CEO: To Lead an RIA, ‘You Have to Understand People’


Heather Robertson Fortner is not a financial advisor but surely understands what makes people tick, which is a big reason for her putting together advisor teams that deliver top-notch results and excellent client experiences.

Fortner is CEO and chair of Atlanta-based SignatureFD, which manages nearly $70 billion in client assets.

“In our industry, where technical knowledge is paramount, it’s assumed that just because you have a CFA or CFP next to your name, you’re also a good leader of people,” Fortner argues in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

“But,” she stresses, “you have to understand people even more than the technical components.”

Fortner, who started at the firm in 2003 as a client associate and was named CEO in 2020, has a master’s degree in professional counseling and has earned standing as an investment adviser certified compliance professional.

In the interview, Fortner, who serves on the Goldman Sachs Advisor Solutions Panel, describes her ascent to chief compliance officer, director of operations, president and ultimately to CEO, the firm’s first woman in the post.

She bucked, and clearly overcame, colleagues’ initial doubt that a non-advisor would be able to lead an RIA.

SignatureFD, which has 30 advisors and a second office in Charlotte, North Carolina, has had double-digit growth year after year ever since Fortner took over development of its operational platform and tech stack.

But what she takes most pride in is inspiring women who have worked at the firm for several years to qualify for leadership positions. Today, SignatureFD’s leadership team is 90% female.

In the recent interview with Fortner, she details two major upcoming trends: the huge wealth transfer among individuals and the next generation’s shift to new technologies that will emerge in five years.

Here are excerpts from that phone conversation:

THINKADVISOR: As CEO of SignatureFD, what’s been your biggest success?

HEATHER FORTNER: I’m most proud that our senior leadership team is majority-female, women who have spent many, many years growing up with our organization.

I’ve had a large part in helping them learn what they needed in order to be excellent at their craft.

I believe that our firm is uniquely positioned for the future as a women-led organization.

What lessons have you learned as CEO?

One that I really hold dear is understanding that your IQ is almost not as important as your EQ [emotional quotient].

I have a graduate degree in professional counseling, so I feel that I’ve had a little bit of an unfair advantage in understanding people and systems and the importance of how those work together.

In our industry, where technical knowledge is paramount, it’s assumed that just because you have a CFA or CFP next to your name, you’re also a good leader of people.

But you have to understand people even more than the technical components of the business.

Have you made any mistakes as CEO?

Two things I really got wrong. One was when I became CEO in 2020, there was the assumption that a non-advisor couldn’t lead a registered investment advisor services firm.

I don’t serve clients, and there was this real belief voiced over and over again that a non-advisor couldn’t lead an advisory firm.

So one of my biggest mistakes was allowing that doubt to really get into my head, and I killed myself to get results that I thought would speak to the fact that I was qualified to be in that seat.

I probably could have pulled back a little and not spent as much time trying to prove to everybody that I was worthy of it.

What was the other thing you got wrong?

When I became CEO at 45, I thought I had to give up the dream of having a second baby because of that first mistake I just mentioned:

They don’t even think I can do this job — so how in the world would getting pregnant and having a baby at the same time I’m trying to prove I’m worthy to be a CEO help anything?

But [my colleagues] were so overjoyed for me when I got pregnant again. 

Ultimately, I trusted that people I’d been on this journey with for so long truly had my best interest at heart.

Any other big learning experience?

In organizations and leadership, there’s a level of [corporate] political acumen that’s required to navigate [the system].

I don’t think you can just put your head down and not have to understand how to operate in that world of leadership and governance bodies.

My assumption was that if I just didn’t engage in a lot of that conversation, it would all be fine. But I really had to learn to hit it head-on.

Has the firm always focused on high-net-worth clients?

Yes, because of our origins. The three original founders had an accounting firm and wanted to [do more financial planning with clients].

They agreed that there was an opportunity for them to lean into the executive and business owner community that they already had relationships with.

It was a wonderful way to seed the business.

Tax issues mattered enormously to the overall wealth of these high-net-worth families, and being able to speak that language and incorporate those principles in all aspects of what we’ve done from the very beginning have led to higher quality relationships and recommendations, and stickier clients overall.

Our [now-] affiliated accounting firm [of the founders] are partners of ours in the truest sense.

You aren’t a financial advisor. But do you personally interface with clients?

On advice matters, absolutely not. I don’t attend client meetings where advice is taking place.

But I do a lot in the community and bring in relationships. So sometimes I’ll be in the first couple of client meetings.

And I have lunch with our clients just to hear their feedback, what’s on their minds. I’ll ask them how we’re doing as an organization, what they’d like to see from us.

Tell me about your ascent to CEO.

I had worked [elsewhere] for two years as a financial planner, helped start a trust company and spent four additional years doing myriad things in the industry.

But I really loved the registered investment advisor space; so I applied at F&D Advisors [original name of SignatureFD].

It was a small firm, and the only position available was client service associate. I took it and helped with back office, operations-style stuff.

How did you move up beyond that role?

There was always an opportunity to lean in and learn different verticals.

In 2005, I became chief compliance officer and, at the same time, director of operations — two hats I wore for 15 years.

In 2020, I was [promoted] to president and CEO.

So becoming chief compliance officer was a real stepping stone for you. Right?

Yes. It put me in the boardroom immediately.

I learned to understand how the decisions around the business were made, how to assess regulatory risk, business risk, what type of risk we were comfortable with, learning how to take that risk in a way that was beneficial not only for our clients but for the growth of the business as well.

Are there any big industry trends that you recently, aggressively capitalized on?

There are two that the board and I continue to have conversations about. One is the big wealth transfer that’s going to happen. 

A lot of wealth will transfer to the control of women over the next five to 10 years [mostly because of the death of baby boomer husbands].

Statistically, most widows don’t stay with their husband’s financial advisor.

So we’re focusing on what their needs are and what do women want done differently, not only in a financial services relationship but in advice-giving, and what we need to do as an organization to ensure we’re a destination for these women.

What’s the other major trend you’re discussing with the board?

The change in engagement with the next generation, and our strategy moving forward.

In the next five years, communication styles and technology will be different from what they are today. And firms like ours will need to have different tools available.

The technology will do a lot of things that advisors haven’t been able to automate yet. We want to integrate that fully into our offering and client experience.

So we’re really focused on what shifts we need to make to be ready to leverage those new technologies.

Will advice-giving undergo a change too?

I don’t think the need for advice will go away, but I do believe that with the rapid shift in technology, advisors need to be more holistic and design-focused in the relationship. 

Do you see any other critical trends on the horizon?

One that’s likely to come is that wealth management firms will want to bring clients’ tax matters fully in-house.

I believe that we were one of the first firms to have a strategic partnership with an accounting firm, and that has been highly successful.

Who at SignatureFD helped you the most in your career?

I’ve had both mentors and sponsors. A mentor teaches you things, and a sponsor advocates for you and uses their power to influence and get you into rooms you wouldn’t otherwise be in.

I’ve also had really powerful influencers, coaches and mentors outside our firm. Inside an organization, you can lose sight of what’s happening at other firms and industries.

If you don’t have that perspective, you can almost get blinded a little about your own organization.

So that’s important as you humbly admit the things you’re good at but also challenge yourself continually about the things you could be better at, not only as a business but as an individual as well.


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