“Embrace change!” That’s the philosophy of Shelly O’Brien, Envestnet’s chief legal officer, general counsel, and corporate secretary, who in her thirteen-year career at the financial services technology company has described the job as interesting, challenging, and always changing. In 2002, she became the firm’s first in-house lawyer and went to work building its legal and compliance structure from the ground up.
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER FORTIFIES ENVESTNET’S VALUE
Envestnet is the “800-pound gorilla” in the wealth management industry, as described by a 2015 Investment News article. Yet what that weighty image conjures attests to Envestnet’s impressive record for seemingly relentless growth by acquisition—eight companies in the last five years—that culminates in what the Chicago-based company is today: a powerhouse in the market of independent financial advisers and institutions.
The one-stop-shop mission motivates Envestnet’s portfolio diversification strategy and fuels its success without losing its innovative edge. Consider the varied scope of some of its recent acquisitions: Yodlee, a cloud-based data analytics firm; Upside, an online investment platform; and Finance Logix, financial planning software.
This massive expansion of services, while increasing Envestnet’s scale (almost $800 billion in total assets), pushed Envestnet to rank sixteenth of the 100 Fastest-Growing Companies list in 2015 by Fortune magazine, citing its management of 2.9 million accounts and doubled revenues over the last three years.
Today, O’Brien directly oversees a chief compliance officer, five lawyers, and one paralegal. She is responsible for all legal and compliance functions, which includes oversight of corporate governance, risk management, as well as the development of Envestnet’s policies and procedures.
As a member of the executive team, O’Brien works closely with company leadership to implement the firm’s strategic business initiatives, including mergers and acquisitions and the structuring of new products and services. O’Brien also works closely with the board of directors in her role as corporate secretary.
“We have a highly innovative team. The company has successfully maintained its entrepreneurial spirit while growing rapidly, and that’s a tough thing to do. It also makes for a very exciting working environment,” O’Brien says. “We are a compliance-centric organization and compliance is built into the business processes in each functional area.”
One of O’Brien’s biggest accomplishments was helping Envestnet go public five years ago, a transition that required a great deal of teamwork and determination.
“An IPO is a significant milestone for any company, and being part of the team that took Envestnet public in 2010 was, without question, a noteworthy moment in my career,” O’Brien says. “I learned a great deal during the process and was very proud of the company and my colleagues. Although the process of becoming a public company is rigorous, the strong corporate governance and compliance culture we created at our company prior to the IPO positioned us well to deal with the increased regulation that goes hand-in-hand with being a public company.”
O’Brien began her legal career working for a division of ING that operated ING Bank’s global exchange-traded derivatives activities. She quickly rose to the position of general counsel and director of legal and compliance. “Three years into working as general counsel, I got my first big lesson in embracing change when ING sold off my division,” she says. “Fortunately, change always presents new opportunities.”
After helping wind down ING’s ownership of her division, O’Brien learned about an intriguing opportunity at Envestnet. She met with Envestnet’s CEO and founder, Jud Bergman, and was immediately impressed by his vision for the company.
“In 2001, after the division was sold, outside counsel told me that his partner was doing legal work for a terrific new company that was growing rapidly and needed a general counsel,” O’Brien says, explaining that there was a great sense of excitement about the business. “Most importantly for me, they all agreed that compliance must be taken very seriously, and they expressed a genuine desire to do things the right way from the start.”
Today, O’Brien works closely with Envestnet’s leadership as a key player in the company’s growth, navigating Envestnet’s acquisition of more than nine companies. These acquisitions helped Envestnet strengthen its platform and grow its business. As of June 2015, Envestnet’s platform supported a large and growing network of more than 42,000 financial advisers, three million investor accounts, and almost $800 billion in total assets.
“We are in a highly regulated industry with rapidly changing requirements. It’s a challenge for both the company and our client base,” O’Brien says. “Our platform and service line-up has expanded significantly since I started with the company, so it is critical that my legal and compliance team keeps up with our business and the changing regulatory environment.”
O’Brien believes that the company’s success has been fueled by its willingness to change and adapt to meet client needs, with its primary goal being to respect and strengthen the relationship between advisers and their investor clients. “We listen to our clients, whether they are large institutions or small registered investment advisers,” she says. “And our senior management team is accessible to them to hear their ideas about how we can craft solutions to help them provide better service to their investor clients.”
Looking back at her own career, O’Brien believes that financial services is an excellent career choice for new attorneys looking for variety. At Envestnet, every day is different and that’s what she loves about her job. There’s a high level of complexity in financial services, so opportunities exist to handle a wide range of legal issues, according to O’Brien. “Because we are in a highly regulated industry, I spend a portion of each day on research and analysis of proposed regulations,” O’Brien says.
“I also spend time with department heads dealing with a wide range of issues, including matters related to employment, contracts, leases, insurance, and intellectual property—to name a few.”
O’Brien’s many roles at Envestnet keep the work interesting, inspiring her to take on a variety of responsibilities that help broaden out her career experience overall while moving Envestnet forward.