is as ambitious as the Google and Microsoft vision because they're solving the problem of all human productivity and we're going to be doing it for advisors. That's really who I look to.
Is there something about Pershing X you're most excited about?
Oh my gosh, I'm excited. I'm excited about all of it, but I think the biggest thing I'm excited about is when there is an opportunity to solve a problem for such a broad spectrum of advisor types. All advisors struggle with this disconnected tool set. No one has really cracked this code. That means it's hard, that means it's interesting, that means that it's going to take a lot of work, but the problem is ubiquitous.
I think from my startup days, you learn that if you are working on a big, ubiquitous problem, there's an incredible amount of value to be had. How that's going to play out, exactly what the value drivers are, exactly how it all will work, we'll figure that out. But when you have these kinds of secular trends in your favor, a common problem to solve, and such a large potential addressable market, it's all exciting. I mean, there's nothing not to be excited about.
Let me just add, a clear commitment from a very deep-pocketed company to pull it off is fantastic. Yeah, I mean, I'm probably sounding a little ridiculously excited, but I truly am excited by this opportunity.
Other venture-backed startups have recognized some of these same secular trends, and are doing what they can to resolve these headaches, to create a singular system that's going to help them with most or all their tasks versus the patchwork of things.
But like you said, these problems are ones that virtually every advisor is facing, and the market is massive. Is there any sense of urgency? Do you feel like you're competing against others tackling this problem? Or really competing against yourself and just to win clients? What else can you tell me about the competitive landscape?
I mean, there's definitely some very quality players in the advisory set of solutions that are doing some or part of this. I love smart competitors because it just makes you stronger, so absolutely. There's some large ones and there's absolutely some really cool venture-backed smaller ones.
What I like about the Pershing X opportunity is the fact that with Pershing we have deep relationships with such a huge part of the industry already. What I know from my fintech startup experiences in the past is that getting into companies and building those relationships, and the whole selling and solutioning side, is really hard for startups. They don't have that muscle. They don't have a large salesforce, they don't have multi-year relationships.
The whole cost of customer acquisition is often what becomes the stumbling block for fintechs. I've lived it, I've seen it, and it makes being a startup really challenging. Not even to then comment on the whole being ready for enterprise grade compliance and security, being ready for the growth. I think we could all look at headlines of startups that have stumbled there.
Again, I welcome all competitors and I think there's some really good ones, some great ones, and that's terrific. But I think there's lots of space in the market. I think one thing that Pershing X is advantaged by is the depth of relationships that we have at Pershing and BNY broadly.
So if I'm hearing you right, a lot of those challenges you mentioned that so many startups face, they don't feel quite as daunting because you are a part of BNY Melllon and Pershing. What is the biggest challenge then? What's going to be maybe especially challenging relative to perhaps other things?
I think the challenge that we face is the challenge everybody faces right now because of the momentum in tech and digital broadly — getting terrific talent. There's so many options. I was meeting with a girlfriend's daughter, she was asking me for some advice, she's going to be a software engineer. I said, "Just graduate, you're going to be fine." There's so much demand for the kind of talents that Pershing X needs and that everyone needs. Software engineers, really good product managers, really terrific user experience designers. We're competing with Google and Microsoft for that kind of talent as is every startup. That's what I worry about the most.
My hedge on that worry, to get a little finance-y about it, is that I think we have a really compelling value proposition here, which is all the safety and security of a larger company with this incredible track record, but with the culture and operating model of a startup. I think for a certain kind of talent, that's a really great value prop. Thinking of it as startup grownups. People who aren't 25 and want to sleep on a couch, but want that environment and that experience. My biggest worry is getting the right talent, but I'm hoping we have a compelling value prop there.
I want to jump back to you for a few minutes. We've talked a little bit about this already, but has your mix of professional experiences previously helped you in financial services? Are there any lessons or things that stick out, that you keep carrying with you, and also will bring to Pershing?
What I learned in my early brand and brand marketing days is that a brand is nothing but a consistent experience. The Campbell Soup red is always going to be the Campbell Soup red and the script of the C is always going to be the script of the C, because you become friendly with the elements of these brands. These brands get a personality, the experience has to be consistent. I've carried that with me because no matter what I've built for what company, I've always tried to construct it so that it could be a consistently excellent experience time and time again. Very carefully putting things out, not rushing, making sure that they're going to be structured in the way that consumers would see value in them. Then just delivering that consistently again, and again, and again.
It's a hard thing to do. You have to be very disciplined, but that is definitely something I carried from my early packaged goods consumer days. I think one of the reasons I went into building things versus more traditional marketing is I think products now are marketing. I think if you have a great product, you almost don't need marketing. I think lots of products have shown that, so I think making sure your product is always delivering is something that I learned and I certainly carry with me every day.
What about the types of employees that you seek? And your leadership style for growing a business, especially one from scratch, with the resources and aspirations that you have?
I'm fully subscribed to the servant-leader model where my job is to hire the right talent, give them really ambitious goals, and then work every day to get roadblocks out of their way. That model came very naturally to me. I don't even think I could work in another way at this point. It's something that I think if you talk to anyone who ever has worked for me, they would say that's the style. I don't get into excessive detail, I give people a lot of autonomy and authority, and make sure they have all the context they need to make terrific decisions. What I'm looking for, for anyone that would love to come join the Pershing X journey, is someone who thrives in that model and also is incredibly collaborative.
We have a lot of products that have to get on this platform. They all have to work with each other and achieve this vision of interoperability. We can't have people with blinders on running to their own end zone without looking at the team. I have a strong no jerks policy; everyone has to be incredibly collaborative and also respect the fact that we are in a regulated industry. We have to do all the right things all of the time. Sometimes that may feel like a little extra bit of work, but we have a very serious responsibility — in any way, shape, or form — handling individuals' money, and we take that incredibly seriously. I'm a servant leader. I think the way I'd sum up that question.
When you meet a financial advisor who's unfamiliar with Pershing X, what's your elevator pitch to them? What do you tell them or share with them right now?
I have a 16-person advice panel of advisory firm executives that we set up immediately in Pershing X. I had that conversation with them, and had to introduce Pershing X to them. I said, "What about a world where all your tools worked together?" They said, "Yes, please." I think it's really that simple. Sometimes you step back and you go, "Is it really that simple?" The answer is, that's what everyone needs.
I will say, because some advisors are very embedded with a particular favorite tool, that Pershing X will offer the ability to integrate with some other industry tools. We're not going to be a closed system. But we do think that we'll be able to deliver the highest level of interoperability across our own tool suite. Again, going back to the Microsoft analogy. Webex works — you can launch Webex from Outlook — it just doesn't work as well as Teams. That's the operating model. My advisory board said that sounds fantastic.
Any other trends or topics in technology that you're interested in right now, intrigued by, either that you guys are really going to be working on or maybe even not?
There's so much going on in technology it's hard not to be excited by all kinds of things. But I think I am, and always have been, a bit of a productivity nerd. So really seeing all the things that help drive productivity and help us manage our life easier, better, faster. There's so many categories. I mean, I just ordered my groceries from FreshDirect because I could do it in 15 minutes and I booked my vacation online because I could do it on my couch. All of the things that help you save those precious minutes in your day so that you can get on with the things you love to do, spending time with your family, being outside, whatever the case may be, I'm a productivity nerd personally.
That's what makes this such a fun challenge. I spend a lot of time in advisors' offices looking over their shoulders, and I just cringe at how much wasted work that they have to bear because of this patchwork quilt of technology. I want to give them their time back. I want them to spend more time with their clients. I want them to leave the office earlier. I want them to be able to do other things they're interested in other than filling in spreadsheets. I think it's that broader wherever productivity is happening I'm always interested in learning more, and I want to be able to turn around and deliver it for this community.
As you improve your productivity, when you're not working at Pershing, what are some things that you like to do?
I'm an avid reader. Speaking of productivity, I finally figured out it's better to have a Kindle and just download a new book every five days from the library. That's my new love.
What kind of stuff do you read?
I'm a complete nerd for historical fiction. I just finished The Nightingale, which was fantastic, and I have a long list from my book club to dig into. There's that. I've got three kids, so they keep me a little busy from time to time.
And I'm Canadian, so I love to spend an obscene amount of time outdoors. I like to ski, I like to hike, and I have a cottage. I'm always cross-country or downhill skiing, snowshoeing, you name it. I bundle up and I get out there. And I like to run. So I spend a lot of time outside.
Michael Thrasher (@Mike_Thrasher) is the editor of RIA Intel and based in New York City.