He was born into a pizza dynasty, but Marty Bicknell got a taste of the financial planning business early, rose up through the ranks of a storied broker-dealer, and has been rolling up not dough but financial services companies.

Indeed, his firm Mariner Holdings has been aggressively acquiring new RIAs and investment managers since its launch in 2006. If you ask him about it, he’ll make it sound easy—a matter of luck as much as planning, and ponders whether he would have ever tried it had he forecast the financial crisis. But in the eyes of some, he might have also been driven by the desire to recreate the culture of the late, widely revered broker-dealer he spent about 16 years working for, AG Edwards, as he laid down a blueprint for a new national firm.

Since Bicknell founded Mariner Holdings in Leawood, Kan., the firm has bought companies or lifted out groups some 32 times—including investment managers like New Jersey’s Brinton Eaton; RIAs like Jersey Shore firm Housen Financial Group and Vantage Investment Advisors in State College, Pa.; and even a boutique investment bank, the Allied Business Group, in Kansas City, Mo. There are many ways to skin a cat—or, for a firm like Bicknell’s that started small with a huge war chest, to go national—but he has bucked trends in several ways.

For starters, even though he started out targeting the high-net-worth market as a consultant (trying to be a Callan for rich people, says one Mariner C-suite executive) his firm still has no account minimums. He also leaves a good chunk of the financial firms he acquires in the hands of the men and women who started them. He’s not looking for people hoping to cash out or retire on the job.

Even Bicknell can’t say that this was all part of the grand plan. He founded his firm just before the market crisis hit and found lots of companies suddenly on sale.

Bill Greiner, the chief investment strategist at Mariner for almost three years, says Mariner Wealth came about in part as a reaction to changes in the high-net-worth space. As other firms made their investment expertise the star attraction, Bicknell and his partners, many of them former AG Edwards people, wanted to keep wealth management as the centerpiece.

“They wanted to [focus] on the entire financial picture, even if it was recommending what kind of insurance policy they needed to buy for their kids’ auto insurance, whatever it might be,” Greiner says, In that way, the firm could stand out from others in the Kansas City region. That philosophy likely served the company well at a time when investment managers were living and dying by what the S&P 500 was doing, and when markets made fickle friends.

“We started the company with the sole purpose, the sole idea of being wealth advisors for ultra-high-net-worth and serving them from a planning perspective,” Bicknell says.

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