Max Briggs, chief executive officer of FLC Capital Advisors in Palm Desert, Calif., is one of an elite group of people who can brag about surviving a shark attack. He has the inches-long scar on his leg to prove it.
In addition to being extremely frightening, the attack was a rude reminder that his financial advisory firm did not have a succession plan in place. He now knows it is something that has to always be there as situations change. It is not something you can let lapse. Not even for a few months.
Indeed, when he was attacked, it had only been that long since he'd faced down a previous succession problem. He had been in business with a partner who died in 2007 at the young age of 42. The two had a buy/sell agreement financed by life insurance that handled the business transition when the partner died.
"Without a plan in place, if something tragic happens or a retirement occurs, half the business could go out the door," Briggs says. Thanks to this prior planning, done when no one thought it would be needed, the firm was able to retain 99% of its clients after his partner died.
But then, without a new plan in place, Briggs went fishing in the Bahamas nine months later in June 2008. He was skin diving and spear fishing in 20 feet of water when a 7-foot bull shark attacked his leg. He was within minutes of bleeding to death, and he had to be airlifted to Miami. He survived the attack, but part of his leg had to be reattached.
Briggs never imagined he would need another succession plan so quickly. If the shark had killed him, his clients and employees would have been left out in the cold. His wife would likely not have realized any of the value of the practice he had built up over 15 years, he says.
Briggs now is affiliated with Securities America, which has started a coaching program to help financial firm owners through the steps of leaving a firm, whether it is voluntary or not. The shark attack prompted him to draw up another plan and begin to mentor a colleague so all the clients would know someone in the firm besides him. He now has another buy/sell plan in place with his new partner.
Few planners anticipate something like a shark attack happening to them. Advisors are in the business of planning for their clients and often neglect to plan for themselves.
In a recent study by MultiFinancial Securities Corporation called The Pulse of Practice Health, 18% of advisors said they had a fully documented succession plan and another 21% said they had at least a partially documented plan. But Stephan Quinn Cassaday, the founder and president of Cassaday & Company Inc. in McLean, Va., says that after talking with others in the business he highly doubts the figures are even that high.
"If 10% of firms have a viable succession plan, I would be very surprised," he says. "It is a huge problem."
But it is at least something firm owners are starting to think about, partially because the industry has existed for a few decades now and many owners are pushing retirement age. Cassaday says that a succession plan is not only good business practice but also a competitive advantage. If potential clients know a plan is in place, they will believe the firm's principals have thought about the future and can provide business continuity in case of disruption.
Cassaday says he treats his employees, many of whom have worked for him for more than 15 years, like family and says he would not want to leave them unprepared if something happened to him. As Briggs knows, bad things can happen to even young planners who aren't planning on leaving the business.
Cassaday founded his firm in 1993 and now has 24 employees and more than $1 billion in assets under management. It took him two years to develop his own succession plan, but it is now firmly in place.
There are two questions to think about in developing a plan, he says: "What if you get hit by a bus and what happens when you are ready to retire? I wanted to make sure the firm could continue to function well without me and wanted to lay the groundwork for an elegant departure if I retired someday. I have worked to make myself obsolete so that the firm can operate without me if I am not around. This, coupled with a formal and binding arrangement for transfer of firm assets at my death means that we have covered all the bases."
To cover for the unexpected, he set up a life insurance policy on himself on which the other principal advisors in the business pay the premiums. If he dies, his wife will be compelled to sell to the other advisors in exchange for the insurance proceeds.