A CFP certificate and an aggressive strategy for recruiting new clients are among the traits that are helping financial advisors grow their businesses, according to a new study.

The 2004 Financial Performance Study also found that rising operating costs are among the stiffest challenges facing financial advisors.

"This year's results call attention to the importance of continuing education within the financial planning arena," says Mark Tibergien of Moss Adams LLP, a management consulting firm in Seattle. "The results also suggest that firms will need to find ways in which to accelerate their revenue growth in order to combat rising costs."

The study-issued by Moss Adams, the Financial Planning Association (FPA) and SEI Investments-found that advisor firms with a CFP certificant on staff had, on average, exceeded the annual revenue of non-CFP firms by more than $300,000 in 2003.

CFP certificants who owned firms had 50% more pre-tax income than owners without a CFP, according to the study.

It also seems that, among financial advisor firms, the rich are getting richer, according to the study. The data showed that the earnings gap between the top 25% most profitable firms and the remaining 75% is widening. Owners in the top quartile have a net income that's about $250,000 more per year than their peers, the study says. Among the traits that separate the top 25% firms from the rest is pro-active client recruitment programs and strong organizational structure, the study says.

Among the study's other findings:

Assets under management or advice increased by 34% from 2002 to 2003. Half of the growth was due to portfolio performance and the other half represented new assets. More than 20% of the study's about 638 participants had $1 million or more in annual revenue.

Firms run by a sole proprietor increased revenue by 21% in 2003, but they suffered a decline in operating efficiency due to rising overhead costs.