Shining a Bright Light on the High Costs of Breaking Away
Once You Break Free of the Wirehouse, You Need to Run From the Platforms and Aggregators, Too!
There is always a dark side to success. The RIA market has been booming for years, consistently taking assets away from the traditional bank/wirehouse community, and now manages nearly $3 trillion in assets.
As the overall assets under management has risen in the RIA community, a slew of opportunistic middlemen have put up their shingles, offering “platforms” or an “aggregator solution” to help captive advisors break away and remove the operational aspects of the transition to independence - a truly valuable service that is needed by breakaway teams who have never had to manage these critical issues before.
The rub here is that these middlemen are using the lack of experience and knowledge of these advisors against them to extract exorbitant rents. As a result, the high costs associated with the aggregators and platform providers is limiting and slowing down the breakaway movement, especially for the larger teams – a very unfortunate result for not only those advisors and their clients, but also the industry as a whole.
In many ways, the financial crisis of 2008 was the greatest thing to ever happen to the RIA industry. High net worth clients began to value the open architecture, transparency, and conflict-free business models offered by independent advisors. Once clients began asking for it, advisors began flocking in droves to the independent channel. Most, if not all, of these advisors had never set up or run their own business before, so a cottage industry evolved helping these teams enter the independent channel. The typical advisor thought, “I want to go independent, but I just want to focus on my clients. I don’t want to worry about running my own business.” They were flocking to plug-and-play solutions, regardless of the cost. They just had to get out of the shackles of the wirehouse world, and they needed to do it quickly.
Fast-forward to today: the industry has continued to evolve and billion-dollar RIAs are no longer the rare unicorns that they once were. In California alone, there are over 40 fee-only RIAs that manage over $1 billion in assets. RIAs have lifted their heads from their client servicing responsibilities to realize they have built real businesses! They have started hiring dedicated managers of their businesses to handle HR, IT, Compliance, and Business Development. They have documented business plans, with specific revenue targets and growth strategies. These aren’t lifestyle practices any longer, these are true sustainable business built for the future.
There is a lot at stake for a wirehouse team considering setting up their own RIA. Following the 2008 financial crisis, it was enough to attract clients simply by saying “I’m an independent advisor conducting business under the Fiduciary Standard.” As previously mentioned, there is now fierce competition of real businesses competing for RIA clients. No one wants to figure out the transition experience on their own (See “A Breakaway Artist Confesses the Mistakes He Made Ushering PBIG’s Hou-Sear Team”) -- the fear of losing clients during transition is just too high.
Unfortunately, while the industry has evolved to become more sophisticated, the transition solutions for wirehouse advisors, particularly the billion-dollar teams, have not.
Currently, due to the lack of alternatives, these teams meet with the legacy opportunistic platform providers/aggregators that can offer the valuable startup services such as real estate, office setup, technology, branding, website, and even “swag” that they need to exit their current firm. The sales pitch they receive is that by plugging into these larger organizations, they can provide teams economies of scale where they can negotiate great pricing with the various vendors and service providers on their behalf. Here’s the fly in the ointment: for these services, the aggregators want a percentage of firm ownership (bottom-line earnings) and the platform providers charge expensive basis points on AUM.
Breakaway advisors find themselves wondering where the promised value-add services are, now that they are established RIAS writing big checks every year to these middlemen. Confirming this trend, we are now beginning to see high-profile stories of advisors who had joined the aggregator platforms, only to realize they can do better on their own, such as PagnatoKarp (See “After chats with Phyllis Borzi, a flagship HighTower team executes a ‘deliberate’ breakaway to for a $2.5-billion RIA”
As an example, consider a $2 billion team with $15 million in revenue and $10 million of bottom-line earnings. If an aggregator wants 50% equity for their services, that would cost this team $5 million per year, in perpetuity. If a platform provider wants to charge 5 bps for their services, that will cost this team $1 million per year for the length of the contract.
These teams sit back and realize, “With $2 billion of AUM, I can get great pricing on IT, Compliance, and Custody all on my own. I don’t need a long-term relationship, I really just need help setting up my RIA and transitioning clients. This long-term contract seems awfully expensive just for transition services!”
When running the numbers, teams realize that it is not economical to make the move to an expensive aggregator or platform provider solution, and as a result, end up staying with their wirehouse firm – a suboptimal outcome not only for their clients, but also for themselves and the industry as a whole.
For the truly entrepreneurial advisors, they realize very quickly that the equity and/or AUM pricing eliminates operating leverage – something they are trying to achieve by going independent. Operating leverage is a simple, yet powerful business concept where every dollar of additional revenue is more profitable than the last, because operating expenses don’t grow at the same rate as revenue. In the wirehouse world, an advisor’s payout percentage doesn’t change once they top out on the production grid, resulting in no operating leverage.
RIAs, however, enjoy economies of scale and own 100% of their revenues, and do gain leverage from each incremental revenue dollar. That is, unless they’ve sold a percentage of bottom-line earnings, or have agreed to pay a fixed rate based on AUM. In those scenarios, the payment to these service providers continues to rise as earnings and/or AUM increase, effectively wiping out precious operating leverage.
What billion-dollar teams need today to transition out of the wirehouse world and start their own RIA is to use their inherent economies of scale to obtain the resources and preferred pricing promised by the platforms and aggregators.
To get up and running, teams only need to work with experienced consultants who operate on a fee-based, project basis for the RIA business’ startup needs (full disclosure: I am the Founder & CEO of one of these firms, PFI Advisors). Once the clients have transitioned out of the wirehouse and the RIA infrastructure is in place, advisors quickly realize that they are a self-contained business, easily capable of handling the day-to-day operations of their own firm.
There is no need to pay for these services through the aggregators or platform providers by giving up valuable equity or paying steep ongoing basis points on a multi-year contract. Rather, by tapping into the deep expertise and knowledge of industry transition experts – those that are independent and not tied to a specific platform – advisors can achieve a quick start up with the latest transition needs.
Teams can pursue their RIA dreams in confidence, knowing that they have the right advice and support to build their dream firm the right way, without having to give up a significant portion of their firm.
This article is based upon a recent white paper, “Pursuing the RIA Dream: New Transition Models for Billion-Dollar Breakaway Advisor Teams.” To obtain a copy, click here.
I Have A Brand And It Haunts Me
I was talking to my pal “Jonas” who recently decided to freelance (vs building a multi-consultant business) when he left a bigger firm to do his own thing.
Jonas is a global talent guy who works across the planet for some of the world’s most well known companies. He decided his best play—the one that would allow him to focus on what he loves most and live the life he’s planned—is to freelance for other firms.
His plan got off to a bit of a rocky start because—get this—none of the firms he approached believed he’d actually want to “just” freelance. He’d earned his rep by steadily building deep, brand name client relationships, practices and business, not by going off by himself as a solo.
Or as he put it “I have a brand and it haunts me.”
We both had a good belly laugh because he was already rolling in new projects, thrilled with his choice to freelance.
And yet, isn’t that the truth?
Good, bad, indifferent—our brands DO haunt us.
They whisper messages to those in our circle “trust him, he’s the bomb”, “hire her for anything creative as long as your deadline isn’t critical”, “steer clear—he talks a good game but doesn’t deliver”.
And thanks to social media, those messages—good and bad—can accelerate faster than you can imagine. One client, one reader, one buyer can be the pivot point that takes your consulting business to new territory.
So how do you deal with it?
Yep—you go for more of what comes naturally. In Jonas’ case, he stuck with what he’s known for—his work, his relationships, his track record for integrity—and won over any lingering skepticism about his move.
We weather the bumps in the road by staying true to who we are at our core.
So when a potential client says “Sorry, you’re just too expensive for me”, you don’t run out and change your prices. Instead, you listen carefully and realize they aren’t the right fit for your particular brand of expertise and service.
When a social media troll chooses you to lash out at, you ignore them and stay with your true audience—your sweet-spot clients and buyers.
And when your most challenging client tells you it’s time to change your business model to serve them better, you listen closely (there may be some learning here) and—if it doesn’t suit your strengths—you kiss them good-bye.
If your brand isn’t haunting you, is it really much of a brand?
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