Microsoft cloud investments pay dividend for Waverton – Diginomica

With the acquisition of an independent financial advisory business completed, investment management firm Waverton took the opportunity to modernize operations to meet regulatory and security demands and a staff requirement for increased flexibility in the way they worked. Little did Waverton Chief Information Officer (CIO) Mudassar Ulhaq realize that his strategy and deployment would be vital in ensuring the London-based firm could respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December 2019, Waverton completed the acquisition of Timothy James & Partners, adding a £1.1 billion advisory business to its existing investment management organization, which is responsible for £8.7 billion in client assets for advisers, charities, institutions and private clients. 2019 also saw Chief Operating Officer (COO) Michael Allen join Waverton, charged with modernizing their operations and business processes.

Ulhaq says the arrival of a new COO was the ideal opportunity to put forward plans to move to enterprise cloud computing, to simplify and secure the organization’s infrastructure and improve the end-user computing experience.

There was a staff survey that year which showed a demand for more flexible working. Wealth management firms are historically behind on technology.

Cloud was seen as the route to improving business resilience in tandem with meeting the demands of its workforce.

Cloud investment

Waverton had always operated its own on-premise data centre and disaster recovery, but in 2019 began moving to the Microsoft Azure enterprise cloud computing estate ensuring computing power, networking and storage all moved to the cloud. On the shift in skillset for his technology team, Ulhaq says: 

Microsoft helped with the journey as well as upskilling our infrastructure team. The team have really taken this as an opportunity.

By 2023 Waverton will have moved its development environment to the cloud and have completed the transition to a cloud-first financial services provider.

The adoption of the cloud has also enabled Ulhaq to introduce new technology financing models to Waverton.  

We can now develop a cost centre for services which we could never have done previously. The operational expenditure (Opex) model we now have allows us to be more agile as a technology department.

Ulhaq says cost transparency allows improvements in the allocation of services based on the use or a business line.

Waverton chose the Microsoft Azure enterprise cloud computing platform as a natural progression of its use of the existing technology stack.

We have always been a Microsoft house, we had Exchange on-premises, and we had tested the waters with Exchange as a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offering back in 2017. We also chose Azure for our Online Client Reporting.

Trading surface

To deliver the flexible working demands of Waverton staff, Ulhaq has carried out a business-wide deployment of the Microsoft Surface devices. The CIO describes these as a premium device but says the efficiencies and productivity gains Waverton has witnessed justify the additional cost of a premium product.

Microsoft worked closely with us and helped us with an analysis of our existing environment and the personas of our employees and how the Surface devices would be used.

As part of the Surface device deployment, Ulhaq also adopted the Microsoft Intune end-point management and the Auto-Pilot tool for configuring devices to a standardized format.

This has enabled us to deploy all our services and over 150 Microsoft Surface devices remotely during lockdown. We’ve also been able to lock down corporate data and devices, which means we save admin time and enhance our security and data governance.

Despite the pandemic, Waverton continued its acquisition strategy, and in September 2021, it acquired Scotland-based wealth planning business Cornerstone Asset Management, which has offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, adding a further 1000 clients, 22 additional staff, and £500 million of assets under management to the business.

Secure and resilient

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulator expects you to have a good cloud exit strategy.

Regulators in Europe and the UK now expect all financial services businesses to have increased resilience built into their strategies and, therefore, technology.

They want to be sure about your business continuity planning and availability of services, so there is no disruption to service our clients or to our ability to continue to manage their assets.

Ulhaq says the adoption of enterprise cloud computing improves both recovery point objectives (the maximum acceptable amount of data loss after an unplanned data-loss incident, expressed as an amount of time) and recovery time objectives (the amount of real time a business has to restore its processes at an acceptable service level after a disaster to avoid intolerable consequences associated with the disruption). Both of which have been tested and validated.

Moving to Azure has also removed all Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) and remote desktops that staff were using. Now all Waverton staff use Microsoft 365 through a dedicated corporate Surface device. Ulhaq says the close integration between applications and the built-in defences of Azure has improved the security posture of Waverton. The CIO is also on the risk management committee for Waverton.

Security is one of the most important elements of cloud architecture. Confidentiality and integrity are vital for us, and we need to be able to reassure the business we can protect client data. It’s our fiduciary responsibility to reassure our clients that their data is fully protected at all times.

In addition, I wanted to reduce complexity. For me, complexity arises when you have lots of interoperable systems, so if you can streamline the estate, you can protect the data more easily.

Lockdown benefits

With Waverton rolling out its new technology direction, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 increased the pace of change in the financial services provider. The board of Waverton agreed to widen the scope of the programme to ensure all staff could work remotely and ensure that Waverton had a strategy that reduced operational risks from being a distributed business.

Ulhaq and his team ensured that all staff were using Windows 10, Microsoft 365, Teams and One Drive. The change programme to take on these technologies was initially scheduled to take place over three years and instead was delivered in nine months.

Microsoft Teams telephony was the next step. Because calls with clients need to be recorded, we had to ensure staff had the capability to record those calls when working at home.

Again, this was on Ulhaq’s to-do list, but the pandemic brought the programme forward.

My take

Wealth management firms are historically behind on technology, but the first two years of this decade have enabled business technology leaders to not only deliver the tools that will improve business operations and security, but team members have embraced them. That Ulhaq delivered this change in partnership with the COO is an example of how technology and operational leadership are now close allies.

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