One night last summer the online brokerage E*Trade staged a “client appreciation” event at the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, giving a few loyal customers a chance to race sports cars around a test track. But as the guests climbed into loaner Boxsters and Caymans, E*Trade staffers realized that they had a safety hazard on their hands. Some clients couldn’t resist peeking at their smartphones for market news, even as they revved the engines of cars that could top 170 mph. As CEO Paul Idzik recalls, “We had to say, ‘Okay, you drive, but your phone stays here.’ ”
E*Trade knows how it feels when a fast-moving machine hits a wall. Founded in 1982, the company was “fintech” avant la lettre, when cutting-edge financial technology meant trading stocks via touch-tone phone. Since then, few other financial companies have seen their fortunes so closely mirror the wild swings of their customers’ portfolios. E*Trade (ETFC) was both an enabler of the turn-of-the-century dotcom bubble and a wounded casualty of its collapse. A few years later the financial crisis took the company to the brink of bankruptcy—consigning it to a turnaround that has lasted almost a decade.
By the Numbers
2016 revenue (analysts’ estimate): $1.9 billion
Share of brokerage log-ins from mobile devices: 30%
Number of employees: 3,500
That grueling rehab is nearly over. Last year credit agencies awarded investment-grade ratings to E*Trade’s debt for the first time ever. Its stock price has nearly tripled since Idzik became CEO in 2013. But in a sign of today’s cooler-headed climate, a company once known for cheeky marketing—case in point: the wisecracking E*Trade baby—now brands itself as a sober, wiser adviser. E*Trade still emphasizes the technology behind its 3.3 million brokerage accounts (and it’s avidly pro-smartphone just about anywhere but behind the wheel). But it now offers much more human-to-human hand-holding for a clientele that is increasingly wary of the markets. That change of emphasis is central to E*Trade’s revival, Idzik tells Fortune: “People want to engage [digitally] with media, with their friends, with their finances. But they also want you to be there when they need you.”
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In interviews, Idzik is soothingly well-spoken, with a wry sense of humor—the kind of person a nervous investor might be grateful to find on the other end of the phone. Nonetheless, it’s ironic that E*Trade is seeking a competitive edge by building old-fashioned “high touch” relationships, given that it rose to fame as a technology-driven disrupter. In the 1990s its low commissions and raucous ad campaigns—one featured an investor being rushed to the hospital with “money coming out the wazoo”—epitomized the get-rich-now cheerleading of the online-investing boom. E*Trade’s own stock reflected the euphoria: In 1999 it briefly traded as high as $125 a share. (It’s under $30 today.)
After the tech bubble popped, Main Street investors shied away from stock trading, undermining E*Trade’s business model: Between 2000 and 2002, annual revenue fell 15% while the company swung from profitability to hefty losses. To diversify, E*Trade moved into banking, eventually betting big on a new profit source—subprime mortgages. The company both originated mortgages and invested its reserves in them. In 2006, E*Trade’s revenue peaked at $3.9 billion, and in 2007 some 37% of its revenue came from investments in home-equity and mortgage-backed securities.
When the subprime cash cow tipped over, E*Trade got crushed. Its mortgage exposure spooked shareholders, who drove down the stock 85% between June and December 2007, and customers yanked money out of their accounts. Only a fire-sale infusion of cash and loans from private investors kept the company from bankruptcy, and E*Trade became, in essence, a basket of toxic assets that happened to have a brokerage attached.
Still, that core brokerage business helped E*Trade survive. During the mid-2000s, the company acquired several smaller online brokers, and its customer base broadened to include stable revenue sources, such as managed accounts and employee stock-ownership plans. “Customers stayed with them through all the ups and downs,” says Rich Repetto, banking analyst with Sandler O’Neill. Commissions and fees kept the lights on as E*Trade painstakingly divested mortgage holdings and restructured its debt.
It wasn’t a fun time to run the company: E*Trade churned through six CEOs between 2007 and 2013. Early that year E*Trade hired Idzik, a Booz Allen (BAH) veteran and former COO at financial giant Barclays (BCS), as CEO. Donna Weaver, an E*Trade director since 2003, says Idzik’s background groomed him to run a company that’s “far-flung and enormously complex.” E*Trade’s geographically dispersed divisions—customer service in Atlanta; technology in Menlo Park, Calif.; corporate finance in New York—didn’t coordinate effectively with one another, Idzik says: “They had gone to their own swim lanes when we needed to be playing water polo.” Idzik replaced some executives and insisted that the main divisions have input on all major decisions. And to boost morale he traveled to meet every one of the company’s employees, including at customer-service call centers, where he showed up for surprise visits bearing pizza and cake.
The call centers remain an obsession of Idzik’s: A growing number of E*Trade’s phone reps are registered advisers or financial planners, and Idzik monitors calls to see how they’re faring in building relationships that go deeper than the trading screen. He now spends five hours a week listening in, either in person or via digital recordings—“I have the most boring iPod playlist,” he jokes.
Last year E*Trade retired much of the debt from its 2007 rescue. “Now the focus can finally be on core operations,” says Piper Jaffray analyst Jason Weyeneth. Customer assets have returned to pre-crisis levels, reaching $285 billion in the first quarter of 2016. Of that, $49 billion was in retirement-savings accounts with access to adviser support—the business that E*Trade is counting on to drive growth. Building such asset pools is a must for any online brokerage, says Scott Smith, director at financial analytics firm Cerulli Associates. “You’re increasingly serving boomers with built-up 401(k)s,” he says; with these customers, “technology exposes them to how much they don’t know.”
That same sentiment has inspired a flood tide of new fintech companies to pursue retirement savers. “Robo-advisers” like Wealthfront and Betterment have shown that even risk-averse investors crave digital tools for navigating the markets, and their rise has put new strains on older financial services firms—E*Trade included. But the company insists that it can adopt old-school adviser habits while still being digitally innovative. The Apple Watch launched last year with an E*Trade app preloaded, and over 30% of E*Trade’s brokerage log-ins now come from mobile. The company’s next big tech move will be a robo-adviser counterattack: This summer it’s launching the Adaptive Portfolio platform—combining asset-allocation algorithms with extensive guidance from flesh-and-blood advisers.
What that tool won’t do is rekindle the adrenaline-fueled romance of day trading. Today, E*Trade’s relatively sedate ads downplay the jokes and depict its customers as cautious planners who leave nothing to chance. Evidently there’s nothing like a corporate near-death experience to make a former rebel sound like a protective uncle. “We want to grow with investors and educate them, help them get smarter,” Idzik says; as long as that happens, “it’s good for the bottom line.”
A version of this article appears in the June 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “E*Trade Needs to Speak With You.”