From the February 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

No Accounting For This

Advisory firms affiliated with CPAs are outpacing their peers

The newly-created Schwab IMPACT award for best-managed advisory firm, its Best in Business designation, was not given to an advisory firm in the usual sense but to a CPA firm--Plante Moran Financial Advisors, which is owned by a regional accounting firm with a huge footprint in Michigan, its toes in Illinois and Ohio.

Plante Moran has a staff of more than 110 people in its wealth management group and oversees more than $5 billion in assets. This makes it one of the leading independent RIAs in the U.S. and certainly the largest advisory firm associated with CPAs.

Plante Moran is clearly the best of breed in a growing population of CPA-affiliated financial advisory businesses. According to the 2006 Moss Adams Financial Performance Study of Advisory Firms, CPA affiliates also tend to be better managed. The gross profit margins of CPA-affiliated firms exceed the industry average by 5%, and their operating profit is on average 8% greater. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Moss Adams is also a CPA firm with an advisory firm subsidiary.)

As an industry-wide statistic, one of many survey results that impressed us was the sheer size of the participating firms: The average revenue was greater than $1 million. Firms owned by a CPA parent fared even better; they were almost three times larger than the average advisory firm!

The evidence of growth among CPA-affiliated firms was further validated by a 2005 research project Moss Adams conducted for BAM Advisor Services, a turnkey provider for CPAs out of St. Louis, Missouri. According to that study, BAM-affiliated accounting firms grew assets under management in the preceding year by more than 100% and revenue by more than 60% compared to the average growth rate in revenue for the industry of around 36% for the same period.

Of course, size alone is not the most important measure. So let's consider the profitability margins. Particularly for growing advisory firms, it is a challenge to maintain profitability when the firm is making operating investments ahead of the growth curve. Again, the CPA-affiliated advisory practices shone with an operating profit margin of 26% compared to the average of 18%.

The Reasons Why

So why are CPA-affiliated advisory firms performing so much better than the advisory industry in general? There is a lot to be said for having a captive client base who, through liquidity events, accumulation of assets through businesses they own and tax planning, often seek out their accountant as their trusted advisor. Of course, not all accountants within a CPA firm support the notion of providing investment advice or even financial planning to their clients, but obviously, the firms in our survey have managed to overcome some of those cultural hurdles.

Another reason the CPA-affiliated advisory firms appear to be performing well as businesses is because of their natural orientation and understanding of business management, a skill set neither inherent nor developed by the advisory community in general. Clearly, the accountants managing advisory firms have the same DNA as their tax and audit brethren when it comes to pinching pennies, as one can tell by their overhead expense ratio, 38% of revenue (compared to the industry standard of 42%). It is extraordinarily difficult for advisory firms to manage their overhead costs in this environment because of compliance pressures, rising staff salaries, and other infrastructure costs that are going up faster than revenues, in most cases. The closer a firm gets to a 35% overhead expense ratio, the more it is operating at optimal efficiency.

In addition to overhead expense control, CPA-affiliated advisory firms really shine in how they manage to produce superior results at the gross margin line. As readers of this column know, we put a great deal of emphasis on managing gross profit margin, which is the measure of profitability that comes after a firm pays professional staff level salaries (Direct Expense). How one approaches the client service experience while keeping everybody aware of what affects profitability can make the difference between a top quartile and a bottom quartile business. In other words, it is not possible for advisory firms to manage to profitability by controlling costs alone. When the gross profit margin is rising over time or ahead of the benchmark, this is an indication of better client selection, a scaleable service offering, coherent pricing, and the productivity of their professional staff.

Measuring Productivity

Productivity can be measured in a variety of ways, including revenue per staff, revenue per client, and clients per staff. In one comparison of CPA-affiliated firms to the average, we found that their revenue per professional staff and AUM to professional staff were both higher. Yet, on average, they also managed fewer clients. As these practices grow, they continue to add professional staff in order to have capacity to take on more clients. The difference is, they are effective in timing their hiring close to their need instead of having to carry new staff for a long period of time without seeing a return on investment.

A third reason why CPA firms appear to be outperforming their advisory firm peers is that they have access to technical capability in which they have already invested. Therefore, they are able to leverage expertise without additional cost. Most of the CPA firm participants have clearly adopted the "wealth management" model of full service that includes financial, estate, and tax planning; risk management; charitable strategies; and investment consulting.

While offering more services does not automatically result in more profits--in fact, the opposite is often true--this breadth of offering allows accountants to refer clients from one discipline in their firm to another quite naturally. For example, if a tax compliance client asks the CPA for help with tax planning around a transaction, this creates a natural and seamless segue for the CPA to involve the firm's estate planning and financial planning specialist in the relationship. Should the business sale occur, the client creates considerable liquid wealth that needs to be managed--ideally by a trusted advisor.

What's interesting about the CPA-affiliated firms, however, is that it seems most of them are accumulating clients and assets to manage as an outgrowth of their tax practice rather than as a result of business sales. In our strategic and compensation planning work with CPA advisory firms, we find that many are performing tax compliance work and tax planning for very high-net-worth individuals who, over time, become disenchanted with their broker or trust department or money manager. Many of these CPA-affiliated advisors tell us that using a consistent (some might say conservative) approach to investing, either through professionally managed account programs or by using index funds at the core, resonates well with clients who have otherwise been whipsawed by hot investment tips and overly aggressive advisors.

Not coincidentally, the financial advisors and planners who reside within CPA firms find that the key to getting through the accountant, who is the gatekeeper, to the clients is the same thing--a consistent, proven methodology, with a logical investment selection process, relatively low fees, and a reduced dependence on human judgment. Whatever the merits of this philosophy, the concept seems to be working within accounting firms.

Which brings up the final point of why accounting firms in the advisory business may be excelling. When accountants first dipped their toes into the advisory firm waters, there was a tendency for CPAs to get licensed in order to sell investment or insurance products in the "off season." The consequence was that the industry became filled with dabblers who produced under $50,000 of annual revenue from their financial advisory practice and whose motives were primarily opportunistic. As with the rest of the advisory profession, as CPAs began to recognize both the liability risk and the demand for professional personal financial advice, many of them became financial advisors full time and let go of their accounting practices. Many others hired or merged in financial advisory practices that had already established processes, protocols, and clients. The move toward greater specialization in such firms accelerated both the growth and the quality of personal financial advice one now gets at their accounting firms. Plante Moran, winner of the Schwab IMPACT award, is a good example.

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An Evolution in Thinking

As a result of this evolution in thinking, accounting firms have created a new and interesting dynamic for the financial planning and advisory world. They have also created models that growth-minded advisory practitioners may wish to emulate.

First, successful CPA-affiliated advisors have been able to focus on their optimal client and consequently are able to create a consistent client service experience. This means their approach to pricing, reporting, client contact, and service offering is definable, measurable, and effective.

Second, they have stayed true to their CPA roots by maintaining a healthy attitude about managing to profits. They monitor costs, evaluate their business management performance according to benchmarks, observe trends, and price their services in line with their offering.

Third, while most seasoned accountants recognize that cost control is important, most understand that real growth comes by adding the right people, providing them with a career path, helping them develop, and coaching them to effective levels of performance. CPAs who have come from professionally managed organizations have had many years to learn the value of an effective human capital plan on the traditional side of their businesses and are now able to apply this in their new ventures.

Advisors who lack the infrastructure, capital, or management expertise to grow their businesses to the next level might consider accounting firms as a possible place to merge their firms instead of looking to banks, consolidators, and other large advisory firms.

Culturally, it can be a challenge because the way advisors and CPAs look at life can often seem strangely different. If one is explicit about the expectations of such an arrangement, the business and financial benefit is clear by the numbers we are seeing so far, both when we look at our own example and when we analyze our clients' data.

If merging with a CPA firm is not desirable, advisors can study how the best-managed CPA-affiliated advisors are growing and begin to apply many of the same principles to their own practices.

As for the CPA firms who are in the financial advisory business, they will need to be vigilant about maintaining a strong bond with the advisory side of the house, and vice versa. Fast-growing businesses often lose their sense of purpose. What got them here likely won't get them to the next level alone. They will need to invest in new expertise, perhaps expand their investment offering, and be careful that their processes don't break down as they start drawing talent from places other than where they found staff before. As a new generation of accountants and advisors emerges, each will need to be reminded of what brought them together in the first place and why their combined offering gives them a clear differentiator in the marketplace that distinguishes them from other CPAs and financial advisors.

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