Fidelity Investments may possess the largest supermarket of mutual funds, with $3.2 trillion of assets under administration and $1.5 trillion under management — but it's no longer just about offering a wide selection of mutual funds or getting companies set up with retirement benefits programs.
"We at Fidelity view ourselves just as much as a financial information processing company as an investment management firm," said Abigail Johnson, vice chairman of parent FMR LLC and president of Fidelity's personal and workplace investing business.
That's the logical result of Fidelity's scale after 64 years in operation, Johnson told members of the National Investment Company Service Association in a keynote address Tuesday to the mutual fund industry trade group.
Fidelity's operations and information technology, she said, now must maintain records for 22 million workplace participants, the details of 19,000 different defined-contribution plans, 12 million retail brokerage accounts and 212,000 commissionable transactions every day. Its two web sites, fidelity.com and netbenefits.com, also are visited by 3 million users daily.
Handling this requires 10,000 servers and 60,000 personal computers at Fidelity's fingertips. Last year, 35 million lines of code were tested for software vulnerability.
Which partly explains and is an outgrowth of what Johnson calls her passion for reducing errors and improving the experience online of customers who deal with Fidelity.
"I like analyzing and managing large-scale transaction processing platforms, record-keeping administration and brokerage trading services. There I said it," Johnson told the NICSA gathering. "That may not be too newsworthy to many of you here today because you're all thinking, well, of course, what's not to like about mutual funds operations and technology?"
Constant improvement in electronic processes is key, Johnson said. "Even a small reduction in errors and rework can have a significant impact" on customers' impressions of Fidelity, she said. Transaction processing speed and quality, Johnson said, can have a bigger impact on those impressions than whether capital markets are going through bull or bear periods.
Finding ways to improve processing of transactions, transfers of assets and handling of accounts can be "maddeningly hard to achieve," Johnson told the operations executives in attendance.
But the keys are to focus on the processes from the customers' viewpoints, allow employees to develop the responses that improve the processes and find ways to reduce errors.
A big source of "incremental improvements" is to eliminate "nonvalue activities," Johnson said. This improves the customer experience and typically lowers costs. It's driven by customer need, not cost cutting, but benefits both.
Johnson did not provide any examples of the kinds of "nonvalue activities" that Fidelity has been able to eliminate. But she said the process allowed Fidelity to cut the time it takes to process transfers of assets by a full day. This reduces stress on customers who are trying to free up funds for paying tuition at college or making housing purchases.
The company also created a database called Extract, where customer service representatives can funnel questions and complaints that come in on the phone to operations executives. The executives answer the questions and store them in the database for when they next come up. The responses can be used by all phone reps.
Fidelity is also working on a step-by-step guided process of helping customers enroll in programs online, providing more educational content online and supplying interactive financial planning and analysis tools.
The goal: a consistent, high-quality experience for customers — from complex interplay between databases and services that are maintained on those 10,000 servers.
"Managing and transforming large-scale record-keeping and transaction processing platforms is just as hard and in many ways more difficult than leading an investment management team," Johnson said. "But I think it can have just as big an impact on customer satisfaction. And some times it can even be more fun."