(Dow Jones) TD Ameritrade's Institutional division last week launched a new version of its practice-management program for registered investment advisors. The custody provider's Maximize My Business is meant to help RIAs with things like marketing, operational efficiency, client service and human resources. ?

The impetus for providing practice-management consulting to RIAs in addition to core-support functions of custody and trading is enlightened self-interest, says Tom Bradley, president of TD Ameritrade Institutional. ??"The idea is that if we work with our clients and provide them with resources, they'll grow, and when they grow, we grow," he says. ?

But Philip Palaveev, president of RIA business consultancy Fusion Advisor Network, says a big name in RIA custody like TD Ameritrade has little choice but to provide consulting services for the simple reason that its rivals--along with every other vendor to the independent-advisor space from software writers to asset managers--are doing it too. ?

"The question is whether [TD Ameritrade's new program] is a reaction to what Schwab and Pershing are doing or a genuine attempt to take the lead," says Palaveev. "It's probably a bit of both: [TD Ameritrade has] been providing these services for a while, and they undoubtedly feel that their program is the best just as everyone thinks their kids are the smartest and best looking. But they also must know that all these [programs]--and I have helped design a few of them--look very much the same." ?

And though some custody providers have more experience in certain areas of practice-management consulting, in broad terms the only meaningful point of differentiation is personnel, according to Palaveev. ??"It comes down to the quality of the people delivering the program," he says. "Firms may be getting the advice, but very few [of them] actually follow it, so that the question becomes to what degree does [the advice] produce results? Which is why continuity in terms of who is actually on the field is very important." ?

Caveats aside, RIAs' need for practice-management consulting is acute. "Most advisors have no training and little real experience running a business," says Palaveev. "So there's a need for what [TD Ameritrade and its competitors] are doing. The question is whether they're meeting the need." ?

TD Ameritrade Institutional, based in Jersey City, N.J., is the third-biggest RIA custody provider in terms of end-client assets. It follows Charles Schwab Corp.'s Adviser Services business, which supports about 6,000 advisors with approximately $590 billion in client assets, and Fidelity's Institutional Wealth Services. Clearing firm Pershing, a subsidiary of Bank of New York Mellon, has the fourth largest RIA-support platform.

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