When Studying Together Leads to More

A new study group formed by top RIAs is interested in growth. Will any of its members want to merge, as advisors in another study group have done recently?

This week six top registered investment advisors with $18 billion in advised assets announced that they have formed a study group, Alliance for RIAs (or aRIA for short) with the goal of establishing themselves as industry thought leaders on the subject of growth.

They’re names many RIAs would recognize: Savant Capital CEO Brent Brodeski, Ron Carson of Carson Wealth Management Group, John Burns of Burns Advisory Group, Jeff Concepcion of Stratos Wealth Planning, Matt Cooper of Beacon Pointe Wealth Advisors, and Neal Simon of Highline Wealth Management.

And one was in the news just last week—Savant Capital of Rockford, Ill. Savant and another RIA, The Monitor Group of McLean, Va., said they would combine assets and form a new company with $2.7 billion in AUM that they hoped would someday attract other RIAs that were looking to grow without selling equity to aggregators.

It happened that Savant and Monitor Group came to know each other well through their mutual membership in another study group—Zero Alpha Group. As the name suggests, the group’s members have a shared admiration for passive asset allocation and similar investment philosophies that take a dim view of active management.

Officials at both Savant and Monitor told Registered Rep. last week that having the same business models was a big help in drawing them closer and ultimately deciding to unite their companies.

Which raises the question: do advisors who opine together combine together? Does membership in study groups create a dynamic that leads its RIAs to consider merging in some fashion?

Some study group rules are designed to ensure that its members aren’t competing against each other. Members typically are barred from sharing details of what they learn from colleagues outside of the groups.

David Selig, CEO and founder of Advice Dynamics Partners, an M&A consultancy based in Mill Valley, Calif., said Zero Alpha members were dispersed geographically to ensure that they wouldn’t be fighting for business on the same turf. (Selig was an advisor to the Savant-Monitor deal.)

But it happened that Savant and Monitor were both looking to have a national presence, and being outside each other’s market actually helped to advance the logic of their combination.

The new Alliance for RIAs says it wants to study “inorganic growth”—another term for growth by acquisition rather than through expanding internally. So its members are disposed to want to get bigger.

“They’ve all been successful at recruiting advisors, and they each have a track record of outstanding growth,” Selig says. But he doesn’t see that as driving any M&A activity within its ranks.

 For one thing, the advisors share greater differences among themselves. Carson’s RIA business emerged from his years at LPL Financial, a broker/dealer. Burns is a mid-sized RIA with a different investment philosophy from some of the others, Selig said.

“M&A isn’t for everyone,” he said. “It’s a strategy for growing and preserving continuity in your firm, but it’s not the number-one strategic choice for probably the majority of firms.”

John Furey of Advisor Growth Strategies, who coordinated and managed the development of Alliance for RIAs, said mergers within the group were “plausible,” but that the subject hadn’t come up among the members.

“Their models—how they invest and who they serve—are different. So I think those combinations would be more challenging,” Furey said.

The group hopes to put out a white paper on growth in the third quarter, and is currently building a website.

“We decided we wanted to do big things together,” Furey said. “I think the RIA industry is maturing in a variety of ways. The advisor community is getting more sophisticated in how it thinks about business management and growth…What this group is all about is how do we share (best practices.)”

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