Switching custodians: Why Sound Financial transitioned their book to Betterment for Advisors
A conversation with Cory Shepherd, ChFC®, CFP®, President and Partner
Moving to a new custodian is not an easy decision. For this interview, we sat down with Cory Shepherd, President and Partner at Sound Financial Group, to learn how he navigated a decision to switch providers in 2020.
Sound Financial was searching for a custodian that could offer something different than the legacy options. They needed a partner that not only met their basic pricing and operational needs, but also complemented their planning philosophy and could set their practice up to scale long term.
The team ultimately landed with Betterment for Advisors, a decision that has helped the firm cut overhead costs, streamline onboarding, and invest more time in giving quality, human advice.
Moreover, we discover how Sound Financial’s decision to switch to Betterment for Advisors was, in the end, a way to maintain “elegant simplicity” in their lives as independent advisors—giving their team, their clients, and their families more flexibility to pursue their goals.
Read the full story below.
The path to independence
Cory Shepherd, ChFC®, CFP®, is the President and Partner at Sound Financial Group. The fee-based planning firm has three advisors and serves about 300 clients representing $125MM in AUM.
Sound Financial’s path to independence was, in some ways, an accident. For years, co-Presidents Paul Adams and Cory Shepherd focused on expanding their team within the broker-dealer model. But a series of contract negotiations with their broker-dealer in 2016 prompted a decision to go independent.
“Breaking that relationship was one of the best, ‘bad’ things that could have happened to us. After that, we stopped trying to grow horizontally with as many advisors as possible, and started prioritizing growing vertically.”
The move not only changed their business strategy, it changed their perspective on independence and the beauty of deciding for yourself what work looks like. “We have this amazing life with a lot of freedom. We work closely with clients we love and avoid the multilayered requirements of larger corporations.”
An action-forward planning philosophy
Sound Financial is passionate about creating financial plans that won’t end up collecting dust—both figuratively and literally. “During my early days at MetLife, I was so proud of our financial planning work. We’d create these 80-page, leather-bound, beautiful plans. And then, one day, I found out that a client had wedged one under the leg of their pool table to level it out.”
That epiphany underpins Sound Financial’s Wealth Design process: The biggest challenge clients face isn’t creating a financial plan, but implementing it. “If an advisor just hands over a plan document, 9 times out of 10 there will be major breakdowns in implementation.”
With an average annual household income range of $250,000 to $1.5MM, the firm’s clients are largely working professionals—physicians, tech executives, and business owners—in the wealth accumulation phase. To emphasize the importance of action for these clients, Cory compares the planning process to an architect designing a house:
“An architect’s job is to provide a blueprint that ensures you’re getting the best house for you, the house that will allow you to live your best life. But the design is only worthwhile if you can act on it and actually build the house.”
Repapering hurdles prompt a switch
Prior to transitioning to Betterment for Advisors, Sound Financial had a positive relationship with their core TAMP. However, an acquisition by another firm in late 2019 prompted a switch.
About 8 months into the transition, Sound Financial was surprised to learn they were going to need to repaper the majority of their client accounts.
“We honestly weren’t looking to make a move, but, because they were going to make our clients go through the trouble of repapering accounts anyway, we felt it was our responsibility to do some due diligence and see if there was a better fit for them somewhere else.”
Searching for a future-forward custodial partner
In their search for a new custodian, Sound Financial prioritized price, innovation, and transparency for clients.
As a smaller firm, they found it challenging to find a partner that was aligned to their pricing requirements. “Our firm was being charged 42 bps at the time,” Cory noted. “We couldn’t justify the fee, and [our TAMP] wasn’t able to customize it. They didn't want to make that custom, cut-out niche for us and, at the end of the day, we just couldn't make the pricing fit.”
Sound Financial also evaluated how various platforms could help improve their back-office and client onboarding experience. At the time, tech stack fragmentation was a challenge. They were layering one-off tools on top of their core systems (TD, Fidelity, and AssetMark) to support account management and opening, which created a disruptive and paper-heavy process.
“Back then, it took us an hour just to open a new household’s first account. On top of that, we then needed 20 minutes for each additional account opened, just to manage all the paperwork.”
Considering Betterment for Advisors
Cory admits he was apprehensive when his business partner first brought up Betterment. “I thought of it as a millennial product for DIYers.” But the custodial platform’s integrated onboarding technology alone piqued his interest.
“I’d been embedded in the world I’d grown up in, so it was a little like magic the first time we had a Betterment for Advisors demo. The technology made everything so simple. Even for clients to do it themselves. Click, click, click, and you open an account, even live with a client, in about five minutes. That was huge.”
The team also appreciated that the platform adds transparency to the client experience. The planning and projection tools in particular felt like something they could really give to a client.
Still, Sound Financial had some reservations and risks to weigh before making the leap. Chief among them: the Betterment brand. “We wondered, Are we going to have to compete against ourselves? Will folks want to leave us and just go to Betterment solo? But that hasn’t happened. In fact, clients who had Betterment accounts already, before they met us, have brought them into our practice.”
Making the switch: 90% of assets in 90 days
An all-in-one, vertically-integrated custodian, Betterment for Advisors offered Sound Financial something new in their search for a custodian. “As an independent practice, we really liked the fact that Betterment for Advisors was focused on a different kind of value proposition: good technology, ease of communication and workflow, and efficient pricing.”
The process of transitioning their client assets was a contrast to the demanding, piecemeal transition they’d made just a few years prior when going independent. “We moved 90% of our client assets within 90 days. It was super fast.”
The Sound Financial team expertly navigated client conversations around the transition, emphasizing the improved client experience and technology.
“It was an easy conversation to have because there is a lot of value for the client. We discussed the expected time savings, and how we planned to use this time to improve servicing for them. We also focused on the ease of use, the transparency, and being able to do things yourself.”
Cutting overhead costs and client fees
to Betterment for Advisors, Sound Financial noted they have been able to cut their custodial fees by more than 50%, and recapture these savings in the firm’s profitability. They’ve steadily increased growth rates year over year without increasing client fees—even during the turbulent COVID-19 market.
Outsourcing investment management increased their team’s capacity, giving the firm greater operational leverage. “The efficiency of the technology is so much higher that we have not had to keep up the hiring pace that we were previously maintaining. With Betterment for Advisors, we could just about double the total number of clients we have and not have to hire another person.”
Moreover, efficiencies unlocked in investment management allowed Sound Financial to improve pricing at the top end of their fee grid. “This gives us a clear advantage over competitors in attracting these higher-net-worth clients to work with us.”
A boost to employee morale and retention
Reducing hiring needs gave Sound Financial an additional, unexpected competitive edge: a happier workforce. “We’re unlocking time and capacity as we grow, and, with fewer hires, we can reward our team members more than our competitors can. Suddenly, employee retention becomes a big bonus—and one that was not as obvious.”
Fostering strong employee retention is now a vital part of the firm’s business strategy. “We’re focused on doing what’s right for our team. Too much turnover, and having to frequently introduce clients to a new name on the phone, can start to erode clients’ confidence in your practice.”
Future-proofing a practice in an AI-dominated culture
Moving to Betterment for Advisors as their core custodian has changed how Cory thinks about growing and sustaining the practice.
At first, they believed they could use automation to simply increase the number of clients served—taking on significantly more client accounts, and spreading the team thin across the base. Instead, the team now sees investing more time in each client relationship as their primary path to growth. “What we’ve realized over time is that the technology can give us more time to have a more customer-centric and intimate relationship with a client, and that’s how we want to grow.”
Sound Financial believes creating a personal planning experience will help them stay ahead of the curve. “AI is at the forefront of almost every cultural conversation right now, and deepening the human experience for clients is a more valuable and ‘AI-insulated’ model than providing generic advice to the masses.
“We don’t want to compete with a mass market, digital approach. We want to use automation to free up our time to grow organically — give clients such an amazing experience that they’re compelled to refer us to people they know. That’s harder for AI to disrupt.”
What’s next for Sound Financial
The Sound Financial team remains focused on scaling intentionally. They have a successful podcast that they use to reach new clients, and have tested paid mediums for lead generation. But they’re less interested in ramping up an online acquisition model. “I love meeting with someone who cares about someone that I already know and work with, and working with that new connection. A lot of our clients become just like friends and family to us.”
Looking forward, Cory sees technology as a means for making daily operations more efficient. “We really value balance. And we want to continue using technology that helps give all of us back time. Time to work with clients and time with our families.”
“Our goal is to quietly and intentionally grow the community of people we’re helping, and to use technology to streamline our work as much as possible. All so we can retain this elegant simplicity that we’ve found in our lives.”