QA: Inside the Day & Life of the First Rate Wealth Managing Director
On September 23, 2022, The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Arlington Today, announced their inaugural class of 40 under 40 recipients. Among those recipients was First Rate’s own Managing Director of Wealth, Alex Serman. We sat down with Alex Serman to learn more about his professional journey as well as his personal passions that have led him to receive this honorable award.
First of all, Alex, congratulations on being inaugurated into Arlington’s 40 under 40 award. Can you tell me a little bit about the criteria and considerations for the award?
Thank you! The first criteria for the 40 under 40 was both living and working either in Arlington or in one of the surrounding cities. I live and work in Arlington, so that helps me a good bit with the award. But it also looks at your involvement in the community from a business standpoint and from a philanthropic standpoint. Being with a local company that does a lot in the community through our First Rate Giving initiative, which is essentially us giving 10% off the top of our revenue back to our local community, the community in which our clients work, and then the communities in which we work globally, was noteworthy for the consideration. And then my personal involvement with First Rate by participating in the First Rate Giving Circle, where I helped secure a donation of about $80,000 towards the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Tarrant County. In addition to that, I work with the Boys and Girls Club as a member of their Club Council, which is kind of a junior board role. Last but not least, I serve on the Par for the Kids Golf Tournament Committee, which is an annual golf tournament that raises money for the Boys and Girls Club for Greater Tarrant County. Then from a business standpoint I’ve seen quite of bit of success in my career thus far, having worked for the same local company pretty much my entire adult life. I started as an intern with First Rate, moved up to an analyst role, to a lead analyst, to a service manager, and then now to a managing director, where I manage our firm’s largest clients. I was able to make that progression in under six years with First Rate, two of which were part-time. The success I’ve had in the business world and the contributions I’ve made philanthropically really helped to solidify my chances of being selected for this honor. The last piece of criteria for the award was that there were no self-nominations. Somebody in the community felt that I was deserving of the honor and nominated me. He called me up one morning and asked if I was okay with him nominating me. I said of course and that I was honored so he sent me some forms to fill out with details around my career, education, and community involvement, and it happened to happen to work out. I was selected among 39 amazing individuals in the Arlington area. For me, it was great being selected, but the fact that someone even took time out of their day to think I might be worth nominating was extremely meaningful and humbling.
It was very exciting to have one of our own on the list for 40 under 40. It is quite the accomplishment. I would love to drill into your professional background a little bit more. So, tell us a little bit about your journey, getting to the point that you are today. What is your background in Wealth Management Technology and what led you to First Rate?
I started out as an intern after my sophomore year of college. I was looking for an internship and my mom ran into an employee of First Rate at a party and got to talking and said that I was looking for an internship. She said First Rate was looking for interns who were majoring in business or finance, so I applied and got the job. I started out just working for the summer and then my manager at the time felt that I did a good enough job they wanted me to stay on throughout the school year. I worked part time for the rest of my college career while getting my Bachelor’s and my Master’s degrees concurrently. I graduated with both at the same time which took pretty much 18 hours every semester, plus working, plus trying to have a social life, so I didn’t sleep very much. Then upon graduation, I started full time as a performance analyst. I was given a few clients of my own to basically do day-to-day operations and manage the monthly account processing.
I did that for about a year, then was promoted to an Analyst II and shortly thereafter became the lead analyst for First Rate’s largest client and did that for about another two years. During this time, I made a lot of significant contributions to several projects, improving the efficiency of how we do processing, and really understanding and maximizing how we add value to our clients. After that, I was promoted again to service manager with a team of five analysts. I had about six or seven larger firms for which I oversaw not just the day-to-day operations but also focused on maintaining those relationships and improving their experience with First Rate at a higher level. I got to learn more of the professional development of team members and employees, which was initially very intimidating, but I found that I really enjoy helping people achieve their goals both professionally and personally.
Less than a year after being in that role, First Rate restructured and refocused its business lines to be Market Centric in order to better serve our clients. I applied, and was selected, to be the Managing Director of the Wealth market, which is where I am today. Now I’m running the strategic operations and the growth of the entire business line focused on firms that are in the bank/trust space with assets under management at $10 billion and above. I’m now solely responsible for making sure that the entire team is supporting those clients to the best of our abilities. I’m also working on growing that sector and learning more about ways in which we can change the industry, ways in which we can grow and continue to support our existing client base, and ways in which we can recruit prospective clients. I’ve had to learn quite a bit in the last year to manage that, understanding things that I never had any experience in, such as sales and marketing. Now I’m responsible for about a dozen or so employees. It is my goal to help my team advance their careers, help them learn, help them grow and succeed, all while continuing to improve the experience our clients have and make sure that we’re doing everything we can do to be the best company we can be. The more we grow, the more we’re able to give back to the community. Our success directly benefits our communities that we live and work in. That’s kind of the overview of my journey through First Rate in about six years.
Thank you for that insight into your background, Alex. We have all really enjoyed watching your progress the past few years. Being that you progressed to a leadership role in such a short amount of time, gaining the respect of your team can be a challenge all on its own. Can you tell me, what are some of your strengths as a manager and what is your leadership style like?
I try to be pretty hands-off with my team. I’m always there to support them if they need me, but I want to give them the latitude and the flexibility to make decisions in their sphere of responsibilities. If they ever need me, they know they can reach out to me and I’ll always jump in, I’ll roll up my sleeves and I’ll help with even the smallest of tasks if that’s what it takes. I trust my team to handle things on a day-to-day basis, and they’ve done an extremely good job of doing that, which has allowed me to focus on my personal responsibilities, such as growing the business and looking at the business line from a bird’s eye view rather than from trying to dig into the weeds of the day-to-day. They’ve been really great at keeping me out of that and not only maintaining good relationships with clients, but even improving relationships with some clients that we may have had more strained relationships with the past. They’ve done a fantastic job and I would really credit a good amount of my success, especially in this role, to the team that works with me.
It’s important to me that they know that they’ve got somebody that has their best interests at heart and is really working to not just improve our clients experience, but every employee’s experience on the team here at First Rate. Not to mention, this is somewhere that they feel like they can be themselves, and they actually enjoy coming to work, and enjoy the people they’re working with. Overall, I think that my greatest strength as a manager is knowing when it’s time to step in and when to allow the team to fly on their own.
After being around your team, I can definitely tell that they have a great deal of respect for you and that you have cultivated an atmosphere that is conducive for collaboration and growth. However, we all know that sometimes the outside world is the bigger challenge. What challenges have you faced transitioning into your leadership role from other peers in your market?
That’s a great question. Yeah, there’s definitely been some challenges. Not as many as I might have expected. It’s pretty clear if I get on a Zoom or I’m meeting somebody in person, that I am on the younger side. I’m in my mid 20’s now and I would say that some of the challenges that I might have expected, like people not taking me seriously or doubting my ability to fulfill this role, haven’t really come up. For the most part, people have accepted me as I am and given me respect and treated me very fairly. For the most part, as they’re working with me, they do realize that I was selected for this role for a reason and that I have earned my way here and I know what I’m doing. I think that once they begin talking to me, any concerns that clients may have, or other coworkers may have, about my age really dissipates.
One of the things that I think I’ve tried to address is that I don’t know everything. I don’t pretend to know everything. I’m pretty upfront that if I’m not familiar with the situation or with a topic, I have no problem bringing in other folks to support me because this isn’t a one man show. Like I mentioned earlier, I rely on my team quite a bit to handle the day-to-day. But I also pull in other Managing Directors for their various experiences that I think would be beneficial to the situation. It’s nice to have them as mentors and learn from them or pull them in when it makes sense. If I’ve got a situation where somebody is asking about how we do hosting, I know I can call on our MD of Managed Hosting and she’ll be ready to support me however needed. Or, I can call in any of our MDs about Products or I could pull in Ventures or even just another MD that runs another business line if I know they’ve had experience with a certain situation, I know I can always call them up and they’re happy to support me however necessary.
I think having the humility to not pretend like you know everything and to be upfront and say, “Hey, I need your help, can you support me?” I think that goes a long way and that’s really helps make smooth roads. I won’t pretend there haven’t been some challenges and some people haven’t tried to see how far they can push the young guy. That has happened a time or two, but thankfully not as much as I might have anticipated. However, even in those situations, it’s pretty easy to shut that down once they realize that I am confident in my capabilities, I’m confident in my team, I’m confident in what First Rate is doing and I’m not as quick to roll over as they might expect from someone my age in a management position.
I think the last challenge I would say is that being in a room full of very experienced leaders, when we have senior management discussions, sometimes I have felt like I’m too inexperienced or that I haven’t been in this role nearly as long as a good number of the people in this room and I might feel like my voice doesn’t matter as much. However, the senior management team has been great both with me and with other younger MDs that are new to this role. They reaffirm that we’ve been selected to these roles for a reason and that our voices should be heard and are necessary to help determine the direction of this company. We’ve got ideas and perspectives that they don’t have, and we’ve got different ways of looking at things and that the combination of all those different perspectives is healthy and good for the company and helps us move into the direction we want to go.
As you continue to push yourself out into the market, we hope that you continue with confidence knowing that you have the support from senior management. I guess it kind of segues into the next question. Although you moved up the ranks pretty quickly, it seems you’re still at the very beginning of your journey. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? And where do you see your team in the next five years?
I think I’ll start with my team. In the next five years, I expect my team to grow quite a bit. I think First Rate as a whole is kind of on this precipice where we have the chance to really have explosive growth. I think right now we’re preparing for that situation. The next five years it’s going to look very different for us. I think we’re going to get quite a bit more clients just through our organic strategies such as our standard performance and reporting platforms, and our data aggregation solution (which is gaining a lot of traction), but then also through our inorganic Venture strategies. With my team, I imagine we’re going to continue to add new members of the team and bring in fresh perspectives. The more experienced team members are going to continue to move up the ranks as we expand. We’re going to need more people moving into service manager roles, and I think we’ve got some great candidates for that in the future. I’m going to continue to encourage and develop those team members into being able to take on additional challenges and try to not get them too complacent in their roles and keep throwing new challenges at them, to keep giving them experiences that help them learn. I think in the next five years that my team will probably be much bigger, much more experienced. I’m requiring that all analysts pursue the CIPM designation as a five-year goal. This will continue to increase the level of knowledge that we have on the team and the capabilities that our team has, especially regarding performance and the ability to support our clients and be consultative with them and guide them in the direction they want to go around performance and reporting (or any other tools that we acquire along the way). Ultimately, I think the team is going to be pretty different just in regards to size and I think the quality of the team members is only going to continue to go up and that the team members we have right now are going to continue to move up the ladder and develop into leadership positions and really show what they can do, and that they’re integral to the forward momentum of First Rate.
For myself, I feel like I’m still quite early in my career. In all honestly, I’m not sure exactly where I’ll be in the next five years. I might still be in the same position, I certainly would like to be. I believe that position will continue to grow in importance as we grow the business line. I’ll continue to revamp what we’re doing, and to try to make the experience fresh for our team and for our clients. I’m also going to continue to work with the other Managing Directors to improve the overall growth of First Rate, our products, and our efficiency. I work very closely with our Products teams and our Professional Services teams, giving enhancement and adjustments suggestions based on our clients’ needs. That direct client feedback has been the catalyst for several new products in the works. Based on that, we could potentially revolutionize how the industry sees First Rate. I just want to continue to be a thought leader for development and innovation that will help lead First Rate into the future.
As you know, First Rate has invested quite a bit into the Venture space lately and has been very focused on strategic partnerships. How do you feel that some of First Rate’s acquisitions and partnerships are impacting or enhancing the vision that you have for your team and for your ability to serve the Wealth market?
I think what we’re doing with Ventures, both from an acquisition standpoint and a partnership standpoint, is directly benefiting the success of the Wealth team. We’ve got several partners that we’re working with currently that have really helped expand our capabilities. We’ve had several acquisitions, especially around our artificial intelligence engine, ArtIE, that’s really driving growth and really ramping up what we can do and just making our technology much more sophisticated and much more flexible. I know we’ve got several other potential partnerships that could really expand how we can improve the client experience. I’ve also been selected to help review and analyze some of those potential opportunities. Some of them I’m championing myself because I feel that these potential partnerships or acquisitions would really benefit what our clients are doing. Despite some of the common misconceptions when it comes to acquisitions, they’re not distracting us from our core offerings and what we’ve been doing for over 30 years. They are actually adding to what we can do and how we can continue to support the industry and continue to support our clients. We’re going to continue to do keep adding on to how we can operate and how we can work in this space and potentially move into more spaces, get other clients that we haven’t historically served, have tools that we historically haven’t had, and then continue to meet the changing trends and the needs of the market.
Because again, the market 30 years ago was extremely different than the market is today. I imagine in the next 30 years it’s going to be even more different, and we’ve got to be able to adapt to that. Having the ability to build, buy or integrate is going to be critical for us. It is also important to know which move is more strategic – should we build this, should we buy somebody or should we partner with somebody to make this happen?
Through you and our other Managing Directors at First Rate, we are excited to watch the evolution of First Rate not only expanding into different market segments but meeting the unique needs of each of them. We’ve touched a lot on your professional background and vision for First Rate Wealth. Let’s chat about community impact for a moment. I know this is something that you are incredibly passionate about, so how do you feel that you are you creating social impact in your professional and or personal role?
Within this role, I have a lot more ability to define the impact that First Rate is having and that my team is having and what we’re doing in regard to our community in both the Arlington area and where we work both domestically and internationally, as many of our employees work remotely from all over the globe. The way I like to look at it is, the more I grow my business, the more First Rate is able to impact the communities. Starting here in Arlington, with my team, we’ve been able to support various organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of Tarrant County, Mission Arlington, and other local organizations. We’ve made donations and other contributions to firms that our clients care about and support what is near and dear to their hearts. Our team members are each given an allotment of money that they can give to a philanthropic organization of their choice. Internationally we’ve got offices in the UK, India, Singapore and Afghanistan. Those communities are all being impacted as well by what First Rate is doing by enabling our coworkers in those areas to impact their own communities and to be able to improve the lives of their families and their communities.
This ripple effect just continues to spread all over the place. I’ve gotten the opportunity to visit some of our international offices, specifically our two offices in India, Hyderabad and Pune, and I’ve been able to see the kind of impact we’re having there. The head of our Hyderabad office helps run an orphanage that I’ve gotten to visit. To see what it’s like there and how they’re positively impacting the community by taking in children that don’t have anywhere else to go and giving them the opportunity to have better lives and to then go on and give back to their own communities as they grow is an eye-opening experience. And then in Pune, our team members have people that they’re supporting, that they might not specifically work for First Rate, but they’re bringing them in and training them on how to program. They’re not working with First Rate data, but they’re just giving them the opportunity to learn new skill sets. They are passionate about supporting people and giving them professional development that would allow them to go on and get jobs and be able to support themselves, support their families, and again, go on to support their communities.
I think what we’re doing on a day to day basis directly impacts how we can benefit communities all over the world. I believe the better I am at my job, then the better I can support my team, and the more we can help people. For example, with us giving 10% of our revenue off the top to organizations that benefit the world, the more revenue we get, the more we can give. There’s never going to be a situation in which First Rate doesn’t do that. I think as we work towards being a bigger company, being a better company, that’s going to be felt throughout the communities in which we live and work. That ripple effect is going to continue to grow and one day hopefully spread to every corner of the earth. We’re not done expanding both domestically and internationally. I think our clients realize that we’re a very different company than a lot of other vendors they might work with and they tend to have a lot more positive experience with us because we do business differently.
That isn’t just a marketing ploy; we truly do business differently. It’s nice that helps us from a business standpoint, but that’s not why we do it. We really do it because we care about our clients, and we care about what they care about. The more we grow, the more we can support that.
We’ve had the pleasure to see firsthand the social and community impact that First Rate has made over the years, and it’s only going to be more impactful as time goes on because of its foundation that was built from personal passions and authentic desires to serve and give to people. It’s awesome to see you and your team, as well as the other business lines, carry on that legacy. I would love to end this on a personal note. We want to get to know who Alex is outside of your executive role. What are some of your personal passions and hobbies?
Most people that know me know that I’m a big whiskey nerd. I’m really passionate about understanding the science and the art and how those combined to make whiskey. That is such an interesting thing to me that people all over the world are doing similar processes and doing similar things to make the same product, but just small, slight changes can have massive differences on the final product. It’s just really interesting to me to go visit different distilleries, go do the tours, understand the nuances of how they do it in their own unique way. I’m particularly passionate about Texas whiskey. Being a Texan, I know stereotypically, we’re very proud of Texas and all things Texas, but I think it’s incredible that we’ve got such a strong culture here and such the environment in which people are distilling whiskey here, it creates such unique flavor profiles. I just think some of the stuff that we’re doing here in Texas is amazing and that in the next few years, I think Texas is really going to become well known for its phenomenal whiskey.
Kentucky and Tennessee have been the long-standing kings of whiskey here in America, but I really think places like Texas, Colorado, and the Northwest are going to be pretty competitive with them once some of these smaller distilleries get a more national and international presence. First Rate has actually been really supportive of my passion for whiskey. They’ve allowed me to start this Whiskey & WealthTech podcast and combine something I’m personally passionate about with my professional passion. Finding a way to blend those together and create something that’s unique, interesting, and exciting and that hopefully draws people in and makes them want to learn more, both about whiskey and about wealth management technology. My fiancée is very tolerant of me and patient with me and goes on a lot of these distillery tours with me. She wasn’t a whiskey person when we first met, but now she enjoys whiskey more often than not. However, she’s decided that she wants to be a tequila girl now because I’ve got my whiskey thing, so she wanted something of her own. If you find us at a bar, I’ll be drinking whiskey neat, and she’ll be drinking Reposado neat, and people just kind of give us funny looks, but we enjoy it.
Outside of whiskey, I’m a big football fan. I went to the University of Alabama but grew up a Clemson fan since both my parents went there, so there’s plenty of drama in our family. But then my fiancée, having graduated from TCU, has a team in the playoffs, so that’s nice to still be able to root for somebody since the other big teams in the family are out. We spend a lot of time watching football, spending time with friends, hanging out with our dog. We’ve got a two year old blue heeler who takes up a good bit of our time, but then I’m pretty passionate about traveling and learning and understanding other cultures. Another thing First Rate has helped support me in is learning other languages. I minored in Mandarin when I was in college. Don’t ask me to speak Mandarin because I’ve lost most of it just due to lack of practice. But an old manager of mine bought me a subscription to +Babbel, which is one of those language learning applications, and through that I’ve been able to begin learning Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. For our honeymoon, my fiancée and I are going to Spain and Portugal, so I’m hoping to try to get by using the local languages as much as possible while we’re there. I might make a fool out of myself, but at least I’m making an effort. I’ve always just been very interested in just learning how people all over the world are extremely different, but we’re also quite similar at the same time. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Asia several times, Europe several times, and all over the US. It’s interesting to me that we’re so different and so alike all at the same time, and getting to meet people, getting to understand how they live, what they do, how they tick, is something that’s really interesting to me. When I was in India this past summer, I had an amazing opportunity to spend a day with the family of one of our employees in the Pune office. I got to hang out with him, his friends, play some poker, meet his wife and go out to dinner with them and just experience a day in the life of a typical Indian family. That was something that was just extremely interesting to me, and I felt honored that they would let me spend the day with them and invite me over to their home.
Along with whiskey, I’m very interested in food. My fiancée and I are both big cooks, and we try to do interesting things in the kitchen all the time, trying to cook different types of meals, going to cooking classes and learn how to do more. As part of that, whenever I do travel, I’m pretty adamant that I try to only eat local food. I don’t want to go to Asia and have a burger. I was pretty picky eater when I was a kid so it’s funny for people that knew me at five years old versus now, it’s a complete 180. If you put it in front of me, I’ll eat it, within reason.
I’ve eaten some pretty amazing things but I’ve also eaten some pretty terrible things. My dad used to travel a lot when I was growing up, and for a while, while he was still traveling, we had a competition of who could eat the weirdest thing. We went back and forth a few times with him having maggots in the Himalayas, with me having worms in Jell-O on coastal China. I guess all these are normal for some people, but not to me. I finally won by having Greenland shark in Iceland.
Since I started broadening my horizons, I’ve actually really enjoyed spicy food. Dave Stone, the Founder of First Rate, and I kind of developed a cult following while we were in India this past summer because they kept putting spicy food in front of us, and they could not find our breaking points. They kept saying, oh, this is going to be too hot for you guys, and we’re just eating it and asking for seconds because it was really good, we weren’t even breaking a sweat or getting red, and they’re like, oh, dang, you guys can actually hang!
To sum up my personal life, I’m real big on traveling, meeting new people, experiencing local culture, learning about how they do their wine, their spirits, their whiskey, hanging out with the dog, hanging out with my fiancée, watching football and just having a good life. Trying to do the best I can for my team professionally, do the best for my community by staying involved and giving back, and then just still trying to figure out that good work life balance and make sure that I’m working hard, but not putting so much pressure on myself to the point that I’m miserable. It’s a delicate line to walk.
Yes, work life balance is something I think we are all working on, definitely one of the biggest challenges. Well, thank you Alex for taking the time to chat today. Your professional journey at First Rate has been a pleasure to watch and hopefully very inspiring to those you work with and your team members. We look forward to watching you push your team forward as well as your journey that is yet to come.
Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure.