Twelve groups have signed with Spire so far, and only six of them work in the firm's Virginia headquarters. The rest work in offsite locations in a network that spans Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Colorado. The key to Spire's success, says Blisk, is that the hybrid firm offers advisors superior technology, complete freedom and top investment platforms, along with a registered investment advisor affiliation and a newly minted in-house broker-dealer. "Now we control our destiny," says Blisk, a principal of the firm.
With broker-dealers like LPL and custodians like Schwab lining up to recruit breakaway brokers-those ready to trade in their employment with Wall Street firms for more flexibility, profitability and control-Blisk's strategy seems to be a masterful one. Instead of competing with the likes of Schwab and Fidelity, who don't want to offer commission-based products anyway-why not partner with them to recruit newly independent brokers who still have commission business and want someone else (Blisk hopes it's Spire) to worry about computers, lights and the like?
Spire, he says, gives brokers and advisors who still want somebody else running their back-office, compliance and due diligence a place to go for advisor registration without giving up commissions or having to stay in a traditional wirehouse setting.
In fact, Blisk argues, Spire has created a win-win situation for everyone: Advisors who join its group get elite producer status and full access to a number of platforms, including Schwab and Fidelity's offerings. Supermarkets like Fidelity and Schwab get a shot at the Spire advisors' fee-based assets. And Spire gets a piece of everyone's pie.
So far, so good. Spire's hybrid business model seems to be a big draw these days-especially for transitioning brokers who want to keep some commission business (it's about 70% fees, 30% commissions at Spire and may never change, according to Blisk). In fact, the entrepreneur says, he and the director he's hired to recruit advisors and brokers have $1 billion in new advisor assets in the pipeline for early 2008 and may be able to add as much as $3 billion more this year. The firm generated $7 million in revenues in 2007 and expects to increase that to well over $10 million in 2008, Blisk says.
"It's an amazing time to be in this business," he adds. He believes the firm is a natural fit for those fleeing wirehouses, but not necessarily committed to creating their own firms from scratch. "I believe we've built this firm to a much higher plane," says Blisk, who is himself a Smith Barney veteran-a big breakaway broker who struck out on his own in 1997.
Blisk created Legacy Advisors with his wife Brenda, herself a broker from their Smith Barney days, and Larry Gaffey. Legacy was affiliated with Lockwood and Cambridge Investment Research, before they split off and created their own broker-dealer late last year.
The goal for years has been to create a network of independent advisors that would give the wirehouses a run for their money.Their growing number of advisors, assets and revenues and the positive notice of companies like Fidelity seem to be proving that the Spire model has staying power. In fact, Blisk and Paul Murphy, his vice president and national sales director, recently made a presentation at Fidelity's national sales conference in front of the giant's own salespeople about the benefits that hybrid firms like Spire can offer them as they recruit breakaway brokers-especially those who still have commission business and don't want full independence.
"We're very pleased to get this kind of opportunity," says Murphy.
Blisk calls the presentation an audition. "I think it's only a short matter of time before we hear that we've become one of Fidelity's preferred friendly broker-dealers. Then we'll get referrals from them about advisors who need a broker-dealer."
While a vocal component of the advisory industry has touted fee-only advice as the superior service, Blisk calls this attitude sanctimonious and contends that a hybrid model combining fees and commissions is a more profitable way to go. "Advisors need a broker-dealer for five things," he says. "Mutual fund trails, variable annuities, private placements, 401(k)s and 529 plans."