Information Technology - BRM takes the hard road: rebuilds from the start

par Jean-Maurice Bouchard | October 20 2000 08:53PM

The pan-Canadian financial products distributor BRM has taken on a colossal task regarding technology: on-site training of 5000 independent advisors in the use of back-office software. Mastermind of this strategy Jean Morissette is pushing audacity to the extreme: "In the next 12 to 18 months, we are scrapping it all!"

The scope of this far-reaching project at BRM reflects the determination with which the company is plunging into the shift to new technologies. "In a year and a half, we must usher all of our advisors into the 21st century," Mr. Morissette said. "We have to prove to them that the shift is worthwhile. All the more because at BRM membership is voluntary. We will tell them: we are paying the technology cost, but it is up to you to supply the effort."

In the next 12 to 18 months, all training in the use of the BRM network systems (WinFund, RPM, etc.) should resume on a unique system that will be selected by the company. An outlandish idea? "We had no choice," Jean Morissette said. "We have $20 billion in assets at BRM and we do not have the capacity to efficiently manage our accounts. Each day, the problem balloons by millions of dollars."

An ambitious project to be sure. On the one hand, the "ideal" technology has not yet been identified. On the other hand, the nine BRM entities use different management tools. Each has its own methods, its preferred approach and its own suggested solution. The BRM president wants to hear them all! "We don't want to miss any of the information circulating around. Every solution is welcome," he insisted.

A team was even formed from the elements that make up the entities. BRM calls it its technological team. Its mission is to identify a method that can suit everyone, while meeting the challenges to come, knowing that several tools will be added over time to manage customer risk.

The BRM technological team is supervised by John McCann, former technology manager at CIBC, hired by BRM expressly to oversee this project. Once the technology is identified, the system will be implemented by specialized firms. This is how BRM plans to gain a head start over the advisory services offered by the banks.

Why are representatives lagging far behind technologically? According to Mr. Morissette, the brokerage firms are to blame: "If you're looking for the culprit, it is not the advisors, but the brokerage firms. They have done a disservice to their producers. It is a total lack of business judgement."

BRM also plans to buy a thousand computers that it will resell "at wholesale prices" to its independent advisors. A preferred-rate financing program and permanent technical support are also in the works. Under an agreement signed with LGS, BRM will be offering representatives 24/7 support. "If you are doing accounting at 9:45 p.m., that's when you will need it and when you will get it."

The cost of this gigantic project? "Several tens of millions of dollars within the first three years," Mr. Morissette admitted. He pointed out that whatever the amount, he said, it is still marginal given the benefits that will ensue.

"The large producers get it in less than two minutes. In the next few years, independents advisors will need an affiliation to procure equivalent support. Otherwise, they will have to choose a niche, and this is not everyone's cup of tea."

A glimpse at the future

Leaning back in his chair, hands crossed behind his head, Jean Morissette gazes out the window of his office and sees the Americans, the illustrious followers of Uncle Sam who have embraced technology like a better mousetrap: Edward Jones, Schwab, Amex... Edward Jones, for example, is installing satellite dishes next to agents' kitchen windows, he said. "They provide a screen on which more than two hours of information can be received every morning ... it's one way to start the day off on the right foot! If the agent has a question, he just taps it off on the keyboard and a few minutes later the answer whizzes back..." At Schwab, he says, investors have Internet access to advice. Those with microphones can receive online assistance, with an extended statement of their recent transactions!

"The brokers must subscribe to an autonomous system," Jean Morissette explained. "It will do the mechanical portion of their work by performing operations automatically. This system must become the customers' corporate memory. That way, a broker can free up 80% to 90% of their time. For a good broker who works 16 hours a day, that adds up to a lot..." Jean Morissette also spoke of an ideal "CRM", or Customer relationship management system, which can define a contact strategy by client type. "A good CRM can even link a tax specialist, the customer, their accountant, etc. We can also use it to invite good customers to a presentation by a portfolio manager."

Reality or fantasy?

Time is of the essence for canadian companies because the American's view of the Canadian market has changed. "Before, they considered Canada an excellent country... for bear hunting. Now we are on the radar of large financial corporations who have identified our growth potential," Mr. Morissette noted.

"We have a good three-to-five year head start," Jean Morissette concluded. "But we don't dare waste a year."

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