The average advisor faces a difficult and increasingly competitive industry. With industry consolidation, technological advances, increased competition, more regulatory oversight, and the need to recruit and retain talent, it has never been more critical that financial advisors use benchmarking as part of their ongoing strategic planning process. With benchmarking, a business owner can improve their relative revenue and expense performance, organizational structure, and marketing results to support growth and achieve short-term and long-term goals. Used in conjunction with your business planning process, benchmarking is a powerful tool to track and build additional enterprise value.
What is Benchmarking and Why it is Critical?
Benchmarking is defined as a measurement of the quality of an organization's policies, products, programs, and strategies as compared against standard measurements of their peers and “best-in-class” providers. An effective benchmarking program provides insight into the connection between your business decisions and the resulting outcomes.
Benchmarking improves performance by identifying and applying demonstrated best practices to sales, operations, and procedures. Comparing the relative performance of their products, services, and sales both externally (against competitors) and internally (with ongoing operations and business decisions) ensures that performance meets or exceeds the competition. The objective of benchmarking is to find examples of superior performance and understand the business practices driving it. Effective business owners utilize benchmarking insights to improve their own performance by incorporating these best practices, not through imitation, but through innovation.
The Four “M's” for Incorporating Benchmarking into Business Planning
Every firm has unique needs for benchmarking. For example, the goals of a mature firm versus that of a start-up practice may differ greatly. More established business and solo advisors might be more likely to utilize benchmarks to implement changes that result in increased efficiency and profitability. By contrast, a young developing practice may be more focused on driving and managing growth in clients and revenue.
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.
Building Your Team,
The value of your practice is determined by many factors, some obvious, and some not so obvious. Even if the idea of exiting the business is far down the road, as an owner you need to consider the ten factors below as part of managing and growing the practice. Focusing on these areas can make a major difference in your book’s sustainability and its eventual purchase price (when transition time arrives).
The purpose of this article is not to review the theoretical aspects valuation or create an exhaustive list of factors that influence your value. That would be a much longer, technical article–which can be viewed here. The point here is to highlight the drivers that can help give your value an extra boost in the right direction. These factors include:
- Predictable revenue and recurring revenue streams
- Client demographics
- Average client tenure
- Size of potential market
- Transition timing
- Client affluence and average client revenue
- Asset or revenue concentration
- Use and structure of referral fees
- Length of surrender period
As you look at your practice with an outsider’s eye, you will see avenues that help grow the business and make it more robust.
Buying & Selling,
Valuation & Appraisal
In our second book, Buying, Selling, and Valuing Financial Practices (the M&A Guide), we introduced the term of a “predatory buyer” to our readers. If you are thinking about selling your practice one day, you need to understand how certain buyers will approach you, how to protect yourself, and what, or who, to watch out for. In this article, we will answer these important questions for potential sellers:
- What exactly is a predatory buyer?
- Where do I look to find a qualified and capable buyer, AND realize the full value of what I’ve built?
- What is the difference between selling value and realized value?
Predatory buyers don’t actually announce themselves. Still, there are telltale signs and, unfortunately, it’s often the outcome of negotiations that signals it was a “predatory” deal. In this case, the term applies to a group of well-funded and capable acquirers who buy everything and anything within a single independent broker-dealer (IBD) or custodian but do so with complete disregard for market value or professional deal terms. Such buyers typically acquire smaller books at the rate of one or two per year. These buyers are skilled at getting what they want. Indicators include proposing pure split revenue buyout offers, using rules of thumb based on multiples of revenue or earnings, discouraging a valuation of the practice (“it’s really just not necessary”), and creating deal terms that create a “heads I win, tails you lose” sale.
Selling Your Practice,
Compliance is a “have to” in the financial services industry. Advisory firms are required to have a compliance officer or a designated third-party compliance administrator. While your business might technically meet internal compliance requirements, there’s much more to consider in order to keep your business protected from regulatory scrutiny.
We recently teamed up with Bates Group
to film a series of special Roundtable Talks centered on the importance of staying on top of compliance. One of Bates Group’s Managing Directors, David Birnbaum, JD, joined us to talk about
the ways to achieve good compliance management, as well as how it can impact the value and growth of your firm. From these conversations we’ve found the following five compliance mistakes to be the most common to many financial services businesses.
1. Neglecting Internal Compliance Audits
If you wait until you’re faced with a regulatory audit to look at your policies and operating procedures, you’ve waited too long. By reviewing the business periodically, you’ll not only be able to head off potential issues before they arise, but you’ll be prepared for any observations a regulator could make during a compliance audit. In addition to the security in knowing everything is running smoothly and within regulation, you’ll also be able to confidently answer any questions a regulator or outside party might have about your business.
Everyone seems to want the easy (and free) way to determine value, but is a multiple of value really a good choice? Here's a hint: no, no it's not.
The infographic below uses real data from the FP Transitions 2015/16 Valuation Database to illustrate why applying a multiple to your revenue is a terrible way to determine the value of your practice, and why you're likely to end up losing more money than you avoided paying up front.
I rarely meet a financial advisor who doesn’t immediately mention that they want to buy a practice. It seems to be every advisor’s goal. Of course it is. And in my eight years in the industry, I have seen why.
One of the fastest ways for a firm to grow is to acquire another book of business. However, the process is more nuanced and competitive than most advisors seem to think. Most assume they will figure it out as they go along. If you take the unguided DIY approach, however, mistakes will be made–perhaps big ones–and you’re likely to leave money on the table.
Like every aspect of business ownership, acquiring a book of business takes advanced consideration and preparation. These are a few steps you should be taking now, prior to developing and executing your acquisition strategy.
1. Develop Your Buyer Profile
Membership to fptransitions.com is free. We don’t believe there should be a series of hoops to jump through before you can explore the largest open market of M&A opportunities; or even to access our library of business building, acquisition, and succession resources.
Step one to taking advantage of your fptransitions.com membership is to complete your buyer profile. This series of basic questions gives the team at FP Transitions an overview of your company and team so we can best help you find acquisition opportunities that would be a good fit.
Pro tip: FP Transitions uses the information provided in your profile to search our database of 25,000+ advisors to find the right buyers for private sales, continuity partner matching, and successor searches.
The buyer profile is your opportunity to offer information that makes you stand out from your peers. The Practice Description field especially. If you offer a few concise thoughts on what makes your practice unique, you’re already setting yourself apart.
Continuity Partner Matching
1. Invest in Human Capital
Most advisors have built their business from nothing into their single most valuable asset. Data from our 2015 Valuation Database indicates that businesses with multiple professionals accumulate assets at a higher rate than sole practitioners. As your business matures, it is imperative to invest in the next generation of talent, to keep the engine running while you begin to enjoy the reward for what you’ve built.