By John McCrank
NEW YORK (Reuters) - TD Ameritrade Holding Corp is boosting its technology spending by around 25 percent in an effort to increase the speed and scope of technological innovation at the No. 1 online broker by trading volume, its chief executive officer said on Tuesday.
The move comes as "fintech" firms attempt to shake up the financial services sector through new technologies like blockchain, cloud computing and robo-advisers, offering cheaper alternatives to traditional money management.
"We were the original fintechs," Tim Hockey, CEO of TD Ameritrade, said in an interview, referring to discount brokerages in general, as well as the company's development of an online investment adviser, Amerivest, in 2004, well ahead of the current crop of robo-advisers.
Hockey, who took over as CEO on Oct. 1, said one of his top goals was to "speed up the metabolism of the place."
That task could be complicated by Omaha-based TD Ameritrade's deal to buy smaller rival Scottrade for $2.7 billion, potentially giving it a combined $1 trillion in assets and 10 million client accounts with around 600,000 trades executed per day. The deal, announced last month, was already in motion before Hockey took over as boss.
Hockey is hoping the takeover will not distract too much from his technology plans. In addition to the budget increase, he has cut out layers of management and has raised the bar on what projects will be approved. The aim is for the technology team's output to double in 2017 compared with this year.
TD Ameritrade does not disclose its technology budget.
Hockey said he has been working since mid-summer to find existing funds within the firm to allocate to his technology team to do things like create new interfaces that allow investors to use TD Ameritrade more seamlessly. "Part of my task will be to literally get the organization back on our front foot when it comes to investment in cutting-edge technology," he said.
For instance, the company plans to announce next week a new feature available on Amazon.com's voice-controlled Echo home assistant Alexa that gives users market updates from TD Ameritrade.
Hockey said he has been using the prototype, typically asking Alexa to tell him the news in the morning when he returns to his Lower Manhattan apartment from the gym. In the future, he said he could envision asking Alexa what trades he might make to take advantage of the latest news and then making trades through TD Ameritrade on the device at any time in the day.
To pay for the increased technology spending, departments across the firm were asked to scrap ongoing projects that were not proving to be successful. It turned out there were plenty.
One was a program related to robo-adviser unit Amerivest that rebated some fees for new clients whose portfolios performed poorly. Although the promotion was expected to attract new investors, it didn't move the needle, Hockey said.
"But we kept it on life support and were paying out millions of dollars, so I said, 'Ok, let's just swallow hard and we'll stop it,' and life didn't end," he said.
Some other projects being looked at include adding voice recognition to TD Ameritrade's online platforms, moving data to a private internet-based cloud, and developing blockchain functions, which allow users to conduct transactions more effortlessly, to cut administration costs.
"We've got not just great opportunities to invest for client innovation, but frankly, great opportunities to invest for our own cost savings," said Hockey, a former Toronto-Dominion Bank executive.
(Reporting by John McCrank; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Leslie Adler)