RFA has come a long way since it first opened for business in 1989. Now the firm, which has over 800 clients, is one of the biggest cloud providers to the alternative investment sector, offering state-of-the-art cybersecurity services and fully managed IT and CTO consultancy services.
Much of RFA’s success can be attributed to the ethos of the firm, which takes a consultative, rather than product-led approach to client requirements, most of whom, as Managing Director George Ralph (pictured) points out, come via word of mouth. Ralph works alongside chairman, Richard Fleischman, president, Yohan Kim and CIO, Michael Asher.
PE funds looking for institutional-grade IT
Historically, RFA’s clients tended to be split evenly between hedge funds and private equity, but the latter has been one of the major growth areas for the firm in the last year. As assets under management (AUM) have grown, so has the need for private equity firms to institutionalise their technology, says Ralph. “Because funds that were around the USD500 million mark a year ago are now around USD2 billion in AUM, they are looking for specialists who can help them fundraise further, get involved in due diligence and rewrite their processes and procedures while building further resilience and cyber knowledge to the technology stack,” he says.
“This is where we come in. We can offer all this and improve their operational efficiency as they grow. Often it is about making better use of the systems, moving them from traditional in-house servers to the cloud; we start by introducing the private or public cloud, depending on the investor landscape, for backups to keep storage costs down, with a write once, read many approach. As they become more comfortable, we can develop the systems further.”
Firms that use cloud services can reduce capital expenditures, increase flexibility and scalability as well as benefit from additional security features says RFA. For many firms, the shift from up-front capital expenditures associated with hardware and software costs, to the more controllable operational expenditures of monthly and annual cloud contracts is financially better too.
Recent projects include a deal automation site for a private equity firm: for every new deal, rather than recreating user accounts for staff, bringing in new people, creating the folder structure and obtaining permissions, the deal site automatically creates a subsite and SharePoint with all the correct folder structures, contacts and right staff allocation. RFA has also recently built an online compensation system for a private equity firm.
“Many of our products are developed to fit alongside regulatory changes and the constant advances in technology. RFA is always innovating and underlying this, our strategy is to ensure clients have cost effective and efficient products that can evolve over time and as their investor landscape changes.”
Protecting data, not just tracking it
Ralph gives the example of the rise of remote working and cybersecurity. “With everyone working remotely from laptops and iPads, company data is available in so many different places. Undoubtedly there is greater risk of data breaches. We don't want to stop people being able to work as efficiently as possible but they, and the firms they work for, need a security solution that means they can work anywhere.”
As a result, RFA has developed its own machine learning tools that track user behaviour both on their own devices and on the network. “Rather than developing a detection tool, we have taken this one step further and now offer a breach prevention tool.” Not surprisingly, Ralph says that it is very popular and “we are comfortable with it because it allows us to protect our clients better.”
With cloud solutions, Ralph points out that it is important to understand which services are bundled into the cloud. He recommends a few essentials: web filtering; intrusion detection and prevention; data encryption and disaster recovery and managed backup services. RFA also advocates using a Cloud Access Security Brokerage System (CASB) which tracks all movement in the public cloud using multi factor authentication.
RFA was also an early adopter of Cylance, a next generation anti-virus solution and recently the company hhasave been building up a development practice focusing on the automation of business processes to improve operational efficiencies.
“Having the right processes in place around cyber security and risk management are crucial and can mitigate the myriad risks in business today. If your processes leave you open to the massive risks out there, no amount of technology will make a difference. It’s about protecting data as well as tracking it,” Ralph explains.
Technology is as much about the people
Ralph also emphasises the importance of people in the business. One of the key differentiating factors, he says, is in RFA’s approach to deploying staff. “We don’t just instruct clients as to which engineers to work with: our clients are involved in the hiring process right from the start.”
Both RFA and clients will spend around four to five months interviewing and choosing potential engineers. Some jobs might be short projects, but increasingly, they tend to be long-term assignments, he explains. It is only once they have been approved by the client and trained by RFA that the team of engineers will be deployed on site. For Ralph, getting the capacity planning of headcount and the right people with the right clients is critical.
While the trend towards platform integration and more web-based products will continue, Ralph gives some sound advice. “I always recommend that clients use clear diligence when it comes to suppliers from telephony and internet through to IT partners and software suppliers. Having a risk and vendor management process for this is crucial as well as being able to evidence it to investors and regulators.”
Ralph does not consider RFA to be a product provider, rather, the aim is to create partnerships with clients. “Of course, the technology is integral, but our focus is also about delivering an excellent personal service to our clients as their needs evolve.”
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