Morningstar Technology 

#ItzOnWealthTech Ep 12: How Morningstar Quietly Built One of the Biggest Financial Technology Businesses

“Everyone wants to be the next Amazon, but the reality of what we want to do is bring together capabilities where Morningstar research and IP can add some value.”

— Dermot O’Mahony, Global Head of Software at Morningstar

Dermot is a SaaS-focused product executive with a track record for identifying high potential market opportunities within the online information and analytics space. He has a deep expertise in product management, strategy, business development, product marketing, pricing, partner management, and M&A.

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This episode of Wealth Management Today is brought to you by Ezra Group Consulting. If your firm is evaluating new technology or looking to improve your current wealth platform, you need to contact Ezra Group. Don’t spend another day using technology that doesn’t offer an elegant user experience. Your advisors and clients deserve better and you can deliver it to them with the help of Ezra Group.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • What motivated Morningstar to become more involved in the software and technology space [03:04]
  • How Dermot sees their software supporting firms utilizing data-driven analytics [04:05]
  • How advisors are using Morningstar technology and competing against other tech firms [06:02]
  • Goals being added to Morningstar’s platform, and their ability to be exported [15:01]
  • Discussions on an advisor’s need for a better-integrated tool, like Morningstar is working on [20:27]
  • What Dermot has learned from working with 120,000 advisors and that subsequent data source [23:03]
  • Thoughts on Morningstar’s Model Marketplace being a trendsetter or differentiator in the industry, with their lack of fees [31:32]
  • Aggregation hubs changing the way services like By All Accounts operate [33:10]

Companies & People Mentioned:

If you are interested in more information about some of the topics Dermot and I discussed, these blog posts would be useful:

wealth management consulting

Complete Episode Transcript:

Craig: Welcome to the Wealth Management Today podcast. I’m your host Craig Iskowitz, and I’m a consultant. I run a consulting firm and we do technology strategy and product management, product strategy, only in the wealth management industry, and this is my podcast to share information that we find out about wealth management technology, and present it to the industry and see what sticks. I hope you’ll enjoy this particular episode, it was recorded live at the Morningstar conference, which I was at last week in Chicago. It was a fantastic conference, with lots of good information, great presentations, and interesting details about new products. Morningstar is coming out with new technology and innovation, I really got a lot out of the conference.

Craig: This is an onsite interview, so I apologize that the sound quality isn’t so great, but I thought it was important to get it done and talk to some of the leaders at Morningstar. This one was with Dermot O’Mahony, the Head of Software. We had an interesting conversation about Morningstar and their technology, some of the things they’re working with, and the 120,000 advisors who use their advisor workstation. That’s huge, it’s almost 1/3 of all advisors in the country who at some point use Morningstar’s products.

Craig: It makes them quite influential, and gives them a tremendous amount of data. I tried to drill down into some of that with Dermot. So I apologize for the background noise, we had trouble finding a quiet room, but it is live so you’re getting the raw audio. I hope you can get through what we’re talking about, it’s really a very worthwhile interview. And I’ll pop back in at the end and try to summarize what we spoke about, and catch you at the other side.

Craig: And here we are! We are at the Morningstar Investment Conference in Chicago, and I’m here with Dermot O’Mahony, the Head of Software for Morningstar. Hi Dermot.

Dermot: Hey Craig, how’s it going?

Craig: I’m so glad you were available and we can chat a bit. Here we are live at the conference, and we’re doing this thing. I’m loving that Morningstar is doing more software and doing more technology. What brought that about?

Dermot: Well, I think we’ve always been doing software. Software is probably the largest standalone business at Morningstar. But at the Morningstar investor conference we have always been focused on bringing research and investment advice to the advisors, but over the last couple of years we’ve started sort of crashing the party a little bit on the software side. You see all these other software vendors out there having their big conferences and roadmap reveals and all of these good things. A lot of the folks who come to the conference not only consume Morningstar research, but they also use Morningstar software.

Craig: Yeah, a lot of them use Morningstar office.

Dermot: Morningstar office, Morningstar direct, really all of the software products. So what we want to do is mix in (where it makes sense) some information to those folks about what we’re doing and planning, because they want to know what we’re doing with the software as well.

Craig: So how do you see the software fitting in? Obviously it’s still a data-driven, analytics-driven firm, so how does support that?

Dermot: Other than Morningstar office, which we can talk about separately, our software products are really a delivery mechanism for the IP and the research and the data generated by our analysts and generated by the data teams. So data feeds, there’s not much that an independent advisor could do with 2 terabyte feed of fund data. We have customers who are very good at consuming 2 terabyte feed of fun data, but the average RIA probably isn’t going to be able to make the best use of that. So the software business really developed as a means for those advisors and the asset managers to be able to consume the data and consumer research in a way that makes sense to them. It’s basically a mechanism for us to deliver the IP and the research that the Morningstar analysts and the Morningstar data business brings together and makes available, and it adds another layer of analytics and visualizations so they can consume the information in a way that makes sense to them.

Craig: So do you see that as giving you an advantage over other technology firms?

Dermot: On the research side, which is the vast majority of the overall software business for Morningstar. People who want Morningstar research buy Morningstar software to consume it, right? We’re not competing with a huge amount of players in that space; maybe Factset would be a competitor. AdvisoryWorld was recently bought by LPL, so people who want Morningstar content will generally consume a true Morningstar software if they have a choice.

Craig: Let me interrupt the interview for a moment, since that particular comment had a lot of background noise. What I was trying to get to was how are advisors using Morningstar technology and how do they compete against the tech firms. And what Dermot was saying was that they’re basically using their technology as a delivery mechanism for their data and analytics, which I think we all knew but it’s good to hear it from them. And who they see as direct competitors, they don’t see other technology firms as direct competitors, even though many of their technology competitors do see it that way (especially on the Morningstar office side). On their advisor workstation side they produce a tremendous number of proposals, so firms like AdvisoryWorld (which was recently bought by LPL, as Dermot mentioned) are a competitor on the proposal generation side. As well as firms like Orion and Envestnet; the old Folio Dynamics firm that is now owned by Envestnet that was very strong in proposal generation competes against Morningstar.

Craig: But I think the comment that Dermot made that advisors who want Morningstar content generally consume it through their software is telling that they’re using it as a delivery mechanism, and it makes their product stickier. Since you’ve got everything in one package, they’d much rather deliver their data and their analytics through their own software where they can control the experience, although of course they partner with everyone. It was an interesting conversation, I just wanted to clarify that before we move on. Now back to the interview!

Dermot: On the competitive side, we’re also in the portfolio accounting and reporting business with Morningstar office. So in that space (as you’re aware) it’s far more competitive, with a lot of other players who are there all the time.

Craig: More all of the time.

Dermot: Yeah, maybe you can explain to me someday why someone in their right mind would build a portfolio accounting product these days.

Craig: If you only knew how many people I’m working with.

Dermot: It is mind-blowing to me that someone would do that in this day and age, considering the opposites. But anyway!

Craig: Whenever I think there are too many players in this space, another one shows up.

Dermot: It’s amazing to me. I need to go drinking with one of them one night, so they can really tell me why.

Craig: I can arrange it, we’ll do that sometime.

Dermot: Yeah, because you’ve got huge players out there.. I mean, we’re a pretty big player. Depending on the survey you see, we have anywhere between 10 to 20% of the RIA firms using Morningstar office. You’ve got Orion who’s offering a really nice product, Tamarac, Atapart at the top end, Black Diamond, Albridge, all of these different players. The reality is it’s a pretty tough space for new entrants to come into.

Craig: All those firms don’t play in the same space; Atapart and Albridge are very different than Tamarac or Black Diamond.

Dermot: True, but it’s still portfolio; each has their own sub-segment within that, whether that’s the size of firm that they target or the niche type of product offering.

Craig: I’d say Orion, Tamarac, and Black Diamond are very much competitors.

Dermot: Yeah. We also have, at Morningstar the average advisor using Morningstar office has 300 million AUM, right?

Craig: Why is that?

Dermot: Historically we have serviced the smaller to medium size advisors.

Craig: Well that’s actually large. If you look at the number of advisors at an RIA, the median is like 15 million, it’s ridiculously low.

Dermot: But a lot of those folks still aren’t using portfolio accounting products, right? Or they’re using the custodian interface that they were given or something similar, right? But if you look at the marketplace, we see it segmented into where we are, which is $250-$300 million and below, then you get into the $300 million to $750 range, and then you’ve got above 750. We’ve always looked at the segmentation of the market in that way, and generally Morningstar office serves that smaller advisor who wants an all-in-one offering where they can consume Morningstar research and IP. It’s taken us a little while to articulate this, but Morningstar office isn’t just a standalone portfolio accounting system. If you want that, there’s plenty around at different price points and with different capabilities, where you can pick and choose what you want. What we have done is deeply embed our research and analytics into the portfolio accounting platform; it’s a delivery mechanism for research. It’s how we got ourselves into this portfolio accounting business in the first place, because our clients were asking us, why don’t you add some of this research and analytics and portfolio analysis into your board of software? And thus Office was born 10 years ago.

Craig: So then adding in TRX for portfolio rebalancing, which is a great tool I’ve wrote a lot about on my blog in the past, and adding in By All Accounts has really turned you into a full-feature platform.

Dermot: Yes, well if you’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound. And also there’s an interesting move, it was part of the article you just recently wrote on the platform side, the Envestnet article. I agreed with a lot of what you wrote, I think it’ll be very interesting to see on the ability to execute on that, right? Everyone wants to be the next Amazon, but the reality is what we want to do is bring together capabilities, where Morningstar research and IP can add some value. Rebalancing is quite a sophisticated process, especially when you get into tax issues. And TRX was really the industry leader, they built a really beautiful product. So we figured that that has sort of that Morningstar research angle on it. An example of what we probably will never really bring in house would be a CRM, because I don’t believe we have a research opinion on CRM software. I don’t believe there is much we can add to the debate around CRM’s, or much that we can bring from an analytic perspective to CRMs. Now if CRM started integrating more big data and AI and machine learning and started to draw insight from it, once you start going down that path the core Morningstar capabilities might be brought to bear there.

Craig: So we’re looking for a Morningstar Redtail merger!

Dermot: I wouldn’t say that, no. They’re good partners of ours, but we also partner with Salesforce and some of these other players. As I said, we don’t have a strong corporate opinion in this area of business, so we’re going to partner with other people in our world. Same with this financial planning world. What we are building as far as that is very nuanced. Morningstar is one of the largest generators of investment proposals in the world. I don’t have the exact numbers, but we have advisor workstation, which is currently sitting on 120,000 advisor desktops in the United States, one of the primary uses of that product is for the generation of proposals. We have an enterprise components business (which is really our developer tools), which is a global business and one of the main deliverables of that is proposal generation.

Dermot: So what we are really doing with our Goldbridge product is extending our investment planning capabilities to also take into account goals. I know you might think we’re parsing that a little bit, but the reality is that investment planning is a different process than financial planning. There is a subset investment planning and the ability for a goal-based selection is a subset of financial planning, but financial planning has a lot more associated with it. Things like wealth management, estate planning, health planning, liability planning, things like that. We have that with our PFM tools and things like that as well, but the reality is we partner. Right Capital just announced an integration with Morningstar office, and we already have integrations with eMoney and MoneyGuidePro and some of the other providers there. If you look at the RIA space from a financial planning perspective, it’s pretty well-served. So we partner with these different folks and we enable them to integrate into the underlying office platform, to pull out analytics and client data and reports and make it available to their clients through the same interface, and we’re going to continue to do that.

Craig: If you’re adding goals to your platform, will those goals be able to be exported into different tools?

Dermot: Yes, that’s what we’ve been talking to Right Capital about. The Goldbridge product we’re building is for the primary delivery to the advisor workstation product, and also to this developer toolset called enterprise components. So in that world we are generally serving broker-dealers and the wirehouses, more of the non-IFA’s or the non-RIA’s. That’s really who we’re building Goldbridge for. These are people, advisors or brokers (depending on how you want to categorize them), who aren’t going to spend 12 hours building a financial plan for their client. It just doesn’t work, it’s very light. So what we’re doing is we’re extending our investment planning capability to be able to handle goals; we did this for the DOL, god rest it’s soul, with a proposal generation tool. We made available to advisor workstation the ability for clients and advisors to, let’s say do a lot of rollovers. “This is where to 401k currently sits to date, this is the value I can bring you as an advisor, why don’t we use Morningstar analytics to quantify what this value looks like using a concept called gamma.” Then you can make a comparison about if this is something that’s good or not? It’s really an extension of our investment planning capabilities more than moving into the financial planning space.

Craig: Yeah I get the nuance, and it’s important to differentiate that. I’m seeing a lot of light financial planning tools, and almost all of the other vendors are doing that. Orion has a five-minute plan and Envestnet built this out earlier before they started buying up companies.

Dermot: Yeah. I think if you look at this from a purely market penetration perspective and some of these surveys that come out, pretty much everyone in the independent space who wants to be a financial planner already has a financial planning offering, or has a financial planning solution. And if you value financial planning as a part of the offering that you bring to your clients, then you are probably using one of the big three. But where there is a gap and where we’ve seen this gap is around the broker-dealer space, the wirehouse space; more of the investment-oriented advisor who wants to add some of the basics of financial and goal planning to their investment process, and we’re just extending how we serve them today. One of things we noticed with DOL was a lot of the firms who we were working with had a proper financial planning front end, which then fed our investment planning process. But all that came out of the financial planning process a lot of times was an asset allocation. Then we took the asset allocation as this is the optimal asset allocation for this individual, and then we enabled the advisor to either pick a strategy off the shelf that matched for that asset allocation, and then ran a proposal and the analytics to compare why they declined to stay where the other one is. So we said, well this is a very basic asset allocation; in certain scenarios where it’s a very non-complex planning process, where you want to plan for retirement, you want to have an understanding of where you want to send your kids to college, that kind of basic workflow you don’t need to do a fully-fledged financial plan. So the ask we were getting from our clients was, can you guys add to the investment planning something we already use and we’ve already trained our advisors how to access? Can you add some basic goal-based planning to the offering? And we said yes, sure.

Craig: I want to take a little break from this episode to talk to you about one of my favorite sponsors, the Invest in Others Foundation. Invest in Others is a non-profit, you can find them at They look to raise money and give out awards to charities that are sponsored by financial advisors, so it’s financial advisor’s favorite charities and charities that they spend a lot of time supporting. Invest in Others looks to get sponsorships from the industry and funnel that money to advisor’s favorite charities. I really like this non-profit, I think you should take a look at it. Again, that’s They have a couple other programs: one is a Grants for Good program, delivering money to different needy organizations and needy groups. They’re also starting a corporate awards program, which is going to be a little bit different but still within the industry and another way for financial services and wealth management corporations to help donate money to people in need. I really like Invest in Others, I think you should take a look at them at

Craig: Do you think that there is a need more from those type of advisors for a better-integrated tool, like you’ve built and in terms of your process? If they have the other tools, it’s a swivel chair. You’ve got to bounce back and forth, where you’re building it…

Dermot: The other difference we have with Goldbridge is we enable it to be delivered both to API’s and to developer components. So a lot of what we’re seeing at the larger institutional level are firms building their own advisor desktops.

Craig: What kind of firm do you mean?

Dermot: Large broker-dealer firms who will build their own desktops, who want to differentiate their advisor experience from that of their competitors. So what we’re seeing with those firms is also a request for delivery of capabilities in a more modular manner.

Craig: Give me an example of an API that I can access.

Dermot: Our portfolio x-ray would be a good example on the portfolio side. Morningstar’s portfolio x-ray report is a pretty industry standard view to give you asset allocation, geographic breakdowns, categories, and all of that fun stuff. So we deliver that as a capability within a brand of products, which is how it originally was delivered. We deliver it as a component, so you as a firm who has a developer or contractor on staff and you want to integrate that into your workflow, you can take that or you can take the API. Same with the planning pieces, right? You want to be able to create or arrive at your own simulation in regards to the impact on particular accounts over a period of time and you’ve got certain goals that have certain cash flows associated with it, you can pass that information to us over an API and we can run that for you and return your results. Or you can take our UI, embed that into your own workflow, and now you can pass information into the component, you can take information out of the component, and you continue on with your day. Because if you look at the current planning products, they weren’t designed to be modular; they were generally designed to be branded software products. Everyone is moving a little bit in that direction because of this modular nature, and the fact that our clients want to be able to consume our data, our research, and our IP, and how they want to consume it, not how we want to deliver it.

Craig: Right. What’s something you’ve learned with 120,000 advisors? That’s quite a lot.

Dermot: It’s a lot of advisors.

Craig: What are some of the things you’ve learned from that data source?

Dermot: We use the data for trend analysis or product improvements, things like that. Unlike some other folks in the space, we don’t mine that data.

Craig: Well you could do it to make things better, not necessarily to sell it.

Dermot: These advisors want a generally quick turnaround, right? It’s like going to the doctor to a certain extent; you want to go in, they want to serve a need, they want to move you out, and they want to go and see the next client. So having everything available in a very easy to find and easy to navigate way is very valuable to these folks. We’re in the process of actually redesigning the user experience for advisor workstation, which is a pretty big deal for us, considering the usage. It’s also used in Canada and in India, so it’s actually a global product. So we’re currently refreshing it using some of our new design standards that we brought to bear in other parts of the business. So that’s something we’re going to start talking about a little bit later in the year.

Craig: What can you share about the size of the technology business?

Dermot: We’re a publicly traded company, so a lot of that information is available online. But overall, Morningstar hit $1 billion last year. The Morningstar software business is a substantial percentage of that.

Craig: If that was a standalone business, you might be one of the largest technology providers in wealth management, in terms of revenue.

Dermot: Not even just revenue, but also the number of people served. As I said, we’ve got over 120,000 workstations and desktops here, Canada, and India. We have Morningstar direct, I think we published that number and it’s around 15,000 desktops out there, and that’s a global product; it’s used both within the wealth management space and the asset management space. Then we serve an untold number of advisors with enterprise-level licensing. So it could be unlimited; we could claim pretty much every advisor in wealth management globally at this point.

Craig: That’s a very interesting point, that your technology businesses is not known but is really flying below the radar.

Dermot: I think it’s more that the Morningstar research brand is so strong and it’s so important (and rightly so) that the software pack was considered another delivery channel for the research. But if you look at companies like FaxIt, I’m not sure what their market cap is now but it’s pretty substantial, I think it’s more than Morningstar’s. They are a software desktop that delivers AP and data that is very similar to the Morningstar software business. So if you’re going to want equivalence, that would be a pretty good one. I think we do some pretty good stuff, and enabling advisors and wealth managers and asset managers to access Morningstar research in a way that is a Morningstar-approved manner from a visualization and an analytic reporting perspective, I think has value.

Craig: Let me interrupt you for a second. Blackrock wouldn’t be competitor of yours because they’re an asset manager, but one of their goals is to derive 30% of their revenue from technology.

Dermot: Blackrock solutions, like most of Morningstar’s software, are competitors but are also Morningstar’s customers in other ways. There’s a lot of “coopatition” in this space, right? It doesn’t really matter who you are. Because of the fact that we are the premier provider of research and data to all of the technology providers in the industry, the reality is that even if we may compete against someone in the morning, we’re partnering with them in the evening. By All Accounts is a great example, it is our account aggregation service. In the industry all you hear about is Yodlee and Quovo, they got bought and whatever else it is. But By All Accounts provides aggregation services to the majority of the portfolio accounting platforms, but then those portfolio accounting platforms may compete with office as well.

Dermot: But we’re pretty good at separating church and state here at Morningstar between our analysts and the asset managers; we sell software to asset managers, we sell data to asset managers, and so we’ve been pretty good at keeping our independence. We don’t play any games with that and we think it’s very important. For example, with the model marketplace we just released, we don’t take any fees from asset managers to put their strategies on our platform. I think it’s the right thing to do; it’s not even a case of it being a business imperative, but if you listen to Kunal Kapoor’s (our CEO) opening remarks, I would think this is pretty important. From someone who runs a business, one would think that you’re always looking to drive additional revenue as a public company, but the reality is you get yourself into sticky situations.

Dermot: And especially given that Morningstar’s brand is really built around independence and our research and data, passing up small or large revenue opportunities here or there is not the right thing to do, and we’ll just pass those off too. But at the same time, we didn’t want to say to our clients, if we can’t make a huge amount of money on this model marketplace, then we’re not going to build one. We don’t think that’s the right answer either, because our clients are asking for this. Not all of them may be clamoring at the door because of an article Cerulli’s been writing about recently, but we just released ours so we’re not quite sure how it’s going to go from an AUM perspective. There is this patchy feedback in regards to the AUM flows to the model marketplaces that are out there, but I believe over time the advisors are going to rely more and more on strategies and more and more on third-party strategies to deliver the service to their clients. And when they want to start using those strategies and they want to be able to take the best of breed of those strategies, we want to be there providing our research to them and we want them to facilitate and be able to take those strategies off of the model marketplace, pop them into the TRX rebalancer, build an execution file, send it off to the buyer and the custodian, and have the data flow back into office so they can do performance reporting on it.

Craig: Where I was going when I mentioned Blackrock earlier was that their goal was to get to 30% revenue from tech, but you’re already there.

Dermot: We’re already there, but we’re not an asset manager either. Again, we have a lot of partner relationships with them as well so we continue to enjoy watching to see what they do in the space. I think the 5% investment in Envestnet was an interesting move, and was quite an interesting play from them in regards to that. They have a lot of money, and it’s always very interesting to see what happens when someone with a lot of money enters into what is effectively a relatively small market, from a technology standpoint.

Craig: Do you see your model marketplace without having fees as being a trendsetter in the industry that others want to follow suit, because there’s going to be a differentiator in cost?

Dermot: I think it’ll depend on how the model marketplaces play out. Obviously there are a lot of undercover fees that occur out there, for example there are platforms out there that might claim no fees, like these no-fee ETF’s, but people are making money through the cash balances associated with custodian accounts, or they’re making money with the models through ETF’s. Generally to us, when you take a model off the model marketplace and you execute on it, that becomes an account within our portfolio accounting system. And we do charge to manage that account, so it’s not as if there is absolutely no financial incentive for us to make this available, but there is no money flowing between the asset managers; it’s just another account on our platform. We don’t charge more money for the account, we don’t try to differentiate it in any way; for us, it’s just another accountant sitting on the platform.

Craig: When you were mentioning By All Accounts, one thing I found by talking to a lot of the vendors is that each vendor is becoming aggregators of aggregators; that one source isn’t enough. So they’ll have By All Accounts, Quovo, and Yodlee, and then they’ll aggregate them together and pick the best. They call them aggregation hubs, because not everyone’s doing everything the best. So one might be strong in one area, one in another, and they pick and choose. So do you see that as changing the way By All Accounts works?

Dermot: Not really. Where we’ve always been really strong is around investment accounts, right? Because By All Accounts drives the reconciliation process behind the office product. So where By All Accounts is really good is if you need top quality investment data, to the point where you want to be able to report on it within your portfolio accounting system or a similar system, then I believe By All Accounts is still the best product in the marketplace to do that. Now we have started expanding our team of support folks and developers to provide more support around bank accounts and credit card accounts, because what we were finding is our customers wanted one vendor, didn’t want to deal with two. But we’re not as strong as some of the other players might be around the debit accounts or savings accounts.

Craig: That’s one of the reasons why they would use Yodlee, for example.

Dermot: We’ve also integrated a lot of the things we’ve done behind the scenes so when the data flows true, we do a pretty good job of matching up the security. I came from Hello Wallet, and one of the things we’ve just integrated into By All Accounts is a transaction classifier, which is a big issue. So we think we can do a pretty good job on that, based on what we learned at Hello Wallet. We sold off that business to Key Bank, but we kept some of the IP. We also just released a new API for By All Accounts, so we’re getting feedback that the API was a little bit old school, so we’re in the process of releasing a new API for By All Accounts as well. We’re continuing to innovate on these products and we’re continuing to want to differentiate ourselves, but we’re very cognizant of where we add value, and we really want to focus on those versus just adding things for assessment. It’s so easy to want to do a bit of everything; I think we did that originally with office, where office had its own client management/CRM capability.

Craig: We are constantly asking that question for ourselves, why do we do anything? One question I asked is why are we here, and one of the reasons was this to get this kind of information, and to sit down with these interviews with the key people at Morningstar. I really appreciate your time, I know we’re busy running around all over with all of the customers here and from session to session, so thanks for carving out some time!

Dermot: Thanks for spending the time today, I enjoyed this.



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