Mark HannaOn a rare day he wasn't on the road, Mark Hanna was home in Oaks, Pa., about to sit down to dinner when his iPhone rang. He eyed the caller I.D. and saw that it was one of his clients — the head of the wealth division of a midsize U.S. bank.

Hanna sighed. That wasn’t good.

Clients don’t ring you at 8:30 p.m. to tell you what a great job you’re doing. They’re usually convinced that things are not working as they should. Naturally, that’s the last thing any client wants.

This was especially true of Hanna’s clients, who had signed up to play a pioneering role in helping the wealth management industry make a transformative move to a brand-new, integrated, scalable, enterprise-wide system called the SEI Wealth Platform℠, the next generation of SEI’s very successful TRUST 3000®.

SEI brought the SEI Wealth Platform to the U.S. in 2013, and went searching for a few visionary CEOs who were interested in transforming wealth management. SEI was not just selling a new, innovative solution to the industry’s multiplying business challenges, it was “recruiting” client partners.

Change, of course, is never easy

Industry-transforming change brings a new level of challenges.

Those who are open to being among the first to adopt a new solution have to get comfortable with the idea that the challenges are worth the ultimate prize that comes with early adoption of a winning new technology.

For their part, all the early adopters of the SEI Wealth Platform understood that the inevitable bumps of massive technology installs would probably be even bumpier for the first few customers. Balancing that, the early adopters also knew they would be gaining the advantages of SEI’s multifaceted platform first. Still, being a first-adopter is never easy on the nerves.

Sure enough, when Hanna answered that call he was greeted with high-decibel unhappiness. Sensing trouble, Hanna’s cat jumped three feet in the air and scampered off. But by nature Hanna is a problem solver and took it in stride.

He’d been involved in many such change initiatives throughout his career. Experience had taught him to avoid getting emotional and to focus on the facts so he could understand the problem and quickly explore potential solutions.

Amid his client’s frustration and anxiousness, Hanna was able to ascertain the problem. Two months after flipping the “on” switch, the bank, one of the very first to migrate to the new platform, discovered that certain kinds of the bank’s transactions were facing some real problems.

Problems are inevitable

As the human face of SEI, the one whom clients interact with, the 47-year-old Hanna has a simple process when dealing with these sorts of situations: “Empathize, recognize and strategize.” At first, he listened quietly and validated his client’s concerns, taking each angry complaint as it came and promising that he understood how critical it was to fix things as soon as possible. Gentle questioning revealed that the problem was related to the treatments of a limited class of transactions.

“I need the person on your side who’s most familiar with this part of the processing on the platform, both your legacy platform and the new platform,” Hanna told the client, “and I need their opinion on these transaction types so we can come up with various proposals for how to fix this.”

Hanna promised that SEI would have the outlines of a remedy by morning, when they were scheduled to reconvene. Until then, he helped his client craft a public statement that could be shared with the bank’s customers.

It didn’t take long for SEI to diagnose the problem. It ended up being a translation error between the legacy system — SEI’s TRUST 3000®, widely used in wealth management for nearly 50 years — and the brand-new SEI Wealth Platform. Hanna viewed it as “typical growing pains.”

Changing the entire trust-and-assets-processing infrastructure of a bank with billions in assets is fraught with difficulty. But change is necessary if banks are to grow in an era of constant technological, regulatory and market evolution. As never before, wealth management platforms have to be lightning fast, stable, flexible, foolproof and scalable. They must account for more complex financial instruments, many currencies and greater variety. Yet they must also be easy to use. Getting it right is like simultaneously solving a million Rubik’s Cubes in a microsecond.

Dealing with this level of complexity requires a partner who knows for sure that something will always go wrong, yet who can manage the risks and quickly fix the unavoidable problems that arise. Meanwhile, as often as a bank carefully chooses SEI, SEI also carefully chooses the client. A firm has to be ready for the upheaval that migrating its legacy system to a modern, web-based, state-of-the-art network brings.

Depending on the size of the firm, hundreds or thousands of users and wealth management staff have to be retrained.

Things don't always go as planned

Because all it takes is a single errant clump of programming out of millions of lines of code to cause the system to cough up a hairball at the most inopportune times. These kinds of problems bedevil all complex financial software, of course. A new glitch in NASDAQ’s stock-pricing software famously shut down the entire exchange for more than two hours in 2013, making it impossible to trade some $5.7 trillion in stocks.

It’s not the fact that problems like these arise. They’re inevitable. It’s how you deal with them that separates great companies from the herd.

Although SEI’s testing regimen is exhaustive, it’s also true that no testing can precisely duplicate all the infinite variables of real-world situations. And the potential for unforeseeable bumps grows with the complexity of modern software. This is why change can be an intimidating prospect for many. The IRS once considered updating its platform only to decide it couldn’t because it had gotten too big and complicated. Instead it continues to salvage its ancient software with the equivalent of a digital soldering iron.

Hanna knew all too well the challenges of being first to market and delivering truly innovative solutions like the SEI Wealth Platform. But it is also true that the risk of doing nothing eventually outweighs the risk of transformational change. Having been a pioneer in wealth management for nearly 50 years, SEI, a company rooted in innovation, saw in the early years of the 21st century that wealth management was at that kind of tipping point. The moment was approaching when the growing complexity and rapidly changing environment would simply crush the disparate systems powering the business. SEI made a decision then to invest in the industry’s future. It took close to 10 years and a substantial financial investment to bring its next-generation end-to-end platform to market.

Hanna and his SEI colleagues as well as their first-mover client partners recognized an opportunity, but they also recognized the risks. No matter how perfectly the installation process and the trial sessions that precede “going live” may be, there will always be some operational challenges in the beginning for any new solution in the market.

Pioneers expect problems and challenges, but they also expect — and deserve — innovative partners who proactively identify, manage and correct them. So SEI invested in rapid issue tracking and problem-solving.

First, SEI invested in people like Mark Hanna. Then the company invested in training and certification programs to create dedicated teams of Hannas, men and women who totally embed themselves with their clients, and who get that their clients’ success means SEI’s success.

The risk of doing nothing outweighs the risk of change

Platform ScreensSEI also invested significantly to create a sophisticated, fully automated, client-dashboard-driven solution that streamlined the process of finding and fixing problems. As a result, SEI now tracks its service delivery the way UPS and FedEx track package delivery. SEI calls this service excellence. It is reinventing and differentiating the company’s approach to relationship management and client service.

It enables SEI to track problems before they get out of hand, streamline remedies, assign manpower more effectively and spot trends. If SEI suddenly fields repeat questions from banks, it can quickly pinpoint the problems and distribute fixes to all clients, demonstrating real-time status updates and transparency to all clients.

The automated system does not replace humans, of course, and at SEI, which has handled hundreds of major systems migrations, people like Mark Hanna will always play a vital role. He’s famous for putting out fires and deftly navigating the most pothole-riddled situations. In a company that routinely accomplishes the impossible, Hanna manages to accomplish the most impossible feats. In short, doing whatever it takes.

With his midsize bank client running smoothly, Hanna moved on to a larger early adopter of the SEI Wealth Platform. This bigger bank was migrating from a competitor’s product, not from SEI’s TRUST 3000 platform. And this client would be the first to test-drive new capabilities the SEI Wealth Platform makes possible. Hanna understood that each brand-new capability restarts the pioneering process.

Add to this an extremely aggressive implementation schedule — just nine months, which included training the firm’s staff to use the new technology. Hanna moved into an office at the bank to oversee the project.

Getting it right is like simultaneously solving a million Rubik's Cubes in a microsecond

“They looked to me as their point person to make sure that the conversion happened and happened on time,” Hanna says.

United StatesThat year Hanna traveled on every major holiday except Christmas. He flew cross-country on Thanksgiving Day, so he could be there on the Friday after to help prepare reports and get ready for one of the major milestones of the conversion; and he traveled on Easter, returned on Presidents’ Day — the bank holiday just before they went live on the SEI Wealth Platform — to ensure that SEI did everything needed to prepare for the launch.

“I find it’s always better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate,” Hanna says. “Even if I didn’t have a daily update on where we stood, I explained, ‘I expect one this time tomorrow, and this is what I’m prepared to tell you.’ That way, at least, you’re being transparent and, on a frequent basis, keeping people up to speed.”

For this particular conversion, as expected, several problems popped up at the eleventh hour. One would have caused security positions to get dropped, so a customer might find that shares of a particular stock weren’t migrating over. Another problem would have hampered trading through the bank’s website.

After several failed attempts at a fix, and with the clock ticking, a programmer told Hanna he needed one more shot at the problem. Hanna wondered, “Are we going to make it?”

The programmer pounded out one last bit of code.

It worked.

No time to celebrate. Hanna told his programmer to validate the hotfix so he could present it to bank management.

Hanna took a deep breath and reflected on how he’d gotten there. He was lucky to work for a company that provided state-of-the-art technology and had a client willing to take the big risks that come with early adoption. While at times it might push Hanna and his team to the edge, it always worked out in the end.

“At the time I remember feeling that this was going to be a very tough one. And it was. But we collaborated as a team, and we nailed it together,” he says.

It’s why Mark Hanna went all out for his clients. Their wins were his wins. It’s what drove the man. And it’s what drives SEI.

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Image: Art at SEI Headquarters