The people who run Mercer Global Advisors Inc. use various analogies and descriptive terms to describe their acquisitive firm. The Denver-based registered investment advisor’s CEO calls the company an unfinished symphony. Its former chief executive, who now leads its expansive mergers and acquisitions efforts, likens it to the Mayo Clinic. The fund’s marketing material calls it a family office for real people.

The company has been making noise with its aggressive M&A pace—36 deals since 2016. After its most recent acquisition (or, at least, the most recent one before this story went to print in mid-October), Mercer Global Advisors had more than 40 locations across the U.S., 440 employees and more than 14,000 clients with $21 billion in client assets.

It’s one of the country’s largest independent RIAs, yet the executives at Mercer Global Advisors (henceforth referred to as Mercer Advisors, which is not to be confused with its parent entity, Mercer Advisors Inc.) sees plenty of upside ahead. “We’re a long way from done—we think of ourselves as an unfinished symphony,” says CEO Dave Welling.

Mercer Advisors plays in a crowded sandbox of consolidators gobbling up small to midsize RIA firms in a rapidly consolidating industry. While its asset base has zoomed about 250% since it began its acquisition spree in 2016, it appears to be roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of assets under management within the universe of large RIA acquirers. But even as Mercer Advisors aspires to get bigger, it says its M&A moves aren’t driven by a desire to be top dog on the RIA assets leaderboard.

“It’s not about how big we can get,” says Welling, 52. “We want a proper cadence to growth with a good mix of organic and inorganic growth.” The organic growth has come in part from its presence in referral programs involving Charles Schwab & Co., TD Ameritrade (now owned by Schwab), Fidelity Wealth Advisor Solutions and E*TRADE Securities LLC.

The company’s ultimate aim, Welling says, is providing its soup-to-nuts, family office-style service model—including fiduciary-based financial planning, investment management, estate planning, corporate trustee services, insurance solutions and tax planning—to as many retail clients as possible.

“We’re one of the first fee-only financial planning firms in the country,” Welling says. “We understand what that’s about, and people see it and that’s why [financial advisors contemplating a sale] are willing to talk with us.”

Evolution Of A Firm
Mercer has experienced several inflection points since it was founded as a one-man shop in 1985 by Kendrick Mercer, a lawyer in Oregon who moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., and opened a financial consulting and investment company called Mercer Advisors. Known to his friends as Rick, he sold the company to four employees in 1990 and moved on to other ventures. Now in his 80s and living in Idaho, Mercer is an author and consultant focused on human growth and human consciousness. But Mercer Advisors executives say his legacy lives on in the company’s focus on helping people realize their financial freedom by creating a plan that removes the economic worry from their lives.

For a handful of years during this century’s first decade, the firm focused on dental clients because the CEO at the time owned a dental practice consulting company and saw a synergy in combining that with financial planning and investment management for the roughly 1,500 dentists doing business with his firm. Mercer Advisors’ headquarters moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., during this period.

But that all changed when Dave Barton took over as CEO in 2007. Barton, who is 54 and now the firm’s vice chairman, joined Mercer Advisors as general counsel in 2000. As a practicing attorney in Santa Barbara, he originally worked for the law firm that represented Mercer. “I became their attorney and won a few cases. I think they got sick and tired of paying my legal fees and so they asked me to be their general counsel,” he jokes.

Barton became the fifth partner and company president in 2004. In late 2007, just before the onset of the Great Recession, he says the other partners wanted to leave and asked him to buy them out. “I said, ‘Guys, I’m the junior partner here and don’t have the money to buy you out, but I will find a partner to buy you out.’ That’s when I brought in private equity, and I became CEO at that time.”

These moves sent Mercer Advisors down the path to its current iteration. In 2008, private equity firm Lovell Minnick Partners bought out the original partner group and provided capital to support the firm’s expansion of wealth services.

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