If the current trends in the financial services industry shake out, small firms could go the way of the dodo bird.
That was the conclusion of a panel at TD Ameritrade’s 2016 National LINC conference in Orlando, where the leaders of three large RIAs attempted to envision a future dominated by larger firms with more sophisticated technology.
“This business is entering into a ‘fewer, but bigger’ environment,” said Randy Conner, president of Los Angeles-based RIA Churchill Management Group. “You’re going to want to be on the side of ‘bigger,’ so the key element is starting to think about that now and putting infrastructure in place from the money management side of things. The beauty of our business is great economies of scale.”
Ric Edelman, CEO of Fairfax, Va.-based Edelman Financial Services, agreed.
“The big are going to get bigger and the small are going to get wiped out,” Edelman said. “This is going to happen because of tech challenges, the competitive marketplace and branding challenges that advisors have. Many RIAs are 60 years old or older, many are not going to be around in five to 10 years because they’re going to find it too difficult to operate their practices. Advisors are either going to leave the business, join a bigger firm or start a bigger firm.”
How big is big enough? Edelman’s firm entered 2016 managing more than $15 billion in assets for approximately 30,000 clients, while Churchill boasts more than $3.7 billion in AUM. A third panelist, Darlene Murphy of Wellesley Investment Advisors, a Wellesley, Mass., RIA with $2.4 billion in AUM, said that growth must continue for her firm.
“It’s a challenge to prepare for the next period of growth right now, because it comes down to finding key talent,” Murphy said.”Unemployment is low and it’s hard to find good people, so right now it’s about putting the right people into the right places and building out our infrastructure and technology internally.”
Wellesley has hired a new manager to oversee its RIA teams and help them grow organically, an approach that Conner also recommended.
“Firms can start to build an accordion that expands with opportunity and contracts when things slow down,” Conner said.
Edelman said he’s focused on prospecting for clients and recruiting new advisors.
“We expect to more than triple in size over the next three years,” Edelman said. “To do that, we need a lot more clients: We’re adding 5,000 a year to our practice. We need more advisors, too. We have 125 right now; this year we’re looking to add 30 to 50 more.”
All three of the panelists’ firms are rapidly growing, which is leading to major changes in the way they do business.
“We’re increasingly finding that our clients, regardless of age, are saying no more paper communications,” Murphy said. “They want advisors’ cell phone numbers and they want to text, and our challenge is to meet those clients where they’re at … Our communications with clients in this recent period of volatility have become a little more frequent in terms of offering them conference calls and webinars and other opportunities to communicate with us.”