The following article was written by Karen Hube for Barron’s. You can view a version of this article on Barron’s website by clicking here.
How One Top Advisor Thrived During the Pandemic: Up Close with Ali Flynn Phillips
Ali Flynn Phillips, executive vice president and partner at Obermeyer Wood in Aspen, spends weekends climbing mountains with skis on her back or biking through the rocky terrain around her Colorado home. But at work, she aims to be a rock herself. Steady, reliable and readily available are the attributes she believes were important in keeping her practice’s 22-person team and 600 clients on a healthy and productive track through the pandemic. “We had to do a lot to adapt, but sometimes what was most important was just being a sounding board and steady force,” she says.
BA: How did your practice fare financially during the pandemic?
We have never seen as much new business in a year. We got down to about $1.4 billion last spring and crossed the $2 billion mark early this year. Some of the growth was return driven but we had both new households and existing households add significant assets—a little under $200 million. We had very little attrition and new business came from client referrals. That was a huge vote of confidence.
What operational adjustments did you make to maintain high levels of client service?
We made a ton of changes. Early on, we already had our portfolio management system and our CRM [customer relationship management] on the cloud, but we had to move our rebalancing software to the cloud to enable moving everyone home within a week. We ordered new laptops and a new phone system and changed our phone-answering from being a two-person responsibility to where we shared the responsibility in shifts. We had a lot of people calling and wanted to make sure clients heard fresh voices.
The other thing we did is create a transparent organizational chart. We assumed everybody knew who did what, but now we are intentional and clear about responsibility and reporting structure. We’ve gone from a small practice to a big practice, so this makes sense. We don’t want to take away from our entrepreneurial culture, but this gives clarity about what people are accountable for and who their advocates are.
Have you made changes to how you manage your team?
Being remote allowed us to break down barriers between our two offices in Denver and Aspen. Usually, you deal with people in your office or job function, but we started doing all-team meetings with the Hollywood Squares on Zoom calls. It reminded me of when I joined the firm. We were six people and would have those meetings, but that fell away. Now, we plan to continue them. It helps with teamwork and culture—we want everyone to know we have their backs. If you have a client issue you can triage it rather than letting it simmer.
Another thing we did is engage an outside coach in leadership training to help us with a strategic plan for retention. We wanted him to work with longterm employees, particularly younger team members, to help them figure out what they want to be—an advisor, or work on the investment side.
We also realized we were understaffed, so we hired four people in the past year. To have almost 20% of your team new while working remotely was an interesting challenge. Mentoring remotely took intention.
Did you have to rethink your hiring process?
We had to streamline it. We used to err on over-interviewing and an executive committee member would run the process. We realized we could empower the next group of leaders to run the process. This allowed them to think about where they wanted the business to go, and be invested in the decision and mentoring. We ended up hiring stronger candidates. Rather than hiring someone to write our communications, we hired a director of marketing. Rather than a compliance person, we hired someone to handle compliance and technology.
What’s your outlook for the investment environment?
There are pockets of lofty valuations, potential inflation and concerns about investors’ reaction to tax legislation. Those could pull back the market. But earnings are solid. I’m encouraged by global re openings and how businesses have adapted.