October 19, 2009

When Joseph Ferra, then an SVP in Fidelity's retail brokerage group, met with reporters during the dot-com era in the 1990s, he typically was carrying multiple handheld devices -- a Palm VII, a BlackBerry 950 RIM Pager and a Sprint PCS Web-enabled phone -- in his suit pocket.

Fast forward to today, and Ferra, now Fidelity's chief wireless officer, carries five or six mobile devices -- "mainly for the purpose of just being able to ensure that we're positioned correctly and we're operating correctly across the different networks and devices," he says. "It's always good to understand the different devices and try to appreciate the context of the user."

While Ferra's affinity for handheld devices reflects the constantly evolving and fragmented nature of the mobile space, it also reflects his passion for and commitment to wireless technologies. Named Fidelity's chief wireless officer in 2001 (Fidelity claims it is the only financial services company to appoint a chief wireless officer), Ferra has been charged with spearheading the company's wireless offerings.

A pioneer in developing investment applications in the wireless space, Fidelity -- the largest mutual fund manager in the U.S. with assets under administration of more than $2.9 trillion (including managed assets of $1.4 trillion) -- launched InstantBroker in 1998 for retail investors and introduced wireless trading for its most active traders in January 1999, about a year ahead of some of its online brokerage competitors. By late 1999 Fidelity expanded wireless trading to all of its customers.

Early on, Ferra says, Fidelity recognized the importance of having a complete wireless offering. "It was important that we wouldn't just tell you where the movie is playing and not be able to get you the ticket," he relates. "We don't just tell you how the markets are doing without giving you the ability to take action on it. ... That's the trade, and that's our ticket."

Even after the Internet bubble burst in 2000-01 and several competitors abandoned or curtailed their wireless initiatives, Fidelity stayed the course and continued to innovate and broaden its applications in the mobile trading and investment space to include 401(k)s and defined contributions, stock plans, portfolio services, charitable gifts, and 529 college plans. Fidelity never thought about quitting the mobile space, says Ferra, who credits Fidelity's dedication to innovation and superior customer service for driving the firm's commitment to wireless.

Joseph Ferra, Fidelity
As Fidelity transitioned more of its businesses to the wireless channel, it also changed the name of the service to Fidelity Anywhere. "Fidelity Anywhere was becoming our umbrella for all the mobile offerings," explains Ferra, who predicted from the outset that mobile technology would be the predominant way that customers would monitor their investments.

And now he can boast, "I told you so." Over the past three years, Fidelity has experienced triple-digit year-over-year growth in the number of wireless trades, users and log-ins to Fidelity Anywhere, Ferra reports. "It's due to Gen X and Gen Y and the newer devices such as the iPhone," he says.

Nonetheless, to promote adoption, Fidelity has had to dispel some of the myths about wireless, including that it's expensive, unsafe, difficult to use and slow. "Not true," responds Ferra. He points to mobile carriers' data plans as an affordable option for consumers and adds that "Fidelity used cryptography" to secure customers' data. As for ease of use, Ferra says devices like the iPhone and 3G networks have overcome the usability and speed obstacles.

Today Fidelity provides market data, quotes, research and news, after-hours trading, and options trading via the mobile channel, and customers still want to do more on their mobile phones, says Ferra, who notes that one of the firm's goals is to offer a seamless transition between Fidelity.com and Fidelity Anywhere. For instance, a customer might execute a trade on the Web but receive a confirmation of the transaction via a mobile device, he explains.

Just as Fidelity was the first financial services firm to offer mobile access to customer account information, real-time quotes, watch lists and balances, it also was the first to deliver investment monitoring behind the wheel of a car. In 2001 the mutual fund giant formed an exclusive alliance with General Motor's OnStar subsidiary to launch Virtual Advisor, a hands-free, voice-enabled service that allows customers to access stock quotes and watch lists and even trade from in their cars.

Although Ferra declines to disclose Fidelity's mobile IT budget or the size of his staff, he confirms that the company does have a dedicated technology team that focuses on wireless 24x7. "That's their No. 1 focus -- to just look at Fidelity Anywhere and this mobile space," he says, noting that the wireless team leverages the Fidelity IT organization for back-end and other shared services.