For the last decade, advisors have been wondering when RIA aggregators would start to integrate the dozens of legacy firms in their networks. Last month, Financial Advisor put that question to the new chief executive of Focus Financial, which did that very thing last month—announcing it would merge two high-profile firms—the Colony Group and Buckingham Strategic Wealth.

In an interview in early May, Focus’s new CEO, Michael Nathanson, acknowledged that he and Buckingham CEO Adam Birenbaum were hardly alone among Focus firms when it comes to discussing possible business combinations. Over the years, he, Birenbaum and executives at other RIAs in Focus’s 90-firm stable, have held long conversations about numerous subjects at company events, ranging from best practices in asset management to tax planning to succession planning and a host of other topics, that sometimes wandered into the idea of possible mergers.

But if the advisors at the current Focus firms want to merge their businesses, it would have to be what Nathanson calls a “coalition of the willing.” Focus, he said, is “not forcing anyone to do anything, nor could we.” Apparently, the agreements Focus has with its partner firms say it can’t.

Nonetheless, when other firms within the network see two of its largest and most successful member firms merge, it sends a strong signal, Nathanson acknowledged. “This was a voluntary decision by two huge firms; they did it because they thought it was best for all the stakeholders.” He added that he fully expects some firms to follow suit while others decide they want to remain as they are.

Buckingham and Colony are among the “hubs” Focus has created to accommodate merged partner firms. Others include Kovitz Investment Group and SCS Financial. “So what we are doing now is taking the best of all capabilities of the hubs and we expect to be able to provide those capabilities on a shared services platform to all of our partner firms within Focus,” Nathanson explained.

A few partnerships have taken place so far this year. In March, Colony was also involved in another merger with Wellesley, Mass.-based GW & Wade, which created GW & Wade at the Colony Group, a firm with $31 billion in assets. And in April, it was announced that Kovitz will absorb Deerfield, Ill.-based Strategic Wealth Partners, which will create a $14.5 billion AUM firm upon the deal’s closing in the second quarter.

The partnerships strengthen various services, which can then be offered to clients across the shared platforms, Nathanson said, noting that many other firms within Focus have skills and specializations that could benefit partner firms.

He noted that Buckingham is a leader in evidence-based investing, which will help Colony’s passive investing strengths.Conversely, Colony’s active investing and its efforts in alternatives, private strategies, specialty strategies and ESG investing will now be available to Buckingham and its clients.

Nathanson added the two firms complement each other in other ways as well. Buckingham, he noted, is strong in financial planning while Colony offers services in the areas of tax planning, bill paying and family office. “These are services that Buckingham previously did not have available to its clients.”

Moreover, having a “true” national presence is also advantageous. He noted that Colony was already a national firm with locations largely on the East Coast and West Coast and parts of the Midwest, while Buckingham has great geographic strength in the Midwest and in the center of the country. “So, if we put the two organizations together, it truly is a national organization.”

Because many of Focus’s partner firms have been successful on their own, there will be many debates about which approaches, services and investment platforms are better when firms consider joining forces, he said. “And we look forward to having those debates and we welcome the passion that all the firms have about what they have been doing.” But ultimately, he said, the expectation is to have a “best-of approach,” which he acknowledged will be challenging to determine but “it will have to be [that the] best ideas win.”

He said the RIA profession is entering an age of interdependence, which was the topic of a Financial Advisor article he authored in January. For a business that was born out of fierce independence, there is likely to be “a tension between independence and interdependence” over the next decade, he argued. “I believe you can have both.”

He sees the interdependence model as an opportunity for Focus firms to operate at scale under the fiduciary standard. “I am a big believer in the fiduciary standard, and it is a better, stronger, more continuous standard of advice than Reg BI,” he said. “We are creating the leading fiduciary advice platform in the country.”

Focus happens to be celebrating its 20th anniversary and, since the financial crisis, it has been one of the most active acquirers in the advisory space. One thing that will change going forward is that while Focus will remain a big acquirer, from now on it will purchase all of a future acquiree’s equity. In the past, it would purchase a controlling majority interest but leave the founders with a significant stake so that they would have “skin in the game.”

Nathanson believes Focus’s plans for shared services, including a “world-class” investment platform, will be a compelling reason for other firms to think about joining forces with it.

He also said that when Focus was a public company between 2018 and 2023, there were tax issues that made certain acquisitions problematic. Though he did not elaborate, he indicated that the firm would have more flexibility as a private company.