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Client Spotlight: Zane Keller, First Foundation Advisors

BY Team Practifi

Zane Keller is a seasoned professional with a unique journey from his early days at IBM, where he played a crucial role in global humanitarian efforts, to his time in Philadelphia, navigating the intricacies of financial consultancy. Zane’s diverse background, combined with his technology expertise and project management skills eventually led him to his current role as Director of Strategic Initiatives at First Foundation Advisors. 

Q: Tell us about your firm. How did it start and what sets you apart from other firms?

A: First Foundation started out as the Keller Group in 1990 as one of Orange County’s earliest fee-only RIAs. By the time 2005 rolled around, we had buyout offers from six different banks but decided to start our own bank instead, in 2007. It’s interesting since we’re an RIA that started a bank when usually it’s the other way around. 

Shortly thereafter though, there was the financial crisis which turned out to be the best time to start a bank because we didn’t have any loans, let alone bad loans to worry about. This meant we were able to buy quite a lot of loans –  good ones – off of other people’s books for pennies on the dollar. Since then, both our bank and RIA have seen substantial growth. Today, the bank holds assets of around $13 billion, while our advisory business manages approximately $5.3 billion. Although we operate as separate entities under the same holding company, we collaborate closely and share resources.

What sets us apart though is our robust in-house planning team, led by experts in estate planning and tax strategy, and our diverse investment platform, which includes both well-known names like BlackRock and local partners specializing in real estate. Another key differentiator for us is being part of a bank and trust company. It gives us the ability to provide comprehensive financial services to our clients typically only found at large institutions but with the personal touch you’d seek from a boutique firm.

Q: What are the most significant challenges advisors are facing today?

A: The most significant challenges advisors are facing today revolve around technology integration and enhancing the client experience. With numerous fintech options available, it’s crucial to choose solutions that not only address specific pain points but also improve efficiency and scalability. Seamlessly integrating these systems, such as CRMs, investment management tools, and communication channels like texting, is essential for streamlining workflows and providing a cohesive client experience.

Another challenge is navigating change management when implementing new technologies. Resistance to change is common among team members, especially when they’ve grown accustomed to existing systems. Ensuring smooth transitions and gaining buy-in from all stakeholders are critical to successful technology adoption.

Advisors also need to prioritize solutions that add tangible value to clients’ lives. It’s not just about what’s easiest for advisors but what enhances the client experience and builds stronger relationships. Finding ways to leverage technology to personalize services, improve communication, and better understand client needs is critical in today’s competitive landscape.

The key is to strike a balance between adopting innovative technologies that address core challenges while remaining focused on delivering exceptional client service.

Q: What are some top industry trends that you’re seeing right now?

A: A significant trend we’re seeing right now is the shift from active management to more passive and tax-efficient strategies, particularly through direct indexing or custom indexing. We’ve seen this reflected within our firm as well. For example, with an S&P 500 ETF like SPY, holding the ETF alone may miss opportunities to offset gains with losses on individual stocks. However, with separately managed accounts, we can mirror the ETF’s performance by continually realizing losses throughout the year, resulting in tax alpha performance. This proactive tax management strategy is particularly beneficial for clients in high-tax states like California. 

In addition to the shift toward tax-efficient strategies, another trend is succession planning. It’s become a pressing issue for many RIAs, mirroring our own journey from independence to considering the legacy we leave behind. The current surge in M&A activity and valuations poses challenges for both sellers and buyers, with cultural and operational alignment being critical factors in successful transitions. Many founders grapple with relinquishing control and defining their role post-sale, highlighting the complexities inherent in this decision.

This commoditization of public-side services is reshaping the landscape for asset managers and RIAs heavily reliant on active management. Clients increasingly demand value beyond investment performance, challenging firms to differentiate themselves through holistic financial services. Overall, these trends show the evolving nature of our industry and the imperative need for firms to adapt to meet clients’ changing needs.

Q: How does your company implement new technology?

A: At our company, we have an open approach to implementing new technology. I personally handle a lot of the initial conversations with vendors, and I’m pretty open to any vendor who wants to talk to me. When considering new technology, we assess whether there’s a genuine need for it. If it addresses a need we currently have or fulfils something we wish we could offer but don’t, then we’re more inclined to move forward with it.

We have a due diligence team consisting of both advisers and members of the leadership team. We discuss whether the technology adds value and what the implementation process would look like. We also consider the level of buy-in we’ll receive from the advisory side, as we understand that operations and client-facing aspects can sometimes be segmented.

Our goal is to ensure that any new technology enhances the client experience. We prioritize solutions that provide tangible value to our clients’ lives. In today’s environment, where investment management is increasingly commoditized, we seek ways to add value at no additional cost to the client. For example, we’re currently looking at onboarding software, which would enable our advisers to text with clients and archive those conversations, improving communication and convenience for our clients.

However, we don’t expect technology to solve all our problems at once. We prioritize solutions based on their ability to improve our processes and enhance the client experience. Integration is key for us, and we leverage platforms like Practifi to gain visibility into the entirety of the client experience, from investment management to engagement metrics.

Ultimately, our focus is on providing the best possible service to our clients. We aim to find ways to free up advisers’ time so they can focus on building relationships and delivering personalized experiences to each client.

Q: What has it been like partnering with Practifi? How has it changed or enhanced your team’s work?

A: One of the things I really like about Practifi is that because of all the integrations, we can see the entirety of a client’s experience with us, from investment management to the data imported from webinars and content we send them through our integration with HubSpot. What we’ve really been trying to leverage is the integration with Office 365.

By centralizing our operations on the Practifi platform, we’ve gained greater visibility into our business processes and fostered enhanced collaboration among team members. This visibility allows us to track how often clients are engaged, how frequently advisers are interacting with clients, and how meetings are being scheduled. This has been a big differentiator in helping our advisers manage their books and time effectively, especially considering that each adviser services up to 100 clients. 

Without a CRM like Practifi, it’s challenging to provide consistent service to every client or keep track of communication details. For example, if I email a client without cc’ing my team, they wouldn’t know about it. With Practifi, we can see all communication, assign tasks, manage workflows, and ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

This level of organization and oversight frees up more time for advisers to focus on building relationships with clients. It’s not just about investment or planning-related tasks; it’s about creating a personalized experience that makes clients feel valued and understood.

Q: What are you hoping to acheive with Practifi in the future?

A: In the future, our goal is to expand our utilization of Practifi’s capabilities, cementing it as the central hub for our business operations. As Practifi evolves and introduces new features such as Rulebook, we envision a continued proactive approach to client communication and internal processes. We intend to integrate additional tools and functionalities into the Practifi ecosystem, creating a comprehensive solution that empowers our advisors and enhances the client experience. Additionally, I envision building out a stronger data governance policy to ensure consistency across all advisers and users. Ultimately, my goal is to use data more effectively to enhance our team’s productivity and deliver exceptional value to our clients. 

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