Private equity is feeding the trend. Stone Point Capital and KKR & Co. are the largest shareholders of Focus Financial Partners Inc., an aggregator with more than $200 billion in client assets that went public in 2018. Oak Hill Capital agreed to buy a stake in Mercer Advisors in September.

David DeVoe, a San Francisco-based consultant who tracks the industry, tallied 101 M&A deals by RIAs in the first three quarters of 2019, compared with 100 in all of 2018.

“The last couple of years, scale and the interest in gaining scale has been the big driver,” DeVoe said. “The marketplace is being stocked with sophisticated strong buyers and that also contributes to this perfect storm of activity.”

Sellers have a menu of options from full buyouts to partnerships with providers of back-office support, a structure that lets them retain their brand and focus on client recruiting or one-on-one advice.

“Consolidation in the asset- and wealth-management industry may maintain momentum next year from a record 2019, amid long-term trends such as fee pressure, the shift to passive from active investing and a need to spend on technology,” said Alison Williams, senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

As of year-end 2018, there were more than 17,000 retail-focused RIA firms in the U.S., collectively managing $4.8 trillion, according to Cerulli. It expects firms with $1.6 trillion to participate in deals because of owner retirements, with most sellers transitioning out slowly to prevent a client exodus.

The “perfect guy” to sell was a 59-year-old founder who recently talked about fear of missing out on current prices, according to Rush Benton, head of M&A at Captrust, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based behemoth with $362 billion. Buyers often want owners willing to work years after a sale because ongoing relationships with clients are key to enterprise value.

“The older the founder gets, the less value in the business,” said Benton, who has overseen four acquisitions this year of firms with a combined $7 billion in assets.

Joe Duran, chief executive officer of United Capital, wants to keep running -- and growing -- his advisory firm for a long time. He found a partner with deep pockets and marketing prowess: Goldman Sachs, which paid $750 million in May for his Newport Beach, California-based company. The bank found an opportunity to expand its fee-based services for individual investors.

“The independent RIA is really the shining star of the financial services wealth management category,” Duran said.