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BlackRock to Push Wall Street Chat Tool

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06/24/2016 | 09:25am EST

The world's largest money manager is trying to change the way Wall Street chats.

BlackRock Inc. will urge banks, brokers and others who interact with it to communicate via a messaging platform backed by banks and investment firms called Symphony Communication Services LLC, according to people familiar with the matter.

The asset manager, also an investor in Symphony, started testing the system with thousands of employees internally last year and now has moved all internal chat messaging to the service, the people said.

The hope from those backing Symphony is that BlackRock's push will help jump-start the service's use across the financial-services industry.

Symphony was created as an alternative to Bloomberg LP terminals, long a hallmark of trading floors and an expense banks have struggled to trim. The firms also like Symphony's secure-messaging technology.

Despite the fanfare that followed Symphony's late-2014 launch and last year's $100 million funding round that included an investment from Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Symphony has yet to gain widespread use, according to traders across Wall Street.

At Goldman Sachs Group Inc., a Symphony investor that contributed its own messaging developments to the platform, the service is now used by most of the firm's employees across all of its businesses, according to a person familiar with the situation. Goldman traders, for instance, use Symphony to communicate with back-office employees charged with settling trades.

Elsewhere, though, Symphony remains little used or, in some cases, virtually unknown.

Of about a dozen employees reached at financial firms that have invested in the service, some were only aware of small-scale pilot programs in specific corners of their trading floors.

The lack of broader takeup has sown doubts that Symphony would become an alternative to Bloomberg's multipronged service that costs financial firms $22,000 to $25,000 per employee a year. After attracting bankers and investors to its chat service, Symphony aims to pipe in data, news and other tools, coming closer to the array of functions Bloomberg provides. Symphony charges companies $15 a month per user for the chat service.

A Bloomberg spokesman declined to comment.

Dow Jones Newswires, a wire service of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is a provider of news on the Symphony platform and competes with Bloomberg.

David Gurle, Symphony's founder and chief executive, said the company's clients wanted to prove that the messaging service could meet their internal needs before a broader rollout. It is in the early stages of opening communication between employees at different companies, a process that comes with complex compliance and control hurdles.

There also have been technological hurdles, Mr. Gurle said. Symphony needed to build software that would allow its clients' compliance employees to monitor, limit and block data that leaves or enters their firms through employees' communications.

"We needed to make sure we built real-time compliance tools," Mr. Gurle said.

Symphony's long-term success hinges on its ability to embed itself in the day-to-day communications across Wall Street, particularly in the interaction between bank traders and outside asset managers.

Jody Kochansky, head of the Aladdin product group at BlackRock, which has $4.7 trillion in assets under management, said there are no plans to require outside firms to use Symphony to communicate with the asset manager. "We would expect those in the consortium to use it, but we are not imposing it on them," he said.

BlackRock's roughly 13,000 employees globally now have access to the service, giving Symphony its largest user base to date from the firms that buy securities and other services from banks and brokers. Money manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc. is also a new Symphony customer, the Baltimore-based firm confirmed, giving Symphony a foothold in the mutual-fund industry.

The group of Wall Street firms had formed Symphony in late 2014, in turn acquiring Mr. Gurle's messaging startup, Perzo Inc. But before Perzo's agreement with the group of financial firms, the startup met with Bloomberg executives to discuss a potential sale, people familiar with the matter said. A deal never materialized.

Write to Justin Baer at justin.baer@wsj.com and Sarah Krouse at sarah.krouse@wsj.com

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
ALPHABET -1.46% 1104.21 Delayed Quote.5.67%
BLACKROCK INC -0.50% 435.02 Delayed Quote.11.30%
GOLDMAN SACHS GROUP -1.13% 196.36 Delayed Quote.18.93%
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