Q&A: Technology Acceleration in the Transfer Agency
Last year, literally days before the initial pandemic lockdowns, UMB welcomed Mike Huisman as senior vice president and director of transfer agency. In this Q&A, Mike looks back on his first year heading up the fund transfer agency team—and how technological shifts related to the pandemic will benefit clients over the long term.
Q: UMB announced your appointment to lead the UMB Fund Services transfer agency on March 25, 2020. What was it like managing a transition to work-from-home in your very first weeks?
A: Well, I won’t say it was easy—but it was much smoother than you might guess. The team did amazing work making that transition nearly seamless for our clients. Meeting staff, clients and peer group virtually wasn’t what I expected, but it worked far better than I would have guessed.
Q: What stands out, a year later, about the shift to work-from-home?
A: The shift reinforced something I’ve known a long time, which is that—by far—your most valuable resource is people who truly understand the business. You can have amazing technology, and we do, but when there’s a disruption there’s absolutely no substitute for the depth of your team.
I’ve led software development and operations in the investor recordkeeping space for most of my career. Obviously, I value technology highly. But I never lose sight of the fact that technology is there to serve people, not the other way around. What you want is people who know your clients’ needs inside and out. With people like that, you can bring them new technology and it amplifies their service to clients.
Contrast that with someone who understands the technology but not the fund business. It’s much harder to get that person up to speed.
At UMB, we’re fortunate to have an unusually long-tenured group of associates that make up the transfer agency team. They understand the business well. And that made all the difference when the pandemic forced major changes to workflow.
Q: What sorts of changes to workflow?
A: Let me put it this way. In the office, we used to go through nine boxes of paper a day. In the space of just a couple weeks, that dropped to one.
Keep in mind, when it comes to mutual fund transfer agency work, there are many processes that have long been paper-based to help ensure security. The whole industry is evolving. Medallion bank guarantees for large-dollar redemptions is one example. But how can an investor get a medallion guarantee when his or her local bank is closed?
Ultimately, what happened is the pandemic accelerated workflow transformation to digital processes. At UMB, for example, we were already making great strides with robotic process automation (RPA) prior to the pandemic. That work intensified further over the past year. So has our investments in optical character recognition (OCR) and business intelligence systems.
Q: Are those technology changes ones that clients would see or are they more behind the scenes?
A: It’s fair to say that most of what we do in the fund transfer agency is behind the scenes. That’s how it should be, because it means work gets done seamlessly.
But that doesn’t mean clients don’t benefit from the technology advances. One way is flexible and fast reporting. The business intelligence (BI) and other software tools we’ve put in place to enhance data use allow our team to rapidly respond to requests for custom reports.
Another area is reducing errors. The traditional approach to ensuring highest quality is to have one person enter data and another person review it. With the OCR technology rolled out, the initial data entry is far more automated. The system is extremely good at signature recognition, for example. It’s much less likely that the computer and a human reviewer will make the same mistake than for two humans to make the same mistake.
Q: Sounds like an improvement for the team members, too—less mundane work entering data.
A: Absolutely. With all these technologies—RPA, OCR, BI and others—the goal is to eliminate “busy work” in favor of “knowledge work.” The software packages allow our business team to find the answers and solutions themselves—and not lose time waiting for programming support.
Q: What’s the reaction been from your team?
A: There’s a lot of enthusiasm for using these new tools. Our fund servicing team is at the forefront in the industry in areas such as writing rules to manipulate queries. My job is to give them tools to be successful.
Q: What’s next?
A: I think the biggest thing we’ve learned over the past year is what matters isn’t where you work but how well you work together. We plan to build on this hybrid working model that we have been operating in for the past year and continue to reinvent the transfer agency with technology solutions.
UMB Fund Services is a national leader with decades of experience in registered and alternative investment fund servicing. Visit our website to learn how UMB Fund Services can support your firm, or contact us to be connected with a fund services team member.
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