The Big Interview: SEI director: ‘Tech is where I can make most difference’

Ex-adviser now SEI solutions director Helen Oxley on lessons learned from a broad career spanning planning, asset management and tech

SEI’s new solutions director Helen Oxley is unusual, and not just because she is a woman in a notoriously male-dominated industry. Having started out as an adviser in 1997, her career has straddled the worlds of financial planning, asset management and now technology.

“As an adviser, my focus was on the customer, and it has become clear to me that the sector where I can make the greatest difference to customers is in technology,” she says.

The pace of change in the tech world is rapid, with new solutions and ways of working constantly taking shape.

SEI’s clients range from a select group of robos, including Netwealth, to large private client investment managers, such as Tilney. Oxley says this helps her team harness ideas that capture the entrepreneurialism and digital mindset of nimble start-ups as well as the governance and regtech focus of large firms.

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This way, both groups can benefit from a cross-pollination of ideas. There could be an element of matchmaking, too. She agrees it is likely larger firms will look to buy up smaller, innovative players.

Oxley’s career beginnings as an adviser at Abbey National still colour her thinking today: “Customers came to see us in all types of situations, including those that had experienced significant and often negative life events affecting their finances.” I sense she and her team really care about creating better outcomes whatever the customers’ wealth profile.

Stints at Octopus and BNP Paribas FundQuest followed. But her tech epiphany would come later.

“I moved to Sanlam to help launch a range of model portfolios but we were constrained from doing what we wanted by the technology. For example, the passive portfolios were unable to allocate to ETFs, even when the ETF structure was the most appropriate.”

She moved to Winterflood Business Services, where her work alongside ETF providers was instrumental in helping offer greater access to them. Three months ago, she took up her current role.

SEI has had a UK presence for almost 20 years. It was here it launched its platform before rolling out the service to clients globally. Oxley describes part of SEI’s role as a virtual chief technology officer. It brings a lot of its own tech experience but it can also tap into expertise from different sectors for the benefit of its clients.

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It fosters new thinking through innovation labs, networking events and centres of excellence dedicated to the current tech zeitgeists of blockchain and artificial intelligence. It also uses its scale and resource to “co-source” potential tech partners for clients by doing the due diligence hard yards.

Oxley’s firm focus now is on making SEI’s technology fit for the future. She sees it as critical to plug into other tech: “We cannot do the whole chain ourselves. We are looking to partner with other companies to develop bespoke solutions.”

That said, she sees divergent paths for the back-end platform engines and the front-end client interface.

“With the innovation we are seeing in blockchain, there will be a race to zero in the industry on cost and speed of processing.”

With the innovation we are seeing in blockchain, there will be a race to zero on cost and speed of processing

Oxley believes the reduction in cost of trading will also facilitate a more personalised client approach, with platforms enabling firms to by-pass fund structures and invest portfolios directly in the underlying assets. SEI is enhancing its portfolio management offering, which will cater for much more granular and individual portfolios.

At the front end, AI will be taking on part of the role of the adviser; the implication being technology will free them up to complete higher value tasks.

It is often quoted that the average age of advisers 10 years ago was 55 and today that age profile remains the same. This mirrors the age of advisers’ core client base. But even if this status quo is preserved, it strikes me that, in 10 years’ time, a 55-year-old client will have a very different attitude to technology.

CV – Helen Oxley

April 2018-present: Solutions director, SEI

2014-2018: Head of business development and strategy, Winterflood Business Services

2012-2014: Head of strategic partnerships, Sanlam UK Distribution

2009-2011: Head of business development associate director, FundQuest BNP Paribas

2008-2009: Network relationship manager, Octopus Investments

2004-2008: Corporate account manager, Mortgage Brain

2002-2004: Financial adviser, Kinleigh Financial Services

2001-2002: Senior adviser, Woolwich

2000-2001: Business analyst, Merrill Lynch

1997-2000: Financial adviser, Abbey National

Oxley’s career has shown that adaptability is crucial. One of her core strengths is “futurist”, according to the Gallup Strengthsfinder test all SEI employees must go through. This is apt, because we cannot proceed on the basis that the current pace of change will stay uniform and because, in the next 10 years, clients and employees will think and work differently. We will all need people like Oxley to challenge us.

Miranda Seath is research director at Platforum

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