John Lefferts' Blog

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A short rant...

Okay, I have a short rant so bear with me here...

It seems like now more than ever, we American's talk from both sides of our mouths. We want nothing to change, but everything to get better. In a modern era where we are supposedly more evolved having learned from our mistakes of the past, we find ourselves more politically polarized and paralyzed than I can remember. Everyone is fighting for their own respective status quo and seems to have chosen to align with a special interest group that has all of a sudden become a victim in some way or another. It's certainly not the spirit that made America great and it worries me about the future. As we have regressed from a responsible can do-pull yourself up by the bootstraps mindset to a somewhat pervasive victim minded society, there is a need to find blame for everything bad that happens. And lacking any obvious perpetrator, the default is to blame big business and government. While the majority of Americans say they want less government in their lives out of one side of their mouths, they blame government and hold them accountable out of the other. Then when something goes awry, naturally, government in turn launches sub-committees, investigations and everything possible in a highly counter-productive effort to deflect any blame. But a more pervasive thing also happens. The more we look to government for all the answers, the more we invite them to meddle in even more things in our lives. My point?....Let's stop looking to government for solutions when they have none...cuz they'll be certain to make one up!

There are quite a few things to get bugged up over these days and the never ending drip of media coverage through TV, Twitter, and Blogs make it all the worse. It's the height of cultural degradation when I see headline news being taken over with news about the supposed newscasters themselves. Beck, Olbermann, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Maddow and others of their ilk would do us a favor if they kept their opinions to themselves and actually reported the news rather than making it up becoming the focus of the news itself. I suppose I should take them not as newscasters but entertainers. It's just that when I hear people recite the opinions of these brainwashers verbatim it bugs the @#&* out of me! The latest issue that has really gotten to me is this Gulf oil spill. It is quickly becoming one of the greatest disasters of our time and there is as much energy being wasted on blame and deflection of responsibility as there is in fixing the problem. You can't blame the government for the oil spill. But after initially distancing themselves, now that they're taking heat for that, they've gone to the other extreme of meddling in it all not with solutions but with blame. When questioned about what the Obama administration should do about BP's oil spill in the gulf, Boone Pickens was quoted as saying "I'd get my boot of their throats and out of their way. I'd tell them we'd assess blame after the problem was fixed. I'd tell them it's ok to take risks to get this cleaned up-now". I couldn't agree more.

What's this got to do with Financial Services? Well, I see the same problem with financial reform taking place. The government is falling all over themselves to get something passed so they can appear to have solved a problem caused by big bad Wall Street while all the time they have no idea what they're doing and the ramifications of unintended consequences. It was government as much as Wall Street who is responsible for the financial mess. If you saw parts of the senate hearings debating the reform, it became evident that it was more about scoring points with sound bites and blame rather than actually fixing anything. Like Pickens said above, I think the government should take their boots off their throats and let the minds that created the mess figure out how to fix it. Then we can assess blame when it's done.

If you've read this far, thanks for hearing (or reading) me out. I feel better now. I keep telling myself a quote I heard a few years back..."When times are good, they're never as good as you think and when they're bad, they're never as bad as they seem". We American's have taken our lumps lately but our spirit of overcoming obstacles and remaining optimistic has and will serve us well into the future. If we can just keep the government out of the things they know nothing about. Better yet, let's stop asking them!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Way Cool!

I wouldn't consider myself a technology guru by any stretch, but like some, I'm kind of a gadget guy. So when I bought the new home I'm still in back in late 2006, I had my A/V guy install what was at the time considered a state of the art audio/video system. And I hate to admit that I spent close to six figures on it. Then a couple of weeks ago, the component that holds all my music went on the fritz and broke down. It cost me $2,000 for the component in '06 and it was about to cost me another $500 to send it back to the manufacturer to have it fixed with only a prayer of retrieving the music on its hard drive (I hear you..."back it up you fool!"). Anyway, my A/V guy made a different suggestion. He asked, "you have an i-Pod don't you?". I replied, "not only do I have an i-Pod with all the music on it that we just lost, but I'm also the proud owner of a new i-Phone". He then told me the way to go would be to dump the $2,000 component and replace it with Apple TV for $200. Last week his crew installed it and as an admitted gadgetaholic, it's about the coolest thing I've ever seen. On the display screens scattered throughout the house, the Apple menuing system shows up and I scroll through it to select the music through the album art just like with my i-Pod... genre's, playlists and all. I can buy movies through it (see ya Blockbuster!), get internet radio or anything that an i-Pad can do, but played throughout the house interfaced with TV's and speakers. And when the music is playing, it scrolls family pics on the screens I happen to have turned on throughout the home in an artsy screensaver format. I can even start/stop, increase/decrease volume and change music remotely on an app from my i-Phone. I've already got my request into the kids that for Father's Day, an i-Pad would make me a very happy Dad. The A/V guy tells me that it makes sense to have a couple i-pads around the house to use as an oversized TV /music remotes while dualing as a book, newspaper and web-browser...way cool!

So, for 10% of the price of the now obsolete component that was "state of the art" 3 1/2 years ago, I get a much cheaper, faster, higher quality music/video system. Frankly, I paid far more for the reprogramming of the existing keypads and display screens than for the Apple TV itself. In hind sight, it may have been cheaper and functioned better just to pull all the existing components and replace them with new technology that works with Apple TV out of the box. But parting with stuff you've sunk your money into is hard to do. If not for the $2,000 component breaking down, I'd still be in my gadget ignorant bliss while technology advances continued to pass me I said, I'm a gadgetaholic.

This experience causes me think about how technology can and likely will revolutionize the financial services business as we know it. Regulations being debated now will clearly have a big part in shaking the system up (can you say..Fi-du-she-airy?). But when that is done, hopefully sooner than later so we can move on, technology stands to be potentially the greatest differentiator out there. Products have become commodities. No one manufacturer of financial products has that much better offering than the other. And if they do, the advantage lasts months, not years like it once did. And clearly, the quality of financial advice from a highly educated and experienced advisor will matter. But I truly believe that the technology enabled advisor will have the greatest advantage. Technology today can replace what several administrative assistants and multiple filing cabinets currently do. When video conferencing takes hold at the household level, imagine it's application to client meetings and doing business from anywhere, to anywhere. And the pace of technological development is quickening.

There was a time when it was believed that the scale of the largest financial firms would be vital to compete since they were the only ones who could afford the requisite technology to spread the large costs throughout their respective enterprises. Today, I think being the large company with sunk technology costs and legacy systems may be at an extreme disadvantage to compete in the future. In my former life, over a decade ago we sunk about $10 mill into a centralized Financial Planning Center where advisors would transmit client data via the corporate network to develop comprehensive financial plans for a fee. I remember being so proud of the large air-cooled rooms full of huge mainframe computers. And I'll bet that today, better functionality and quality can be built for far less than 10% of the cost, similar to my Apple TV experience. It makes you wonder if it wouldn't be best to start over from scratch with a new financial services firm than try to make new technology work with legacy systems. Just like I paid more for the new technology to work with my old components, you see the same with firms unwilling to write off their old systems when new solutions can come cheaper off the shelf. Again, it's tough to part with stuff you've spend a fortune on, even if it's obsolete.

Change is difficult and most of the people in the industry I speak with realize that the world is changing around them, but they're unsure and almost paralyzed to change themselves and their firms because of a rear view mirror point of view. Had I not been presented with the opportunity to change my 26 year career with the same firm, I might have been (and was) in the same frame of mind. While having the past experiences definitely prepares one for the future, it's not so much that which will differentiate going forward as it will be the ability to let go of the past and adopt the new business practices/models that are fitting to a new reality. It's scary and exciting at the same time. And if it turns out to be anything like my recent experience with technology, all I can say is...WAY COOL!