Brandywine Oak Private Wealth, a registered investment advisory firm nestled in the Delaware Valley of southern Pennsylvania, was founded in 2018 by five breakaway wirehouse advisors with $500 million in client assets between them.
The firm has grown by more than 68% in just five years, primarily through organic growth, while adding seven additional staff and creating an affiliated tax practice with three dedicated accountants. Today, Brandywine Oak oversees around $1.5 billion in assets and co-CEOs Michael Henley and Alison Brooks expect to reach $5 billion over the coming decade.
But not by attracting more clients. The opposite, in fact.
“We're actually trying to shrink the number of clients that we work with,” said Henley. “And increase the size of those clients.”
If the firm’s median client has $3 million in manageable assets, he explained, they’re targeting clients in the $5 million range. And when their median client reaches $5 million, they’ll be courting households with more than twice that amount.
“The more we can go up-market, we find those families have more sophisticated planning needs that are a better fit for our skill set,” Henley said, adding that it also makes sense from a capacity standpoint. “You can only handle so many families. If your average client is $2 million, you probably shouldn’t be onboarding a bunch of $1 million clients—but I see it happening all the time.”
Brooks and Henley said they left positions at Merrill Lynch—where each spent more than a decade—because they found they were unable to give objective and unconflicted advice under the captive wirehouse model. They founded Brandywine Oak with Chairman Steve Maconi, Tracy McGuire and Mark Jackson, all Merrill Lynch expats with 75 years of experience between them.
“We’re now in a position to be on the same side of the table as the clients,” Henley said. “And we’re young; we have a long runway ahead of us and ultimately didn’t want to be trapped into certain investment products, certain advice, et cetera.”
One of the firms included on WealthManagement.com’s RIA Edge 100 list, created in partnership with Discovery Data, Brandywine Oak has grown at a significantly faster pace than its more established peers, while also maintaining an above average client-to-advisor ratio and investing in professional certifications.
In just a few short years, the firm has added and expanded services and capabilities through thoughtful additions, ongoing professional development and a proactive staffing policy to manage growth.
As well as financial planning services, Brandywine Oak currently offers investment management, retirement planning, tax planning and preparation, insurance and estate planning, access to certain banking services and ongoing financial education. The firm has local law and insurance firms on retainer to provide the relevant expertise and necessary paperwork—but brought taxes in-house 18 months ago, launching an adjacent practice with CPA Chris Smith and three employees.
“That has been a huge differentiator in terms of competitive advantage,” said Henley, noting that the tax practice consistently sets the firm apart from Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo, as well as larger RIAs like Creative Planning.
“What we underestimated,” he added, “was the overwhelming number of clients that wanted to immediately switch over to having their taxes done. We expected around 10% in the first 30 days, and it ended up being closer to 40%. So, it was a lot, but it was really a game-changer.”
Both under the age of 40—along with 80% of the firm’s staff—Henley and Brooks project a comfortable management dynamic that deserves credit for at least some of their success.
“Michael is the firm’s visionary,” said Brooks. “He works with our most sophisticated clients and comes up with all these ideas that have really been key to our growth.”
“And Alison knows how to execute on those ideas,” Henley said.
That co-management philosophy extends throughout the entire firm. Each client is covered by at least one lead advisor and two dedicated associates and has access to all the expertise and skills Brandywine Oak has to offer.
“None of our advisors have their own clients,” Henley said. “They’re all clients of the entire firm and that’s critical.” He explained that the model allows his staff to remain highly involved with each client while lessening the day-to-day workload for senior advisors who can focus their energy on more complicated tasks for increasingly sophisticated needs.
Internal team building is also an important activity at Brandywine Oak, he said—and a super fun one with a predominantly millennial staff. One recent excursion took the entire firm to the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, Ga.
“We had all 12 people down there racing ridiculous cars all day,” he said. “That kind of thing probably wouldn’t be possible if we had a team that was much older.”
“The team [at Brandywine Oak] is as good as any advisory team we’ve worked with in the industry,” said Shirl Penney, chief executive officer for Dynasty Financial Partners, a tech-enabled practice management platform dedicated to helping RIAs launch independently. Henley and Brooks chose Dynasty because the platform was “basically the only game in town” that would allow them to retain control of the business.
“Particularly given their age, it’s really been an amazing growth story,” Penney said. “I think it’s unique at a time when a lot of advisors are getting large assets built up quickly through M&A and inorganic growth. Their organic growth has been very impressive, and I think that really differentiates them versus some of their peers in the space.”
In 2021, the firm acquired a $250 million book of business managed by Lisa Quadrini. She reached out to Brandywine Oak in search of a better succession plan and established a satellite office in Kiawah Island, S.C., in April. The deal is the only M&A transaction the firm has completed to date.
While they don’t anticipate extending the contract with Dynasty to take advantage of the platform’s M&A capabilities, Henley and Brooks said they expect to launch their own inorganic strategy in earnest after that agreement sunsets later this year.
“We are very much looking forward to releasing the shackles and moving on,” said Henley, describing his team as “do-it-yourselfers.”
Noting tentative plans to establish a permanent office in Charleston, S.C., he identified upstate New York as another region of interest for expansion. Henley said the firm will continue to target breakaway advisors but is open to buying an existing RIA.
“Wirehouses make it easy,” he said. “We speak that language, but they’re also easy to sell against because that triangulation of advice is not there. And, more so, most wirehouse advisors want to leave most wirehouses. They want a succession plan where they know their clients will be taken care of; that was the catalyst for Lisa coming on board.”
“Our big goal now is continuing to hire,” Henley said. “We've recognized that we don't want to be in a position of weakness in terms of hiring and would rather have too many on staff than too little.”
“We want to hire in advance of the need,” nodded Brooks.
The firm already boasts CFA, CFP, CRPC, RMA and CPA certifications, but is always looking to add more.
“We’d like to find someone who’s a certified divorce financial analyst,” said Henley. “Or a certified trust financial advisor, for instance. I think the more specialties you can have, the better.”
In addition to a focus on providing more specialized services and adding expertise, the Brandywine Oak team goes out of its way every quarter to look for ways to improve, upgrade or enhance existing services. This might include simple, value-add services such as providing fraud-proof pens, helping clients assign legacy designees to their cell phones or identifying unclaimed assets.
As the firm’s resident “visionary,” Henley said he gets much of his inspiration from semiannual Mastermind meetings with other financial services professionals, something he wholeheartedly recommends to other firms seeking growth.
“The number one thing that I would encourage any advisor to do is form a Mastermind of six to eight other like-minded advisors around your age who are growth oriented, maybe at different RIAs, and get together at an Airbnb once or twice a year to share best practices and hire a couple coaches,” he said.
“I go to a lot of conferences and those are also good learning experiences, but the vibe at a Mastermind is more open and you’re much more likely to get true advice. That has been invaluable.”