The burning question for many advisors each day is: “How do I monetize my business?”
The conventional answer is: “I’ll sell my business some day at a lofty premium to an unwitting bank, wirehouse or roll-up firm and ride it out until retirement.”
Many independent advisors will be relying on the greater fool theory to strike a rich deal. Independents know that larger institutions and roll-ups routinely overpay for an advisor’s book of business. The word on the street is that buyers frequently overestimate how much advisors can cross-sell and grow their business.
For their part, buyers believe their brand is the magic elixir. A new advisor’s book of business, they believe, hasn’t been more profitable because the advisor didn’t have Brand X’s killer portfolio of products and services and management expertise.
The High Road
Is a sale based on the greater fool theory really the best approach for advisors and clients? The short answer is no.
Clients don’t commit to an advisor thinking the advisor will sell the business. Clients engage advisors because they trust their advisor and they believe the advisor is competent. And, just like no one gets married thinking they’re going to get divorced, clients believe they’ll be with an advisor and the advisor's firm for the long term when they hire the advisor.
Independent advisors often think that because their unconflicted model has more integrity than a big bank’s or brokerage’s that they may be more enlightened in considering how a sale impact clients. In fact, money corrupts. An advisor has to make an active choice to take the high road.
Looking For A Fool
The greater fool theory has currency because as long as institutions have been buying books of business, they’ve been overpaying. A premium is typically paid when an acquirer overestimates the value of any one of these three variables:
1. The retention of the advisor's current clientele.
2. The ability of the advisors to continue to grow their business.
3. The strength of the acquiring firm’s brand to generate more fees from the advisor's current clients.
To earn the full purchase price, advisors must commit to generating more revenue. For clients, that’s almost always trouble. The bargain that advisors make with their new employers translates into more client solicitations and sales pressure to buy additional products and services. This is the approach especially championed by banks. Or, it could mean raising client fees. Sometimes, it is both.
On balance, the transaction is negative for clients, even if clients gain access to additional investment solutions. For advisors, there may be an upfront, short-term gain, but they forfeit the longer-term payday that comes from building and maintaining an independent firm.
A Better Way
What’s a better approach?
For both advisors and clients, the solution is remaining an independent firm and continuing to grow the business, even after the founder has retired. By having an orderly succession plan and grooming a successor, there is no need to sell.
There are two key benefits in this approach.
First, clients will fare better. Clients will transition to a new advisor who is apprenticed by their current over a two- to three-year period. The new advisor will continue to use the same products and services that the client enjoys.
Second, the retiring advisor can actually make more over time. The profitability and ownership formulas common today will pay the retiring partner on a sliding scale over a number of years even after they retire.
To achieve this objective, there must be a defined succession plan that gives the junior partner an opportunity to buy an ownership interest using contractual metrics over a defined time period. All parties must have a willingness to take the long view of the franchise for the benefit of all.
An independent wealth management firm that sells to a big bank or roll-up firm is no different than a broker who takes a big recruiting check from a wirehouse. The good news is that by remaining independent, an advisor can do right by clients and by themselves creating a win-win scenario consistent with their independent mantra of always acting in the best interests of the client.