The new office for VWG Wealth Management in Vienna, Va. is just 300 feet across the street from its old digs at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, but the distance is “miles apart in our approach to the business and where we think it’s going to go,” team member John Verfurth says.
VWG, with assets of $700 million, is the fifth wirehouse team this year to join HighTower Advisors, a Chicago-based hybrid RIA with national reach and $18 billion in AUM. HighTower signed up three Merrill Lynch teams in Palm Desert, Calif,, Naples, Fla. and Portland, Me., and another Morgan Stanley team in Palm Desert.
“The growth of HighTower and our recruiting successes are certainly showing that advisors are feeling this is a better place to serve their clients,” says Michael Papedis, the firm’s managing director of business development.
HighTower targets teams with assets of more than $400 million, he says, and the company is on track to recruit 10 to 12 teams this year. It’s brought on 23 teams since its founding in 2008; 15 advisor principals have joined thus far this year.
Growing dissatisfaction among advisors at the top Wall Street firms is fueling breakaway broker interest, Papedis says. “The sophisticated high-end teams have just outgrown that model,” he says. Clients are telling advisors, “Put yourself in a place where you can serve me in an unconflicted way. I want the availability of the best products that are out there, not what you are limited in what you can provide me.”
Large national RIAs are expanding their reach  as the financial advisory market continues to evolve following the crash. HighTower is well-positioned to compete for top advisors; investors have pumped $165 million into the firm, Papedis says. In December, HighTower announced it had hired two key recruiters  based in New York and San Francisco to broaden its footprint on both coasts.
Papedis says HighTower draws advisors with its offer of partnerships in the company, and with its open source architecture that allows advisors to choose multiple custodians and clearing firms. The teams are free to run their practices as they see fit, and can avail themselves of the support services at the same level as those they left behind with their former employers.
Verfurth, 48, and partners Jeff Grinspoon, 42, and Richard Weeks, 50, had worked as a team at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney since 2004. The three, who all hold CFP designations, brought their staff of three with them, including a junior advisor who also holds a CFP.
The thought of leaving Morgan Stanley Smith Barney emerged after the financial meltdown in 2008. “It was just a Plan B for us; what would happen if Morgan Stanley went under, which we didn’t expect,” Verfurth says. “We needed some sort of opportunity to meet the needs of our clients if the firm had a problem like Lehman did.”
“Obviously going independent has its own pitfalls. You’re operating a business, dealing with compliance, back office,” Grinspoon says. “We didn’t want to build a business and detract from what we do for our clients.”
They talked with about a half-dozen companies. Other wirehouses weren’t on the list, Verfurth says: “We wanted something different from where we were at.” HighTower became a frontrunner early in the process. It had experience with large wirehouse teams. The support services would allow the team to keep their focus on clients. Verfurth says the partnership structure at HighTower was “a very big piece” of their decision to join: “We didn’t sell our business to them,” he says. The fiduciary model also helped seal the deal.
“At the end of the day, HighTower doesn’t make, doesn’t distribute, doesn’t trade for firm profit on any of these things,” Verfurth says.
The recruiting bonus that HighTower paid the team helped them out of a retention deal that the team had signed with MSSB a year ago, Grinspoon says. The bonus helped advance the transition, but it wasn’t the top priority; the team could have gotten more money elsewhere, he says.
“While they didn’t penalize us, that was certainly not the driving force for us. It wasn’t like we said, ‘Wow, they’re paying us that much. We’ve got to go there,’” Grinspoon says. “This is really a story about a way of life, a way of doing business.”