Net Worth

Prudential financial spent nearly $10 million redesigning its web site, but the company isn't expecting a hard-dollar return on the investment. That might seem strange in these troubled times, but it's an indication of just how integrated Web assets have

Prudential financial spent nearly $10 million redesigning its web site, but the company isnt expecting a hard-dollar return on the investment. That might seem strange in these troubled times, but its an indication of just how integrated Web assets have become in Prudentials overall corporate strategy.

"We felt we should reorganize the site and provide more content and make it more real-time," says Bella Loykhter, chief information officer of Prudential Securities, adding that the site is first and foremost a customer service designed to entice clients to bring more assets into the firm. "We are not looking for it to pay for itself. You need it to run the business," Loykhter says.

Thats contrary to what many I-managers are hearing these days, as they get pressed by company top brass to deliver demonstrable top-line returns for their Web efforts. Prudential, however, is clearly taking the long-range view, and can probably afford to do so. The company has $593 billion in assets under management, and is one of the largest financial institutions in the world.

The new site, which was relaunched at the end of August, includes a public section with stock quotes, planning tools, calculators and commentaries. It also provides a secure private area that allows Prudential clients to see their account balances, make trades and get in-depth market information. The site was originally launched in 1995, and was the first from a brokerage that allowed online trading. But that site was focused specifically on securities trading, and was low on advice and educational content.

In late summer, Prudential partnered with Standard & Poors, which now supplies analytical services and credit ratings of bond instruments to members. Although they were not willing to give numbers on page hits or stickiness, Prudential executives say the site is performing well. "Weve seen a pretty constant uptick of people enrolling on the site," says Will Marsh, co-head of Prudentials e-business development group. The site has about 90,000 regular users.

Both Loykhter and Marsh say the key goal is to bring affluent customers into the Prudential fold, and to steer them to work with the companys 6,000 investment advisers. "The site is really geared to get clients and financial advisers to work in a collaborative mode," Marsh says, adding that the financial tools have been a particular hit with customers.

Sticking to the Plan

The redesign was done entirely in-house and was an exercise in perseverance, Loykhter says. The original Prudential site was Common Gateway Interface-script based. In the revamp, the company decided to go entirely with XML to help the information flow between the motley mix of mainframes and Unix systems residing at the heart of the system.

Loykhter decided to use Microsofts .Net platform and IBMs MQ Series server clusters. "It allows us to manage information from multiple servers. We wanted to leverage all our existing systems," she says.

The primary challenge was blending the new and old technologies to achieve a stable environment. A team of 50 people in two locations worked for eight months to bring it all together. "After a lot of sweat and blood, it works," Loykhter says. is heavy on content. The site includes a "learning center" with in-depth articles about college tuition, retirement, estate planning and the financial implications of job changes, as well as how to handle the finances of a divorce. Prudential aims its service at wealthy clients -- people with more than $100,000 in discretionary income per year. The site also offers a "broadcast center," which offers both audio and audio/video Webcasts about investing basics, inflation, and the difference between stocks and bonds. In addition, there are ample sections about investment strategies, focusing on tax efficiency and portfolio management.

Marsh says the design is a direct approach that is "far greater in terms of range than many competitors."

Matt Schott, a TowerGroup senior analyst, says that Prudential and its full-service financial competitors Merrill Lynch & Co., Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and UBS PayneWebber all use the Web to move their customers from pure product transactions, such as buying and selling stocks and bonds into ongoing service relationships. "Theyre trying to raise awareness of just how complex managing money and running a portfolio is," Schott says.

Since the Financial Services Modernization Act was passed in 1999, large brokerages can now offer stocks, insurance and banking services. "Youre going to see that convergence speed up over the next few years," and Web sites are very much a part of it, Schott says.

Loykhter has seen a different kind of convergence during her 26-year IT career. She graduated from the University of Lvov in the Ukraine in 1975, and joined Prudential as a junior programmer in 1977. Back then, the tech staff was well apart from the central business decision making.

"A CIO right now has to be totally integrated. A CIO is first a business person, then a technologist," Loykhter says. Also, there were fewer technology choices in the 1970s. "IBM used to dictate. Now its a free-for-all, and you dont have the luxury of wait and see," she says.

Prudential plans to use the new architecture as a launch pad for an insurance services Web site in the near future.