There's a famous Saturday Night Live sketch in which Tom Hanks, having hosted the show five times, gets to enter a special group called the "Five Timer's Club." Privileges include use of a spa alongside other members Steve Martin, Paul Simon and Elliott Gould and drinks delivered by Jon Lovitz. Ralph Nader, a one-timer, is not allowed in.

There's another club that several RIAs often dream of belonging to-the club of firms with a billion dollars in assets. It's an arbitrary figure that might not be realistic or even prudent for many independent advisories, yet it's still the gold standard many would judge themselves by when they're dreaming big.

Of the 454 firms that participated in Financial Advisor's 2011 RIA survey, a total of 91 firms have now reached this lofty height, and 17 of those firms are new entrants. In 2005, the year the survey was inaugurated, the number was about 21.

And yet for many advisors, the goal looked farther away than ever in 2008. Not only did assets plunge, but staff was pared back and revenues for reinvesting in the business fell. It must have felt as if someone had put sugar in their gas tanks.

2010, however, was in many ways an interregnum year. Assets continued to bounce back from the financial collapse of 2008, but investors are still wary of returning to the stock market, and that hurts performance, which in turn hurts fees and revenues.
Dealing with fewer assets has been a challenge for advisors trying to build. In 2009, many firms, even those in the billion-dollar club, were still paring back staff. And remember-that was a good year in the market.

This year, however, firms have been putting people back to work. The average number of total employees rose to 17.6 from 16.2, an 8.64% increase. And staff grew at every level, from support people to management.

Client rolls have also been increasing. The average number of client relationships grew to 513 as of December 31, 2010, from 458 on the same date in 2009, an increase of 12.01%.

Assets per client have been rising as well. The median rose to $1,146,033 for 2010 from $1,079,823 for 2009, an increase of 6.13%. (The mean for 2010 was $3,009,693 versus $2,698,088 in 2009, an increase of 11.55%; those higher numbers likely show the influence of those giant outliers leading from the top of the roster.)

Some 372 firms, or 82%, saw assets per client grow, though 70 firms saw them fall.

Assets under management for all the firms in the survey rose 19.80%. The S&P 500, by contrast, rose 12.8% for the year. Only 19 of the 454 firms said they saw assets stay the same or shrink last year. Some 55 firms, or 12% of the total (not counting those that started up) said they saw their assets increase by 50% or more. Meanwhile, almost three-quarters of the firms said they saw their number of clients grow; 20 of those saw client numbers increase by 50% or more and eight firms saw client levels double.

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