Ep. 135: James Burton - Crisis can lead to Opportunity

James Burton, Chief Growth Officer at Personal Capital, is a 30-year veteran of the financial industry. he’s held executive and C-level positions at some of the most respected financial institutions in the world. Now he’s come out of retirement to step into a role that was too exciting to resist — chief growth officer at fintech trailblazer Personal Capital. Winston Churchill once said, "“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” And James has adopted this as his mantra. In this episode, hear how he and his company helped clients navigate the COVID-19 crisis, how this wisdom applies to regular business fluctuation, and how crisis (no matter how big or small) can lead to great opportunity. Download and listen now!

Welcome back to Count Me In.

IMA's podcast about all things affecting
the accounting and finance world.

This is your host Adam Larson,

and I'm here to bring you episode 135
of our series with featured guest,

James Burton. In the
wealth management space,

a few can claim to have
accomplished more than James,

a 20 year veteran of the industry,
he has held executive, management,

and C-level positions at some of the
most respected financial institutions in

the world. He now serves as Chief
Growth Officer at fintech trailblazer,

Personal Finance,

and joins Count Me In to talk about
how to turn a crisis into opportunity.

Keep listening as we head
over to the conversation now.

So James,

obviously the global pandemic of 2020
caused a crisis for many businesses.

A lot of our listeners felt
this impact. For you personally,

I'd like to start off our conversation
by just having you explain,

how did you help clients and organizations
navigate through these difficult

times, particularly in the beginning?

Yeah thanks, Mitchell. You know,

something like a pandemic
and the initial market slump

that it caused, that really, that really
makes you reconsider everything, right?

All your assumptions about your
business model, your strategy,

your growth opportunities,
trying to see into the future.

And naturally many of our clients went
through very similar reflections about

their goals and their
financial situations,

and they had a lot of
questions about the future too.

And the demand for advice,

financial advice and expert
support definitely increased.

And in this case, it turned out
that our company, Personal Capital,

we were highly prepared for the crisis
because we already had a hybrid digital

and human model advisory
model is technology enabled to

operate remotely. So in
a very general sense,

we just stuck to our knitting. That's
a British term, I think, meaning,

we stayed on strategy and we continued
interacting with our clients and

supporting them through their
financial concerns during the pandemic,

particularly in those early,
very stressful months.

But we also made a very crucial pivot to

getting everyone to remote working,
from home literally overnight.

And we could do that because of
how the company was designed and

built. So, you know,

the result was that despite the
initial market slump that we

went through, we actually saw strong
growth last year. People want advice.

They want to holistic advice and they
mostly don't want to travel to a brick and

mortar building or office with wood
panels, you know, nice little offices.

They certainly didn't want to travel
during a pandemic, right. And now,

you know,

a year later they know that in fact they
don't need to go any further than their

kitchen or the home
office, to work with us.

So we were able to help them, right away
and we were able to help them remotely,

which was great.

And now, you know, kind of building
on this conversation a little bit,

in leading up to our recording today,

I was told that you follow a
quote from Winston Churchill.

It's a bit of a mantra and
if I can just read the quote,

"never let a good crisis go to waste". So,

to help explain for our listeners here,
why, what does that mean to you? How,

do you go about using that as a mantra?

Yeah, so Winston Churchill,

he certainly produced a lot of great
motivational quotes and I do particularly

like that one, "never let
a good crisis go to waste".

I find myself using it a
lot actually. And, you know,

a good crisis, is very
often a great opportunity.

And that's because it's when you're
forced to reconsider everything, you know,

all your assumptions, your business
model, your strategy, your opportunities,

even your very survival sometimes.

A really good crisis puts
all of that in the picture.

And as a result,

it's often when meaningful change is
initiated and it's when we move forward

from the past, you know,

to the future way of thinking. And in
the case of our company, as I mentioned,

we found that as it happened,

we designed and prepared very well for
the lockdown and we could commit to

this virtual first
approach. And as a result,

we've proved beyond doubt that virtual
financial advice works very well.

If you have the right technology and
business model and it's here to stay.

So a great crisis here,
which it really was,

and in many ways still is, you know,

helped us prove that and move
into a future where, you know,

advice can look very
different for Americans.

And now we are, you know, roughly
16, 17 months through this, you know,

it's been a year and a half and,

you mentioned going into the
future a little bit more,

not every bad thing that happens is
a crisis necessarily for business,

right? We don't always face
something like the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can this mantra, this quote still
apply on a daily basis, you know,

once we kind of returned to
normal or the new normal,

however you want to refer to it.

Can you give us some examples and some
response options for the daily ups and

downs of business and responding this way?

Sure, sure Mitchell, and look, you know,

certainly these have been some strange
and scary times in the past year.

But you know,

it's exciting to look into the
future and see things improving.

I'm definitely happy to share
some examples, but, you know,

as I've thought about this, as

you point out, you know, real
crises and real opportunities,

they're not exactly daily
events, you know, thank goodness.

They tend to come along just when you
think everything's going great in your

business, like maybe
early 2020 for example.

So every few years you
may get a really good

crisis, you know,

something really challenging or bad
happens in the environment or, you know,

in your business. I've got some
examples of how to put, you know,

a good crisis to work,

but I have to mention that they're
not really day to day examples,

they're how to really
harness the big situations.

So if you'll indulge me, I'll
happily proceed, but, you know,

I generally wouldn't
use an expression like,

"never let a good crisis go to waste",
in the day-to-day environments, right.

That's just doing our jobs. So I'm
happy to proceed with, you know,

let's just say longer term, bigger
picture examples. I'll go for it.

Absolutely. Yes, please do.

That's great. So, first of all,

I could go back in the time
machine, maybe about 20 years.

And, at the time I was working for
a well-known stock broker based

here in San Francisco,

and the company had
experienced huge growth in the

late 1990s. And then
along came the crisis,

the tech bubble burst in 2000.

For anybody who was active
in the markets at that time,

you'll know that the market
just bond and, you know,

trading activity and the interest
of people investing in their

financial accounts, it
just fell off a cliff.

And there was a lot of revenue
pressure for businesses,

like the one I was part
of. And here's the thing,

clients were asking, what should
I do? You know, they wanted help.

And at the time the company was known
for being an online stock broker that

would execute your stock or fund trades,
but it wasn't known for giving advice.

And here we were with a
situation where, you know,

the markets had completely changed, the
revenue dynamic had completely changed,

there was a lot of pressure in the
business and there was pressure from our

clients to help them in new ways. So
there's the opportunity right there.

So we responded by building out
new financial advisory capabilities

to meet this demand for advice that
was emerging from the client base,

you know, when the markets turned.

And what we started
back then in a period of

considerable adversity, now in time it
became a major part of that business.

So that's,

I just wanted to provide kind of a
historical example of how some of these,

pivotal market events in the financial
industry actually could really generate

a significant positive change if you
can get through them successfully.

So that was one example.

I've got another one, which is
about, the company I work for now,

Personal Capital, and it's
a little different. And

I'm gonna, explain what I mean by that.

So Personal Capital came out of what
I think of as an industry crisis,

by the way,

it also came out of the
financial crisis. It was,

founded in 2009 and,

at the time of the great recession and
financial crisis that started in 2008.

And at that time, most of the
industry was really falling behind,

in terms of, you know,

not providing the kind of
experiences that other companies,

digitally based companies
were providing. So, Mitchell,

let me ask you a question
if I may, just to, you know,

break it up for myself a little bit
here. Could you, just give me a,

maybe a company or a brand that you
use pretty regularly in your life,

that has a digital component to it.

Oh sure.

My wife always gives me a hard time of
all the Amazon packages that we show up

at the front door. It's almost
a daily delivery for us.

So I'm a prime member and Amazon is
definitely something we use regularly.

That's a great example I
expect, you know, like my home,

your driveway is probably like a FedEx
or UPS shipping depot some days, right.

So thank you, great example, you know,

that's the kind of service that
many of us have found that,

you know we wonder how we do without
it having gotten so used to it.

And if you think about some
other brands, like, I dunno,

TripAdvisor or Uber,
or Sonos or Stitch Fix,

and some of those brands we haven't used
much in the pandemic, but before that,

they were, you know, very prevalent.

These are brands and companies that
cross the physical and digital worlds

and you know,

what they've done in their spaces as
they've leveraged data and technology and

in turn, they provide us the consumer,

the customer with information
and control and choice,

great convenience, often
great value as well.

They undercut the existing
pricing in the industry,

and frankly they transformed our
experience as consumers, right,

and as a result, they grew exponentially.

So I just wanted to remind
us of that background because

I can't trust sort of
meanwhile, 10 or 15 years ago,

you know, I think household finance,

personal finance was having
its very own crisis, you know,

when it came to the user experience
and it was really ready for

transformation. Let me explain a little
bit. I'll try and make this kind of,

pretty real, because I think it will
resonate with you. So, you know,

at Personal Capital we have,

almost 3 million users on the
platform and as a result we can see a

lot of,

what they do and how they organize their
lives and we can understand quite a lot

about their financial situation,
which is how we can then help them.

But one of the things that's really
notable is that we see that the typical

household that's using the platform
has about 15 financial accounts,

which is a big number,
right. And just, you know,

think about your own situation.
Maybe this will resonate.

Probably you've got a bank account,
you may have got, I don't know,

maybe at high school, maybe at college
at some point you've got a bank account,

you've got a debit card. Maybe
you've got a savings account too.

And then maybe you went
to work for somebody after
college and you got a 401k or

something like that. Maybe you changed
jobs, so you've got another 401k.

Maybe you were smart and
you opened an IRA as well,

and perhaps you got some credit cards
along the way and maybe a mortgage if you

bought your first home yet. And,

maybe you have an awful loan, maybe
you have a Bitcoin account, you know,

it goes on and on, right. So you know,

typical household has this great
sort of array of financial accounts

and, you know, it's a
lot and it's, you know,

the question is how do you really
understand your financial situation when

you've got the stuff spread
all over the place? And that's,

you know, think about the, all the
different logins you have to know,

all the different statements you
might be receiving, put in whatnot,

it's just a lot to really
put it all together.

So most people don't truly understand
their financial situation and they

don't have that control and understanding
that you would expect them to have

with the digital revolution
that occurred, you know, 10, 15,

20 years ago. So how
do you deal with that?

Well, maybe you can use a spreadsheet
if you're motivated, I've tried it,

it was kind of fun

for maybe an hour, right?
And then, you know,

and that's only if you really
like numbers, which I do.

And then it gets really tedious
and it gets hard work to update it

and pretty quickly it's out of
date, it's dragging, you know,

your, whatever you put in for savings
and investments and values is old,

whatever you put in for your
debts or borrowings, it's old,

it's very hard to keep it up
to date. I think, you know,

even very accomplished accountants would
find that pretty tedious and probably

give up pretty quickly, right?

So that was essentially what we saw as

the crisis in financial services,

which was that just when life was
getting more and more complicated,

particularly with the financial crisis,

people didn't have the resources they
needed and that was an environmental

crisis. So in this case,
looking more from the outside,

we saw the opportunity,

the founders of the company saw the
opportunity to really address that and

change the way the industry works,

by bringing everything together for
you in a dashboard where frankly,

with a few minutes, you can
enter your financial accounts,

it's safe and secure, it's very
important to people by the way.

And then you can see your net worth,

you can track your savings and budget and
you can really understand what's going

on in your life. So that was
an example of where, you know,

what is essentially a crisis
at the personal level for
people and turn it into a

really great opportunity to help them.
I'll make a quick plug, by the way,

if I may here little cheeky
of me, but I'm a believer. So,

Personal Capital is by the way free.

So the tools on the platform
are free for everyone to use and

I would, you know,

I would encourage people to give it a
try if you find it complicated to track

your financial life. I'll pause there.

Well, thank you and the examples you
shared certainly do resonate with me.

I can certainly relate to a lot of
the examples and situations that you

discussed. So, you know,

definitely a conversation I think is very
relevant to many of our listeners and

the more we talk about finance
and personal finance, you know,

this is certainly the audience. So
I think that resonates very well.

I do want to kind of
continue on this track,

but bring us back to the
whole idea of, you know,

crisis management a little bit and a lot
of what we talked about is opportunity

recognition from the
organizational perspective, right?

We're talking about businesses and
recognizing how to persevere and then come

out on top, you know, never
letting a good crisis go to waste.

So how about from this
individual level? You know,

you talked a little bit about individuals
being able to take advantage of these

opportunities, but how does it relate
to the individual and, you know,

even if it's a supervisor
managerial perspective, you know,

understanding what an individual can
do during and following a crisis,

what do you have to say about
that kind of perspective?

Yeah, thank you. It's a great question.

That's one I've reflected on a lot
because I do feel that some of the most

challenging situations I've
been in, in my career have also

been, the greatest opportunities.
And so we talked already about how,

from a company perspective, you know,

you shouldn't waste a good crisis
because it's when you get a chance to

reconsider things. It's
when change is initiated,

it's when you start to move from,
you know, the past into the future.

But I think at the personal level,

there's also a lot to this. I
think it's when people are tested,

they can test themselves and they get
tremendous personal growth opportunities.

Obviously it can be in a very
stressful situation, but,

if you can survive that, you know,

that can be full of opportunity.
It's also when teamwork,

your teamworking skills, your resilience
and attitude, your work ethic,

they really count, you know, when
things are difficult. And as a result,

I think it's when, many
careers are actually made.

That's certainly been my experience.

Oftentimes the crisis is a really
a great career opportunity.

And in the financial industry,
you know, in years, like 2000

to 2002 or 2008 to 2010 or 2020,

and we're not fully out of the
woods yet either. You know,

you can already learn and grow, you know,

at greatly accelerated rates relative
to what you would generally be doing

day-to-day when things are
going relatively smoothly.

Because you're solving for so many
problems and issues. And also,

you know, I think it's very exciting
you get to work in different ways. Now,

sometimes you may work very intensely
with people you don't usually work with,

you know, teams are reformed,

new problems have to be solved so
people come together in different ways.

New leaders emerge and you forge
new relationships with colleagues

or business partners,

that can be very deep and can
carry forward for many years.

And that can be very exciting and
very rewarding as well. So, you know,

these situations can be
many different things.

They can be a big
strategic place such as, an

acquisition or merger deal. It
doesn't matter which side you're on,

it's going to be a very
intense time. You know,

and you may be an owner or an advisor,

but still you're going to be super busy
and you're going to be working with new

people. It could be a legal issue.

Those obviously come up in businesses
from time to time and it can be very

stressful, but again require the same
discipline of focus and teamwork and

getting the right people together.

And also it could be a market crisis and
it doesn't matter which of those it is,

my advice is to lean in and
make the most of it in terms of,

you know, what you bring to the
table and the people you get to meet.

Well, thank you. I know from an IMA
perspective through all of this,

we really emphasize the importance
of upscaling and rescaling

through all of this, right.
We looked at this, you know,

the last year and a half as
a great individual learning
opportunity for many of

our members, you know,
many of our listeners here.

What can we do to better ourselves during
this difficult time so that when you

know, that next phase does come about,
we're prepared to take advantage of it.

So, you know, to kind of
wrap up our conversation,

I do want to kind of build
on that a little bit further.

I'll ask you to take out your crystal
ball if you could and if you had to offer

up some advice to our listeners,
as far as crisis management,

managing others, personal development,
anything we've talked about so far today,

when it comes to preparing for the future,

what is your stance and what would
you like to share to wrap things up?

Thanks first, Mitchell. That's a
great question and I'm, you know,

I'm very fortunate to have learned so
much from so many great colleagues over

the years,

and I try to distill it down and
simplify it in terms of, you know,

any perspective I would share
to just really three things.

And those three things
are, your customers,

your purpose for your mission
and the people you work with.

And let me just say a few
words about each of those.

Starting with customers. You
know, so I've personally,

I've spent most of my career working
in direct to consumer businesses and,

but I think the same would apply in
that business to business environment as


And I think the thing is to be as up
close and personal as you possibly can

be and remember that, you know,

your customer is a person
or a couple or a family.

They have hopes and dreams and fears just
like everyone and they're really busy

people. So we need to do everything
we can to understand them,

what they need, what they
think, what they experience,

and particularly in a time of
crisis and particularly a time

of crisis for customers,

really understand the problems they face
and why they face them and get to the

root causes.

And if you can get to the
truth as experienced by your

customer set, that's incredibly valuable
in helping you, frankly at any time.

It should be something we
all work on all the time,

but it's particularly valuable
in a time of crisis or stress.

So that's customers. I think, you know,

if we do a good job of that,

we can develop and refine our
purpose, our mission, you know,

what are we here to do? What
are we trying to achieve?

How do we help our customers address
their challenges and do better?

And so a strong purpose is obviously

very inspiring to us and to others,

and it galvanizes us to make things
better, drive for change. And, you know,

if you have a really strong mission,

it makes work so meaningful and it makes
your time incredibly valuable because

you'll never have enough of it, right.

You're just so focused and busy all
the time and so I do think that,

and it's advice I give
actually to, you know,

younger folk who are starting
out on their careers,

is to find an organization where
you feel very onboard with their

purpose and their mission and you will
find you are inspired by it and your time

flies by. And so that brings me to people,

my third thing that I always
focus on in times of crisis,

but also any other time,
which is, you know,

for me at least, the people
that we associate with,

they're the single most
important decision you can make,

or maybe it's accidental, but they're
still the single most important factor,

in how, you know, how things are
going to go career wise and so on.

And the sort of questions I would ask
is, you know, do we share similar values?

Do we believe similar things?

Do we have a similar ambition to
make things better and to drive

positive change in the
industry we're in or the world?

Do we love to collaborate
with each other and team up?

Are we going to be courageous when
faced with a crisis and obstacles?

And frankly, you know,
when you're thinking about
joining a team or a company,

are these people that we're
going to enjoy spending

potentially years working on something
very difficult and challenging,

is that going to be a rewarding
experience? And if the answer is, yes,

that's really fantastic. And
the chances are, you know,

these are the sorts of people who are
going to see opportunities and they're

going to be motivated
to strive after them,

rather than just seeing
difficulties everywhere,

which is the other way
of seeing it, right?

So that's what I would really try
and synthesize down as customers

and purpose and people,
and then sure, you know,

you need to have the right
kind of talent on the team.

You need to have the right
technical skills and expertise.

I'm kind of assuming you have that. I'm
more focused on, some broader things.

I would also say you need to have the
right planning and operational discipline,

but again, if you have the right
people, those things will come.

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