72-year-old Fidelity bets on the future with blockchain, virtual reality and AI

Finance news

“What are you doing here?” a young engineering student asked Vipin Mayar, the head of artificial intelligence initiatives at Fidelity Investments, at a MIT conference in San Francisco.

As Mayar recalled, “They were all just… surprised.”

Fidelity executives are getting used to the confused looks and double-takes their company booth draws at Silicon Valley job fairs.

Although the 72-year-old, family-controlled firm is known for managing retirement plans and mutual funds, by many measures, Fidelity is a tech company. The firm is spending billions of dollars to compete in new technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. According to executives, Fidelity wants to measure itself against tech firms like Nvidia, not its more traditional Wall Street rivals like Charles Schwab.

Fidelity was doing fintech before fintech was cool, as CEO Abigail Johnson explained it during a panel presentation at the company’s headquarters this month. Her grandfather, Edward C. Johnson, founded the company in 1946 and is still quoted as saying it’s better to “take intelligent risks rather than follow the crowd.”

Fidelity has notched a few industry firsts that could probably fall under Johnson’s “intelligent risk” category.

In the 1960s, the firm bought its first mainframe computer, which took up the entire floor of an office building. In the 1970s, Fidelity was the first to sell retail mutual funds directly through a toll-free telephone line and had the first voice-activated computer response system for stock prices and yield quotes. In the 1980s, it rolled out Fidelity Money Line, the first nationwide electronic funds transfer for money market funds, and a voice-activated computer answering system.

Johnson’s father, Edward Johnson III or “Ned,” was CEO before her and in the 1990s decided there should be a group tasked with researching cutting-edge technology.

“That’s how FCAT got going,” Johnson said on stage at the company’s Boston headquarters last Friday. “We’ve had that tradition for a long time.”

So, along came Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, or FCAT, as employees call it. The group embraced what would prove to be a really intelligent risk: The internet. It was the first mutual fund company to have an online home page, and it had the country’s first 401(k) plan sold and serviced online, a spokesperson for the company said.

Fidelity spends $2.5 billion on technology annually, including FCAT, another innovation center that came along 10 years later called Fidelity Labs and enterprise services. The innovation centers have become a place where employees can take risks, including the creation of a mobile app, a chatbot named Cora and the secretive blockchain efforts.

The firm certainly has the money to back a certain amount of risk-taking. Operating profits for FMR LLC, the parent company of Fidelity Investments, rose 54 percent last year, according to its most recent annual report. In 2017, revenues topped $18.2 billion, a 13.7 percent increase year over year. The firm closed the year with a record $6.8 trillion in investor assets under administration, up 19 percent from the year earlier. That total has since increased to more than $7 trillion.

Not every risk pans out, such as the failed financial app it developed for Google Glass and the Pebble smartwatch.

Failure is acceptable but they had to create a separate place to do it, far away from the retirement and other fund businesses.

“If you’re running Fidelity.com, no one wants to hear ‘we failed today,’ or call a call center and hear ‘oh sorry, they’re out innovating,'” said Sean Belka, the head of Fidelity Labs. “We had to create a safe space, essentially for failure. That’s what the labs is.”

Johnson pointed out that financial services don’t have a high “fun factor,” which makes it hard for the average person to care about it. That’s not obvious during a visit to the lab, where virtual reality headsets are strewn on tables and a corn-hole game sits in the corner. Groups of employees are intensely huddled in glass offices around white boards, with rainbow-colored post-its and inspirational quotes on the walls, as they try to develop technology to solve some of the world’s less glamorous problems, like student debt.

They live by the “fail fast and fail early” mantra made popular in Silicon Valley. Executives say by failing early, they can move on without wasting time and money on projects that end up as duds. If the projects do seem promising, Fidelity runs test programs on their own associates before sending them out to customers.

Its student debt offering, which Hewlett Packard Enterprises will now offer to its own employees, came out of Fidelity Labs. It helps employees refinance debt, and can pull loans from multiple different vendors in real-time. The idea came from a realization that millennials care more about short-term needs than their retirement funds. Fidelity Labs was also the birthplace of something called bSolo, that helps gig economy workers pay quarterly taxes.

The modern consumer is finicky with abundant, and often, cheaper options. Financial companies are turning to artificial intelligence to create a better experience.

“For them the experience they want is the last best experience they had that morning — not the last best experience in financial services,” said Ram Subramaniam, head of brokerage and investment solutions for personal investing. “After somebody gets out of an Uber and had a fabulous experience, when they come to a financial company, the expectation is set.”

Fidelity uses machine learning to improve the customer experience by trying to predict what they want without them even knowing. It can authenticate the identity of a customer calling, and figure out why they’re calling, within a fraction of a second. The chatbot, Cora, also comes out of artificial intelligence, and Fidelity Brokerage’s robo advisor uses some of the same proprietary tech.

Machines won’t replace advisors, though. Despite the billions of dollars spent on tech, Johnson said their “core belief” is that financial services industry is not going to go 100 percent electronic.

Modern customers want convenience on an app but they still want to pick up the phone, or at least know they have someone they can contact other than a chatbot for financial planning. The company is using virtual reality for employee training. It created an in-house program that aims to teach employees how to handle situations with empathy and compassion. Associates walk through simulations, like entering the home of a grieving client, using a virtual headset.

Fidelity employs 12,000 technologists, almost one-third of its workforce, but finding qualified workers can be especially tricky. According to one recruiter, 93 percent of all software engineers have jobs in what’s very much “a candidate’s market” heavily tilted to the Silicon Valley culture.

“A company like Fidelity has a traditional brand — they need to look different to attract a tech candidate. My question would be how are they going to do this?” said Melissa James, founder and CEO of recruitment platform Tech Connection and former recruiter for Google. She pointed out that candidates might be concerned about things as seemingly subtle as dress code. “That’s what I think when I think of Fidelity. At Google, you can wear jeans and a t-shirt.”

The “7th Floor Village” at the company’s headquarters was designed to counter the staid reputation financial firms tend to have, transporting visitors from Boston’s Seaport to Silicon Valley. The floor was redesigned a year ago to jibe with the working environment software engineers expect: open plan with no offices or assigned desks. People work at broad communal tables or standing desks, and bright colored couches are scattered about. Nearby, there is cold brew coffee on tap.

In over 72 years in business, Fidelity has collected an enormous amount of data, a fact it uses to lure talent from Amazon and Microsoft.

“Our projects are harder, more exciting and more interesting than a lot of the digital companies,” Mayar, the head of AI, said. “We’ve got more data, and broader data, which drives better AI.”

Executives acknowledge that a race to lower fees in the financial industry is here to stay.

Fidelity is moving to zero fees in some areas. Just a month after announcing it would become the first financial company to offer no-fee index mutual funds, Fidelity attracted roughly $1 billion into the two portfolios. It offers access to more than 260 other commission-free ETFs. On stock trading, the firm is betting that the quality of its brokerage services will resonate with customers more than the appeal of zero fees.

“Value is more than just price,” Subramaniam said.

Fidelity is betting that some of these offerings that come with being one of Fidelity’s 27 million customers are enough to keep millennials from jumping to zero-fee start-ups, like the mobile trading app Robinhood.

One advantage it has in this pricing war is its size. It’s able to absorb some of the pressure because it has a “broad suite” of ways make money off its customer relationships, according to Devin Ryan, managing director and analyst at JMP Securities.

“Scale players like Fidelity are in a strong position because they have the capability to invest tens of thousands, or billions, in tech,” Ryan said. “They’re doing that partially because of the revenue backdrop. When times are good you invest — and times are good right now.”

Fidelity recognized the potential in blockchain before it became the corporate buzzword of 2018. CEO Abby Johnson led the charge into cryptocurrency, one of the riskiest and most volatile asset classes of the past year.

“A few plus years ago, myself and a few other senior executives here were just curious about what was going on, particularly with bitcoin,” Johnson said. “We started getting together to say ‘we’re got to understand this.'”

The curiosity led them to start bitcoin “mining,” at a location in New Hampshire when the crypto’s price was around $180.

Flash forward to December of last year when bitcoin rose to almost $20,000, “behold — the price goes up and all the sudden we’re making money, which was never the intent,” Johnson said. She did not specify how much bitcoin has been mined, or how much money Fidelity made.

There’s clear interest in the topic by Fidelity employees. Its blockchain club for employees called “bits and blocks,” hosts seminars, office hours and meet ups, now has roughly 2,600 members.

The company has an arrangement with Coinbase that allows Fidelity customers to check their cryptocurrency balances on the Fidelity mobile app. In 2015, it started facilitating charitable donations in bitcoin.

Many other potential uses for bitcoin and cryptocurrencies have been scrapped by now or “put on the shelf,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to listen to the marketplace.”

In the meantime, Katie Chase, the head of strategy for Fidelity Center for Applied Technology and head of the Blockchain Incubator (which is a part of FCAT), is exploring uses for both private blockchain and enterprise blockchain. Chase could not comment specifically on the projects but said she’s seen massive interest from clients and partners, as well as their own employees.

“It’s still very nascent. All of the stuff that you’re reading about, if you dig under the covers is still in the proof of concept stage,” Chase said. “We tried to apply blockchain to some use cases where we learned a lot but the technology isn’t mature enough to solve these problems.”

For now, the group is more focused on what some of those barriers are, she said. They’re looking at how to “tokenize” physical items, like a piece of art for example, or how to use blockchain in the supply chain space.

“Those are on the shelf, but we think they’ll eventually come off,” Chase said.

Fidelity will be well-equipped when they do. She used the example of Pebble watch, a failure by retail standards but something that paid off for Fidelity. Her group had created an app for the smartwatch, which shut down three years after raising millions through a crowdfunded kickstarter campaign.

When the Apple Watch finally came to market, Fidelity was ready. It used the app developed for Pebble to quickly go live on Apple’s new product.

“We were not betting that the Pebble watch is the next big thing — but in case we have people wearing these things on their wrist, we wanted to be there too,” she said. “It gave us the learning for when the smart watch did go to mass market, and we were able to be there.”

This would all be much harder to do if Fidelity had to answer to shareholders. If its long-term side projects fail, or bitcoin goes to zero, it doesn’t have to answer questions about it posed by analysts during quarterly conference calls. And most importantly, executives say, its retirement and mutual funds won’t be affected.

The separate tech incubators have allowed the company to take risks, even when markets aren’t in a historic bull run. Sean Belka of Fidelity Labs has worked at public companies he says are “quicker to change directions during different cycles.”

“There’s a staying power around being able to invest for the long term. It gives us the opportunity to invest over all economic cycles,” Belka said. “If you look at FCAT, it’s survived not just the 2008 crisis but the dot com crisis.”

Although most of its brokerage peers are also spending big on technology, Fidelity has managed to fly under the radar, according to one analyst who covers its competitors. Richard Repetto, principal at Sandler O’Neill & Partners pointed out there’s less scrutiny on Fidelity’s spending, investments and returns and, compared to a public company, it doesn’t really have to share what it’s working on.

“Fidelity is a sleeping giant,” Repetto said. “Or at least they’re not a well known giant as far as what they’re actually doing.”