Taking Care of Business: Adapting to the challenge of doing business in the midst of a pandemic
David Rutherford is Vice President of ESG Services at NEI Investments, part of Aviso Wealth and Canada’s leading provider of Responsible Investment (RI) solutions. He’s a keen observer of the global finance and business sectors and one of the smartest guys we know.
So, we were delighted when he agreed to sit down (virtually via a meeting app) with The Works (Wesley Gee, Director of Sustainability and Eric Johnson, Director of Strategic Communications) and give his take on things in a wide-ranging discussion that included: how businesses are adapting to COVID-19 (and what changes may be permanent); the growing importance of RI as a risk management tool and prudent investment option; the pros and cons of engagement versus exclusion in making investment choices; and a whole lot more. In fact, there was so much good stuff that we decided to break his interview into three parts, and this is Part One.
The Works: Your products are sold through financial advisors, arguably your most important audience. How are you connecting with those advisors during the pandemic?
David Rutherford: We’re doing meetings like the three of us are doing now and finding it to be very effective. Advisors, for the most part, are at home, so this is just becoming a normal way of doing business. I have to say one thing that surprised me is how quickly we figured out how to adjust to all this and make it work.
What COVID has done is to accelerate existing trends. The trends toward virtual wholesaling and reducing wholesaler expense models have been coming for a while. And the firms that come out of this, having figured out how to incorporate this type of business into their strategies, will be the ones that succeed on the wealth management side.
The Works: So, you think that virtual meetings are going to become mainstream?
David: Before COVID, a wholesaler would typically meet with an advisor once a quarter, depending on their business needs. There would be time on the road, hotels. Now our wholesalers can do way more meetings than they could by driving around. Also, if you think about all the work that firms have been doing, trying to convert their digital platforms, specifically their websites, from just marketing properties into tools that can generate sales, this all fits very nicely into that.
On top of that, I think that having more virtual meetings will add value and impact to face-to-face, in-person meetings. They’ll become special occasions for strengthening relationships.
The Works: What other things is NEI doing to connect with advisors and investors?
David: Right now, people are unsure what to do with their money. People generally don’t buy as much during downturns even though it’s an ideal opportunity to do so. People are scared. People want insights. So, we’ve done an exceptional job by reaching out to advisors on weekly market calls with our Chief Investment Officer and a member of his team. That’s how it started when the markets were really crazy.
We probably could have held a call each day, given where the markets were. But, as markets tend to do, they absorb information and respond fairly quickly, and this massive volatility settled down, again, fairly quickly. And so, we pivoted those calls.
We also started to introduce our thoughts on responsible investing and on the recent responses from companies in this kind of environment, including how leading companies have continued to invest in their people (even at the expense of their bottom line).
This is an important time for us to critically assess and share our view of what this means for the future. If we saw companies change their behaviour, we asked ourselves: Is this a short-term response to the crisis? Or is this actually a longer-term change in their views and their consideration of the needs of multiple stakeholders besides shareholders.
The Works: So, based on what you’re seeing firsthand, has the pandemic led companies to operate more responsibly?
David: Whether as a cause or an accompaniment, it has been part of another giant step in the evolution of this trend toward actual corporate responsibility. It’s been coming for a while. We’ve seen the statements made by Larry Fink and the Business Roundtable. We had not seen a lot of action on that front. Now we’re seeing it come to life. The question is, is that real action actually going to sustain itself coming out of the crisis?
Look forward to Part Two of our discussion with David Rutherford in June 2020.