Last month FP Transitions President and Founder, David Grau Sr., JD, joined Scott and Pat on the Advisor2Advisor podcast to discuss common concerns related to mergers, and an all too prevalent (and costly) mistake that some mature advisors make when they fail to capitalize on the equity they’ve established by creating a viable succession plan. Listen here.
The foundations for FP Transitions were laid in 1999, and that makes our company officially 20 years old this year. I founded this company thinking that I knew a lot more about running a business than I actually did at the time. Armed with a law school diploma and a lot of energy and drive, I thought I was ready to conquer at least a small corner of the business world. Turns out that running a business takes experience and business knowledge.
Along the way, I picked up an important axiom from a local legend who said, “Don’t confuse activity with achievement.” He was right, but it took me a long time to understand the difference. In retrospect, the first ten years of our company were characterized with a lot of activity; the last ten years is where the achievement took place. The difference maker for us was hiring an outside CEO, Brad Bueermann, to come in and help us turn our activities into achievement on a national scale. Until then, I confused being very busy with being very successful, or at least constantly being on the verge of success. Everything revolved around me and the lawyer in me silently rejoiced. But this wasn’t a good, long-term model because eventually I ran out of time and energy. And I got older!
Advisors often mistake activity for achievement too, thinking that their one-owner practice that is 90% or more fee-based and that grows steadily at 10% or more every year is proof that they have built a business and that success has been achieved. I see a lot of independent advisors building what I call “books” and “practices,” but not very many building sustainable businesses. What I’ve learned over the past twenty years is that, while it is incredibly satisfying to have a practice that revolves around the founder, that isn’t a durable model, and it is not “a business.” At some point, if a practice is to outlive its founder and provide services to the clients for their lifetimes, and not just for the length of the founder’s career, significant changes need to be implemented, and the sooner the better.
Early on, we grew fast and I became totally focused on our top-line success and growth rate. But there came a time when it was clear that without strengthening the foundational aspects of our business, it would never grow past a certain point. I had to move myself out of the center of operations and learn to build and run a business like a shareholder, not like the star attraction. Making myself a part of a stronger, more diverse, and younger team of professionals was hard, but very necessary – more than just changing my leadership style, we had to change the culture of our operation and, frankly, that was beyond my skill set. So, we brought in outside help – people who knew things that I didn’t – and that made all the difference.
It is without a doubt a “seller’s market” when it comes to financial advisory practices. With an average buyer to seller ratio of 50 : 1, sellers can be picky. Given the sheer volume of qualified buyers that send in inquiries for practices listed by FP Transitions on our open market system, it is extremely important for potential buyers to put their best foot forward and show the seller why they are the “cream of the crop.”
Remember, your inquiry is the first communication you will have with the seller, who likely knows nothing about you. While we don’t recommend drafting a novel, your inquiry should at a minimum tell the seller enough detail to pique the seller’s interest. Inquiries that merely state, “I have cash,” “Let’s talk,” “I need more information,” or “See our website for more information,” are usually immediately stricken by the selling party from consideration, regardless of how well qualified the inquirer may actually be. This is because experienced and successful buyers take the time to make a strong first impression.
One of the fastest ways for independent financial service businesses to grow is to acquire another book of business, adding a lump of clients and their assets to a portfolio all at once. The reality is, however, that setting out to buy a business isn’t that simple.
First, your business must be able to handle a sudden influx of new clients. Your infrastructure must be strong, you must have the people and resources available to provide quality service to clients immediately following the transition, and you must have the financial means to purchase. Second, the current marketplace right now is favoring sellers more than ever. Not only are we experiencing a 50:1 buyer to seller ratio on the open market, but values are at a high and the competition is stiff. We’re seeing a greater number of experienced buyers vying for a seat at the table, and we’re seeing more savvy sellers making strategic decisions. Finally, being able to meet the asking price alone doesn’t necessarily constitute a good fit. Even if you have everything in place to make an acquisition, you must meet a seller’s specific criteria in other areas to be considered.
The good news is that our industry has several other ways to achieve the same exponential growth as buying a book of business without a “traditional” acquisition. Strategies like mergers, continuity partnerships, succession planning, strategic partnerships, and sell & stay tracks offer alternatives for advisors who may not have the enterprise strength to execute a traditional acquisition strategy. The following avenues take planning and patience, but they can yield incredible growth and value in the long run.
Looking back over the past few decades, you can easily spot the trends and physical changes in our industry. Since 2000, when FP Transitions formally opened its doors, I’ve seen our profession, especially in those working under an independent broker-dealer or hybrid model, steadily shift to fee and advice-based solutions. Early on, most practices that we represented were made up primarily of transaction or non-recurring revenue; today advisors build businesses with a focus on fee-based income streams. Independent insurance companies are evolving as well with a sophisticated and wide array of recurring revenue.
Along the way, these practices have become not just more valuable, they are also physically larger and stronger. This requires more qualified people to analyze, give advice, produce revenue, as well as the adjunct talent to support these professionals. Looking forward, we see an ever increasing need to recruit and retain the best talent in the industry to support not just where your practice is today, but where that growing business will be ten years from now. Everyone has read about the need for recruiting; but the story has shifted in the past few years and will continue to do so going forward. Rather than simply hiring next gen talent as the need arises, this could well turn into a fierce competition to adequately reward and retain that talent as more and more advisory businesses reach the next level of success and draw upon a talent pool that has scarcity written all over it.
Over the past two and a half decades of working in this industry, as a regulator, an attorney and now at FP Transitions, I can safely say that I have never seen a better time to be the seller of an independent financial services or advisory practice. The commonly applied term, “a seller’s market,” barely does this observation justice. We are seeing so many supporting elements (price, terms, taxes, financing, demand, etc.) come together right now, that this may be the peak for sellers for years to come.
So here is my message: If you’re thinking about selling what you’ve built and handing the reins to a strong, next generation acquirer at any time in the next two to three years, you need to start thinking about these items today. You really need to understand why this may be the perfect time to call it a day and to sell for the full value you’ve built over the length of your career and to let someone else be responsible for the future. In a nutshell, here are the elements that are creating, perhaps simultaneously, this great opportunity at the peak of your career:
This month's Journal of Financial Planning includes an in-depth piece written by FP Transitions' President & Founder, David Grau Sr., J.D.: Sustainability and the Future of the Profession. See excerpt below and click to read the whole article.
"It only makes sense for independent advisers to design a wealth management cycle that addresses the client life cycle. To be clear, I'm not saying for one minute that independent advisers can't make a very good living–they can and are for the most part. Today's independent advisers are not failing in their work of providing professional, relevant, and much needed financial services advise to their clients; they are failing to sustain a business beyond their own careers, leaving their clients to do that portion of the planning on their own, and advisers (and their broker-dealers, custodian, and insurance companies) are leaving an incredible amount of money on the table as a result for no good reason."
FP Transitions is pleased to announce the sale of financial services practices in the following locations during the months of May and June:
- Central Louisiana • $4,000,000
- Baltimore, MD • $2,561,000
- Houston, TX • $1,435,580
- Sacramento Area California • $1,004,486
- San Francisco Bay Area California • $712,000
- Eastern Virginia • $2,200,000
- Charlotte, NC • $221,600
- San Gabriel Valley California • $720,800
- Dallas, TX • $584,000
- Southern California • $1,000,000
- Columbus, OH • $1,067,000
In the work that we do, our clients want to build something bigger and stronger, for one reason or another. The goal may be to grow and then sell it to a third party or a consolidator for maximum value. Sometimes the goal is to create a sustainable enterprise capable of supporting a gradual transfer ownership, leadership, and responsibility to an internal successor.
Many advisors arrive on our doorstep using terms like “silo” and “ensemble” to describe to us what they believe they have built. However, these terms merely describe the organizational structure, which is just one facet of the strength of an independent advisory enterprise. They are not sufficient for diagnosing ALL structural elements needed to support a sustainable, profitable, valuable enterprise in this highly-regulated and sometimes complex industry. When we start a growth path with limited terminology, we inevitably have to ask a lot more questions of our clients to figure out exactly what they mean, what they really want to accomplish, and how to help them get there.
As I talk with young advisors at local events and national conferences, I’ve increasingly heard concerns about broaching the topic of future ownership in the firm where they work. Some junior advisors have been promised ownership but don’t have anything in writing. Others don’t know the best way to bring up the topic in the first place.
It can be intimidating to ask the founder if their plans for their practice include you. However, you need to plan your career and to know how it will impact your family and life outside the office.
Take for example, Jennifer’s story: