For over a decade, financial services industry observers have been predicting that industry consolidation will continue indefinitely-eventually gobbling up the small practitioner and/or rendering him profitless. A bold prediction-the kind headlines are made of. Too bad it simply doesn't coincide with reality.
The fact is, small practitioners have always had a strong presence among personal service professionals. I would submit there's a place for them in our industry that will not diminish over time, just as there has always been a place for small practitioners in the accounting world and the legal and medical professions.
How prevalent are smaller practitioners in our industry? According to the latest FPA Member Demographics Summary, almost half (46%) of the association's membership works in offices of only one to five employees. Another 15% work in offices of six to ten employees, leaving less than 40% of the membership working for larger firms.
The accounting industry is even more skewed toward smaller practitioners, if we consider the membership of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Says Mark Koziel, the director of specialized communities and firm practice management for the AICPA, "There are 44,000 accounting firms in the U.S. and of those, 33,000 are sole practitioners who work alone or have one assistant."
In fact, smaller shops may be the current trend in accounting. Adds Koziel, "The profession is ever-evolving. We have more and more CPAs who hang out a shingle and start their own shop. They may or may not want to grow; what they have in common is they want to be on their own."
The point, says Koziel, is that mainstream America wants to work with sole practitioners. Which may be good enough for tax preparers. After all, everyone needs to do a tax return but not everyone needs to do a financial plan (or so they tell themselves). But just as most tax preparers work with a range of clients from individuals to small businesses, so do small-shop financial advisors work with both small and large-even institutional-clients.
The inescapable conclusion is that a large segment of U.S. consumers-both affluent and less affluent-prefer to work with smaller firms. They value their ability to stay close to the firm's founder, and possibly work with him or her directly, and they feel they get better service from the smaller entities.
That's what's in it for consumers; what's in it for advisors? Lifestyle. As an advisor, you can easily get swept up in the growth of the firm you work for to the point where company business pre-empts the personal side of things. Some advisors value their lifestyle-specifically their ability to be good spouses and parents-above all else. The business comes second, but because it's critical to the advisor's livelihood, the advisor has structured it to support his or her desired lifestyle-not the other way around.
David Goad, president of Succession Planning Consultants, Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif., says there are more lifestyle boutique advisors in the profession than many realize. "There are two permanent landscape changes that occurred after the market meltdowns of the last 18 months that will continue to support this practice model choice," says Goad. "First, economic events of late have influenced clients to be less impressed with 'bigness' [think of the huge amounts of assets recently repositioned from banks and wirehouse firms] and more impressed with a financial advisor who connects with them, including the ability to help address their own lifestyle planning concerns related to finances."
The second change, says Goad, is a mounting trend that is evident in the late-career advisor space where more advisors are seeking to reduce the workload and stress in their practices, resulting in a new succession strategy they did not anticipate: enjoying their work so much that they intend to die with their boots on and transition their practice via a buy/sell agreement to a colleague in the profession.