If you’ve switched broker/dealers, you know the meaning of frustration. But there’s no way to avoid it, right? Wrong. There are steps you should take, and questions you must ask, that will ease the pain. Moreover, those steps and questions will pay other dividends, particularly in gaining a better understanding of your practice and helping to forge a personal definition of success. We’ve all heard horror stories from reps who did not know the right questions to ask before making a switch and went from the frying pan of a bad B/D match to the fire. But there are also success stories out there. The suggestions that follow are based on the experience our firm had in switching B/Ds twice in as many years.
We quickly left the first due to a change in corporate structure. We thought we had asked all of the right questions before joining the second B/D, but soon found ourselves subject to higher costs, poor service, and a bad fit. While frustrating, it was a valuable learning experience that we used in making a final switch that’s led to a mutually satisfying business relationship.
Most independent broker/dealer representatives will face this challenge, often more than once, during their careers. For example, your firm may be looking for a new B/D that better complements the business being generated by the reps in your branches. You might be an independent rep contemplating a switch to gain access to more of the product bells and whistles you believe you need to offer clients to remain competitive. You could be a rep who is swept along involuntarily to a new B/D through a merger. Whatever the reason, the following steps should help you make an informed decision.
Step One: Determine the Business You’re In
Your main concern must be how best to take care of your clients and your business. To determine that, first consider your personal sources of revenue and that of the entire branch, if applicable. How much of your revenue comes from managed accounts? How much of your clients’ assets are in retirement accounts? How much are from direct accounts? Then break down those figures to determine how much of your overall client assets are in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, annuities, insurance, REITs, or limited partnerships.
Once you know those percentages, narrow your initial search to broker/dealers that can accommodate the size and scope of your practice. Obviously, the bigger the asset base that you manage, the more room you have to negotiate a deal. Most B/Ds impose firm-level minimums based on the prior year’s gross production or total assets under management. Your prospective B/D will want to see evidence of steady increases in both. Some might give you a monetary incentive to join them. Some might try to entice you with advanced technology or producer conferences in sunny locations. But beware: these are red herrings that have nothing to do with meeting your clients’ needs, or your own.
After all, your broker/dealer can make or break your business. You want a B/D that acts as a partner in helping you grow your business, not one that’s an impediment to that growth. How do you determine before you switch that a specific B/D will be that partner? At a minimum, you need knowledgeable and responsible support from the home office; a dedicated transition team to get you going; and clear signals that the B/D will provide a structure under which you and your clients will be treated fairly.
Step Two: Start Asking Questions
Based on the answers to those questions in step one, narrow down the B/Ds you are considering to a manageable list of about five, using references from other reps, directories of B/Ds from magazines like this one, CPAs, attorneys, and third-party pension administrators. Good suggestions came from mutual fund wholesalers, too, and we used information gathered at various investment seminars and continuing education functions. Clearly, if you’re a stock jockey or like hedge funds, you may not want to join a B/D that handles very little of that business. If having a personal relationship with home-office staff is essential to you, you may not want to join a very large B/D that has thousands of reps. Check those firms’ Web sites, ask them to send general information to your office, and schedule one of their recruiters to stop by. What you’re looking for in this step are answers to the following questions:
- What year was the B/D founded?
- Are the founders still running the firm? Is there a parent company?
- Is the B/D financially stable?
- How many lawsuits are pending against the firm?
- Is there a pattern to the suits?
- Has the firm been fined by NASD or the SEC, and why?
- How many affiliates exist?
- How many reps are registered within those offices?
- What clearing firm does the B/D use, and is there a dedicated contact person for reps at that firm?
Step Three: Get Specific
Next, draw up a comprehensive listing of questions that are specific to your firm, based on the data gathered in steps one and two. Use the following bullet points as a guideline. Pass on these questions to the prospective B/D candidates and ask each for a formal response.
Of the five B/Ds that our firm chose to consider, one did not reply to our questions, three sent personalized folders with all our questions answered, and one sent a fact-filled binder along with an invitation to its annual top-producers gathering. Here are the issues to discuss:
- First and foremost, if you transfer your business to the new firm, what can you realistically expect from the new B/D? Better service? Lower fees? Marketing assistance?
- How will the initial transfer be made? What paperwork will be needed? Direct accounts at fund companies can be taken care of by a block transfer form, which your “old” B/D must approve. That brings up a related point: Always have a good contact at your old B/D, and never burn any bridges. If your old B/D wants to be difficult and hold up paperwork, it can. That can mean holding up trails and commissions.
- Will you keep the same clearing firm? If so, there is a chance that a tape-to-tape transfer of account data to your new B/D can be accomplished. You will more than likely have to have new account forms and ACAT forms executed by each and every one of your clients. Find out from each candidate exactly what paperwork you will need to complete for each type of account. Are there specific requirements for the Patriot Act? Are there any deadlines for completion of the paperwork? Legally, what is the earliest date you can have someone execute a new account form? Will new IRA adoption agreements need to be signed (updating beneficiary information)? Are W9s incorporated into the new account form? Does all of this data have to be entered online to broker/dealer-specific software?
- What about “linked” accounts? Make a list of all systematic deposits and withdrawals you have for your clients. You may need to get a newly signed ACH form and voided check (original, not a copy) in order to provide continuity in transactions. Which clients have check-writing privileges? A nice little trick is to start the new check numbers at ’2003′ (the year of the switch), because you will have one or two clients that don’t throw the old checks away and will call you and ask which checks are the good ones. Will you need copies of trust documents, powers of attorney, corporate resolutions?
- Who at the new B/D will help you and your fellow reps through the transition? Is there a designated team, with a specified contact person? Is that person available by telephone or by e-mail, and during which business hours? Get references and check them out thoroughly for both the firm itself and your transition contact person.