Aliter Business Leaders Reflect on Sustainable Growth
Management consulting services can provide vital advantages for investment management firms and asset servicing providers. Quality management consulting support – coupled with extreme diligence and methodology that drives execution – enables firms to improve their business processes, manage risk, maintain compliance, and successfully experience sustainable transition and growth.
In this article, Dan Ahern and Keith Totten, the founding partners, reflect on what led them to establish Aliter as an independent, custom-designed firm with boutique-size benefits of flexibility, accessibility, and adaptability, as well as deeper capabilities and commitment than the other large management consulting firms.
The partners share how their decades of first-hand experience as leaders within the financial services industry informed their insight and empathy toward the distinct challenges of investment management firms and asset servicing providers. This perspective – and their Aliter approach – sustains their growth as they deliver consulting beyond concept for industry-peer clients to improve and advance their operations.
They discuss how their people and proven methodology empower their clients to create and manage the business strategies, organizational structures, and technology solutions that achieve their clients’ goals.
Consistent positive feedback from leaders across some of the world’s largest investment managers and asset servicing firms inspire them to continue their mission to support and improve the industry.
What Led the Founders to Start the Firm
They had each gained direct industry experience in their respective professional roles with the largest banks and financial services companies serving the U.S. and global markets. Their career paths first crossed at State Street Corporation when Dan supported business development and Keith supported operations.
Subsequent management and executive roles at global financial services firms deepened their experience and widened each of their perspectives on business strategies, operating models, and client challenges.
They learned and led industry best-practices, and discerned what didn’t work, such as red tape, politics, etc.
Every Friday in 2016, Dan and Keith met for breakfast and discussed how to leverage their collective experience. This scrutiny, and their passion to create a firm they could be proud of, helped them refine their vision for Aliter. They innovated a better way to build and nurture a diverse team of people with direct industry experience who could work together to solve the unique challenges with which they, too, were extensively familiar.
Dan and Keith presented their business concept to a dozen trusted senior business leaders in their industry network, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Everyone loved the concept – especially the benefits of its smaller size and comprehensive service. They felt they were poised to pioneer a new boutique firm with personality and passion, custom-built to serve and transform the industry they knew so well.
This new type of firm was to be an inclusive culture of practitioners straight from within the financial industry, eager to serve their peers. They named it Aliter, which in classic Latin means in a different way.
Building and Empowering a Diverse New Culture
The partners sought to build a diverse community of practitioners from all facets of the financial services industry with deep vertical and horizontal expertise and experience in front, middle, and back-office services to create a comprehensive organization with a much different culture and approach than typical management consulting firms.
Before they hired employees, they considered how well their own differences complemented each other.
Drawing upon their skill sets, broad range of experience, and vast networks, they set the tone for a new culture of empowered people who do the right thing out of respect for each other and their clients.
Their commonalities have always served as their mutual leadership compass. For example, they both value a flexible, familial culture and concern for people’s wellbeing beyond work; they are both generous with their time, talent and resources; and they’re both committed to sustaining a company to be proud of.
Integrating Flexibility with Discipline and Structure
In order to drive success and sustainable growth, Dan and Keith had to solve the challenge of integrating the flexible new culture they envisioned with their core methodology of extreme discipline, structure and transparency.
They began by bringing in the right people. Instead of the traditional path of attracting clients to build up business and then packing the firm with people to support it, they decided to build their firm from the ground up, beginning with people who could help attract projects for which Aliter could add real value.
Their industry relationships with various peer groups complemented each other well in this regard.
They created a team of professionals who shared the partners’ vision for a culture that embraced flexibility, camaraderie and cooperation, yet upheld the values of structure, discipline, and measurement.
Right Sized and Scalable from the Beginning
They had seen other firms fail because they started out too big, with overreaching business plans, bloated overhead, wide geographic service areas, and inconsistent generation of revenue. They started small with a simple business plan focused on serving the Northeast, and judiciously hired people who reflected their values. They did not try to become a national or global business too quickly. They concentrated on quality, and were careful not to overextend themselves.
Risk is always a factor for a new business, so Dan and Keith moved at a quick pace to bring in clients. In their first year, they intensely focused on business development and service delivery, period. Aliter maintained lean operations, a manageable service area, and didn’t spend a lot on pursuits such as an expensive website or richly appointed office space.
Their goals were to win business and cultivate their clients’ trust, to earn more business and drive revenue.
In their second year, they began to build out the team and streamline operational efficiency. Aliter continued to maintain a lean operation with low overhead and minimal expenses, yet continually found ways to present themselves to the industry. They faced several typical business challenges, but persevered. Their simple no-frills business-mentality was well received and respected by their clients and employees.
As Aliter has grown, Dan and Keith encountered curveballs and things that didn’t work as planned. But as dedicated business partners, they calmed each other down, talked each other up, and maintained their focus. They briefly celebrated their successes and then continued to improve processes, build their team and build a pipeline. For example, they launched Aliter Ventures to provide innovative solutions for the industry.
The partners are incredibly proud that they never needed a loan, incurred any debt, or had to attract investors to raise capital to fund their firm while continuing to generate sustainable growth every year since the firm’s inception – a very rare accomplishment in business today.
Developing People Differently
Dan and Keith soon realized that the education component was even more critical to sustaining their culture than they anticipated, so they methodically developed a comprehensive in-house Aliter training program. Aliter training focuses on deep and broad professional development, beyond tactical project management and business performance skills that are already second nature to their seasoned consultants.
Training topics include effective client engagement; how to maintain productive communications; how to adapt to adverse situations; and other intangible concepts that typical management consulting training does not cover. The team appreciates this commitment, often remarking that they’ve never received such dedicated support, and how much it helps them be more effective, well-rounded professionals.
Their Process of Building Brand Equity
Their experience and expertise came with their new business model, but not their employees. Early on, the biggest challenge they had to overcome was Aliter’s lack of brand equity on paper. But each time they faced a hurdle, they persevered and won business that has multiplied.
For every decision, they sought to balance the competing priorities of business and people. Their goal is to be 100% referenceable with clients by building relationships and maintaining trust. They also seek to earn 100% employee retention by doing the right thing by their team.
One of the partners’ proudest moments was when a client from one of the largest banks in the world told them: “Aliter has quickly become the provider of choice for firms seeking help to achieve their target state operating model.”
“Aliter has quickly become the provider of choice for firms seeking help to achieve their target state operating model.”
Accelerated Innovation and Growth
When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, Aliter was fortunate that they already had a strong client base and projects in progress. They also were already using remote technology to streamline internal and external communications.
This innovation enabled them to transform their consulting services into a different kind of value-added structure and business model for their clients. They had been building toward it, but the pandemic accelerated their efforts and allowed them to focus more on delivering the best solution for clients through the collective knowledge of Aliter and less on individuals’ locations and workable hours.
This positive shift to more virtual work environments made a big difference. It increased their clients’ openness to virtual collaboration, and also allowed them to be more cost-effective with fees, more fit for purpose, and more flexible in terms of their work arrangements. Simply put, they can tackle projects with the right resources, not just the available ones.
The pandemic also accelerated Aliter’s ability to hire people from all over the United States and globally, and enhance their team with rich diversity.
The Aliter Team now consists of over 40 professionals and continues to grow.
An Attractive Career Option
Diversity is a major focus as they grow the firm. Beyond the traditional differences, their team encompasses a wide variety of skill sets, personality traits, geographic locations,and career backgrounds from service providers at banks or asset managers as well as experience with various aspects of the business such as front, middle and back office, data management, securities lending and transfer agency, etc.
For each project, they create a powerful team of accomplished experts that complement each other’s skills, personalities, career backgrounds and experiences, to benefit each other and their clients.
The Aliter environment and business model allows for people’s various working requirements to be met. Dan and Keith provide their team the opportunity to apply their unique skills, contribute in meaningful ways, and feel valued. They are proud that their model adapts and fits people’s lives in a way that other firms may not offer.
The partners want to be a great company for their team; but they also need the team members to be a great fit, and represent Aliter’s values so as to consistently deliver for their clients. They’re very focused on that concept. While the industry faces talent shortages, their experience is that very talented people want to work with them because they offer more flexibility and many intangible benefits.
Dan and Keith have created a familial culture of work-life balance that empowers their people, instead of burning them out. For example, they say, “coach your kids, invest in yourself, invest in your career, be there for your family”. It’s a big deal to both of them, and they truly live and believe it.
It’s not just younger professionals who value work-life balance. People with decades of industry experience are tired of sacrificing too much time, working 70 hours a week, traveling the globe, being on the phone at all hours with various time zones, and want their lives back. These people love the business and want to contribute, but crave work-life balance, and are drawn to Aliter’s refreshing culture that provides an ideal work environment and rewards dedication with many intangible benefits.
Aliter team members are responsive, respectful clients of each other first, before serving external clients.
Their people can be entrepreneurial, and carve out their niche according to their strengths and interests, such as business development, writing, recruiting, and a wide variety of internal projects.
Aliter offers something special for people who seek something fresh in their career. To Dan and Keith, there’s nothing more important than maintaining an environment for people to earn a living and be happy and fulfilled.
To Dan and Keith, there’s nothing more important than maintaining an environment for people to earn a living and be happy and fulfilled.
Committed to the Best Solution for Clients
A key challenge for many firms in the management consulting industry is remaining objective. All professionals develop their network, and naturally become friendly with many of their industry peers. However, some firms have fallen into the practice of referring business only to favored service providers. This partiality compromises effectiveness and can jeopardize the reputation of a consultant and firm. When you lose the confidence of your peers and clients, you can be out of business tomorrow.
As an independent firm, the partners are acutely aware that it’s imperative to remain objective. That’s why they operate “down the middle” and are committed to developing the best solution for each client.
Rather than focusing on winning, they are committed to the solution by applying discipline and structure. When they deal with two different groups within one client, the goal is to ensure they work well together. They don’t side with either; rather, they facilitate their appreciation of what each other brings to the table, and work toward the best solution for all parties.
When they help a client choose a vendor, people are often surprised by how transparent they are with each proposing firm about their expectations and goals for their client. They do this because they consider it their responsibility to find the best solution for their client, and their duty to do all they can to ensure that all proposed vendors bring their best to the table for the client.
This commitment has earned their team an industry-wide reputation for objectivity, fairness, transparency, and results.
The Biggest Surprise
Dan and Keith always assumed they would compete well against smaller firms, but were surprised by how quickly they won business against the more established management consulting firms.
Considering how much business Aliter has earned versus industry consulting giants with great reputations, hundreds of staff and millions of advertising dollars, they feel extremely validated and encouraged to continue their mission to improve the management consulting industry.