Orion Advisor Conference

7 Impressions from the Orion Advisor Conference

Back when Orion Advisor Services’ CEO Eric Clark was still working for his father’s RIA, I’ll bet he never imagined that one day he would be on stage in front of 700+ clients, partners and staff of his own company.

And on his birthday, to top it all off.

Yet this very scenario played itself out last week at Orion’s Ascent 2018 conference in Miami, FL. A lively mix of engaging guest speakers (such as Joe Duran and Josh Brown), were interspersed between product announcements, training sessions and discussions of industry trends (See Winners of Wealthtech: Eric Clarke)

I’ve dug through my copious notes and Twitter feed (#Ascent2018) to pull together this quick conference summary for you. Enjoy!

I thought I would kick things off with a quote from Joe Duran, CEO of United Capital.  His message was that advisors must broaden their scope of services beyond their client’s investments.  Too many advisors obsess over money instead of focusing on what their clients want to use that money for.

This could be said about a lot of the content delivered at Ascent 2018, but this particular comment was about ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes who was describing how he ran 350 miles (560 km) in 80 hours and 44 minutes without sleep!  And you think that you’re tired from your workout today?

Don’t Judge a Book by It’s Cover

Billy Beane is a former American professional baseball player and currently the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and minority owner of the Oakland Athletics. He revolutionized how teams evaluate talent by correlating individual statistics with team winning percentages. He was able to reduce the teams payroll from the highest in the league to one of the lowest, yet still be competitive.

While interviewing Beane for the book Moneyball, author Michael Lewis accurately summed up Beane’s secret to success – he was arbitraging baseball players by finding those that were under-priced relative to the market.

Beane was the first general manager to hire someone without any baseball experience to help evaluate players when he brought in Harvard-educated statistician Paul DePodest.  All baseball teams now routinely hire statisticians and other academics to crunch data and better manage their teams.

During his Ascent talk, Beane warned advisors not to rely on “the eye test” when searching for talent.  Just because a candidate doesn’t look the part, doesn’t mean they’re not the best candidate for the job.

Portfolio Rebalancing

The market for portfolio rebalancing has never been more crowded with solid product offerings than it is now.  Orion realized that their TOM app was falling a bit behind, so they invested in development of an advanced rebalancing and trading platform called Eclipse, which is quite robust. When I saw a demo a few months ago, i could only find a few things missing. Expanding rebalance tolerance bands and support for households were two of the biggest ommissions, so I’m happy to see that they have addressed these concerns.  (See Orion Advisor Tries to Eclipse the Competition With New Portfolio Rebalancer)

A few years ago, Morningstar introduced the concept of “gamma,” which involves quantifying “the additional expected retirement income achieved by an individual investor from making more intelligent financial planning decisions.”


No vendor conference would be complete without announcements about new features and functionality being released. Orion provided a slew of updates to their current suite of products, including the compliance app, Compass.

In a recent survey of RIAs, compliance had the second largest increase in spending (26%) right behind technology (31%).  Having compliance tools built right into the Orion platform makes it that much easier to manage your firm.

SEC Rule 204A-1 requires investment advisor and broker-dealer employees who are defined as “Access Persons” to report their personal securities transactions and holdings to the firm, in order to monitor for and prevent insider trading, front running, and other violations of securities rules.

Many RIAs outsource the monitoring, review and trade approval of employees’ personal trading, but this can be expensive. Firms that are looking for ways to reduce costs will be able to access Orion’s Compass Compliance app, which already provides the ability to run a mock SEC audit and screen clients for anti-money laundering (AML), will soon be able to monitor employee trades.

I always recommend that my clients select products that provide the tightest integration between components to avoid unnecessary export/import routines and other manual data entry processes.

Dan Bernstein from MarketCounsel also reminded advisors to perform a fiduciary review of their books & records and all communications their firm sends out.

Bernstein also shared a new trend of client reporting coming into sharper focus with enforcement. The SEC doesn’t give a free pass on this!


Since it is a such a dry topic, Orion decided to bring in Elvis as their billing product manager so he could sing about their new features.


When we evaluate vendors in our consulting practice, the breadth and depth of integrations used to be towards the bottom of the list of priorities. That is no longer the case.

Now integrations and APIs are towards the top and sometimes even the most important criteria we use. This has always been one of Orion’s strengths.

Portfolio Optimization

ASTRO is based on a mean variance optimizer that accepts parameters such as tax efficiency, risk, legacy positions and ESG restrictions and generate a customized portfolio.  Orion is positioning it a tool that can advisor can use to  create their unique SMAs for individual client accounts.

I’ve heard this so many times about so many advances in advisor technology.  When will MS Excel be totally retired from the advisor’s workflow?

Communities (Model Marketplace)

I had serious doubts about the success of Communities when it was originally released since it did not include models offered by external providers.  It seemed to me that the industry trend was headed this way and that it would soon become table stakes that every vendor would have to offer. I believe Orion saw the writing on the wall here and took the plunge.  (See Can Retail Model Marketplaces Challenge TAMPs for Assets?)

The Race to Zero continues.

One would think that this would be common knowledge after most of the industry switched to models over the past decade. But it seems there are still some people that need the stats shown to them over and over before they understand the benefits.

As if BlackRock didn’t have enough going for them, now they are making inroads with more free software.  The largest US clients using iRetire include UBS, Mass Mutual, and Lincoln Financial.

Client Communications

Event Driven Notifications is designed to automate email communications to clients.   It will include a dozen standard templates matched to a list of clients that the system identifies as most likely to receive them. This can include birthday well wishes to notifications for required minimum distributions (RMDs) or rebalancing. 

Managed Accounts

This is only the first step in what I see as a long process of integrating FTJ into the Orion Advisor ecosystem. SMAs and UMAs were always a gap in the Orion product lineup that this new managed accounts offering will eventually fill.

There is still a ways to go, since FTJ was focused on broker-dealer clients, they will have to shift their product offerings and marketing to appeal more to individual RIAs, which make up the bulk of Orion’s client base.

Security Equivalence

Security equivalents are an advanced feature that exists in many of the high-end portfolio rebalancing solutions.  Most firms use equivalents to support accounts that have restrictions on buying certain individual stocks (due to existing large positions) or industries (guns, oil, nuclear power, etc.). But using them to avoid having to manually purchase model positions for smaller accounts that do not have enough to meet investing minimums is also useful.

Wash Sale Alerts

This is a pet peeve of mine!  Having built a portfolio rebalancing engine from scratch and evaluated many others, I’m picky about certain features and this is one of them. Every rebalancer has an option to avoid wash sales, but very few automatically generate an alert to the advisor or home office when the 30 day window is up.  It’s a big time saver that Orion’s clients can now take advantage of.

Joe Duran

Duran always brings his “A” game when he is speaking at a conference. This was no exception.  Well thought out and chocked full of memorable soundbites that are fantastic takeaways for anyone in the audience. In his presentation, Duran offered a primer on how to differentiate yourself as an advisor. You can’t win by just copying what the biggest firms do. (See The Indispensable Advisor by Joe Duran)

This was a terrific graphic. Every advisor should frame it and put it on their desk.  “There are three places advisors can compete, but the winning zone is where you can deliver what your clients want while making your competitive world far easier.”

I can’t tell you how many presentations I have sat through telling advisors how to speak to clients from different demographics.  GenX likes this, Baby Boomers like that or the dreaded Millennials like something completely different.  The truth is that every GenX-er was once in the 18-35 age range and every Millennial will one day be older than that.

Duran pointed out that, “Humans are not efficient decisions makers by nature, but they want to feel important.”  This is a twist on a saying from American philosopher John Dewey, “The deepest urge in human nature is to feel important.”

United Capital has been doubling their assets every three years (now at $20 billion) and spends $10-15 million annually on technology.  

Client Portals

There are so many client portals floating around at some firms that I’m surprised that anyone can keep them all straight. Especially clients. 

One of our larger broker-dealer firms has no less than four client portals running and in use by different segments of their clients. This includes one from their financial planning software, one from each of their two custodians, and a fourth from their CRM. (See The Battle for the RIA Technology Integration Hub)

Wealth Access is one of the best of the standalone client portal applications that focus on the RIA space. Others include InvestCloud (which has since expanded their product line to become a complete wealth management platform), PortalsXpress, and Blueleaf. (See The Battle Of Advisor Dashboards And Client PFM Portals – Advisor Technology As The Engine Or The Interface?)

Data Aggregation

This session turned into more of a Q&A roundtable of advisors and operations staff launching a steady stream of questions at the Quovo rep, Andrew King, their director of sales engineering. King deftly handled the onslaught, and everyone came away with a better understanding of how to enhance their practice with held away accounts and data aggregation from Quovo.

The Quovo dashboard looks like a very handy tool for operations staff at larger firms to keep track of the data coming in from multiple sources across the firm. Since some larger RIAs use two or more data aggregation tools, there is definitely an opportunity for providers of aggregated dashboards (an aggregator of aggregators).

Financial Planning

Differentiators of Success

This was one of the few panel discussions at Ascent and I thought it was very informative and stocked with an impressive group of industry leaders:  

  • Aaron Schaben – EVP Carson Group – $6.7B AUM
  • Marc Dupont – SVP, Focus Financial Partners – currently partner with 55 RIAs and 28 of them are Orion clients.
  • Dean Zayed – CEO and Founder of Brookstone Capital Management – a hybrid RIA/TAMP with 300 advisors, providing TAMP services to 50 IARs and outside RIAs, $2.5B AUM

Technology adoption rates are all over the place in our industry. Some firms are good at and some are not. But Schaben is right to point out that if you don’t succeed, another advisor could take your place. 

Focus Financial uses game and reward-based systems to drive technology adoption, Dupont explained. They only enable 20% of the functionality to start to avoid overwhelming clients. It is critical that you control the pace of rollout, and avoid letting the vendor push too hard.

65% of consumers said they would use Google, Apple or Amazon for financial services without even knowing the cost. But according to Dean Zayed, his firm is not afraid of these consumer giants entering our space. He noted that this is a relationship business, and these companies can’t just come in and replace our relationships. Brookstone leverages their CRM to touch their clients 10-15 times per year.

Advice for Advisors

“Take a deep breath. Don’t just buy the hot new product. Ask questions and figure out if this is something you need or something you want. And make sure it plays nice with what you have. Don’t buy Legos if all you have at home is Lincoln Logs.” — Matt Ackermann 

“Before a conference/workshop, set an alert for 3wks after event as reminder to follow-up on what you learned. Doing it in advance ensures you go with a plan and actually act upon your takeaways.” — Stephanie Macon

“Do annual evaluations of your technology, workflows and client engagement tools. Stay up to date on latest software releases from your current providers.” — Joel Bruckenstein

“Look outside the industry, too! Ask yourself, what ideas and features do you like outside of wealthtech? How could you creatively incorporate them into your practice?” — Sam Steinberger

“Constantly be looking at how you can make your technology work for you! Make sure you are working with tech vendors who want a partnership and not to simply provide.” — Emily Wilcox

“Listen to your young technology & operations staff when they suggest ways to make things better. I’ve heard too many of them vent their frustration when their recommendations are ignored. You’re wasting money by thinking you know better.” — Craig Iskowitz

Josh Brown

Only Josh Brown, CEO of RIA Ritholtz Wealth, could use American hip-hop group The Wu-Tang Clan as role models for how his firm manages their bloggers. But he did it.  And I’ll wager that most of the audience remembers this anecdote of how the band refused to sign a record contract unless the individual members were allowed negotiated their own solo deals. I’m guessing Brown would say he is most like Method Man.

Here are some sound bites from Brown’s talk:

  • We have characters people care about, we’re real and don’t put on a facade. Authenticity acts as a filter.
  • The people who get on radio and television today are those who have built a following online, and that provides an incredible opportunity for advisors looking to get their message out.
  • It’s 2018, and the only thing that matters is culture. Advisors join us because they believe in the mission & we’re building a practice based on what we put out to the public.
  • Social media is even more important as a client retention tool, not just a lead gen tool.
  • Ritholtz Wealth generates 150 quality inbound client inquiries every month without spending a penny on advertising.
  • People do business with people they like, this will never change, and technology cannot make you likable.
  • Know your audience better than anyone else, never go with what’s traditional, don’t follow the industry leaders (they’re usually wrong), don’t ask for permission.

FUSE 2018 Hackathon

I’m planning another blog post to cover what went on during the FUSE 2018 event. But I’ll include this sneak peak behind the scenes:

CEO of Redtail Technologies, Brian McLaughlin rolled up his sleeves and did some nifty coding that impressed everyone in the audience.  He took this selfie to prove to his staff that he was actually there. (See Winners of WealthTech: Brian McLaughlin)

After Hours

I would like to suggest that all conferences include an activity like this in their agendas. Why not give something back while you’re away from home?  Conference attendees helped pack 15,000 meals that will be heading to Haiti care of Rise Against Hunger!

“For most children that we work with, this is the one nutritious meal that they receive that day,” said a spokesperson from Rise Against Hunger. 

An afternoon of culinary delight for those foodies in attendance.

High speed thrills on the water for those who needed to get some fresh air after two days stuck inside the Fontainebleau Hotel.

What is Miami without a little beach time?

And that’s why I skipped the Everglades Tour.

No vendor conference can end without a Thursday night party. Orion came through with a 90’s Throwback Concert headlined by Young MC, Rob Base, Tone Loc, Coolio, Doug E Fresh and the Sugar Hill Gang. I heard it was all that and a bag of potato chips. Booyah!




The Wealth Tech Today blog is published by Craig Iskowitz, founder and CEO of Ezra Group, a boutique consulting firm that caters to banks, broker-dealers, RIA’s, asset managers and the leading vendors in the surrounding #fintech space. He can be reached at craig@ezragroupllc.com