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After Lanigan, Fidelity's Chances

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If you’re an advisor with Fidelity Registered Investment Advisor Group (FRIAG), you already know the news. If you’re not, you may or may not have heard: Jay Lanigan, president of the Fidelity unit, is leaving. In fact, by the time you read this, he will have left. His last day has been announced as January 21. And while the circumstances of his departure are murky, it’s just possible that it spells a turning point in the financial advisory community.

With Fidelity being its usual tight-lipped, party-line self–no press release was issued on Lanigan’s leaving, but company PR folks are happy to tell us that he left to pursue other interests–the circumstances of his leaving give rise to some interesting questions. Judging by the timing of the “announcement,” such as it was, Lanigan reached his “decision” to leave around January 7, or perhaps a few days earlier. For a person in Lanigan’s position, and considering he had 25 years with Fidelity, including 14 years with FRIAG, two weeks notice seems a bit short, don’t you think? Could it be that his decision was perhaps influenced by someone else?

What’s more, since he took the helm of FRIAG in 2003, the firm’s custodied assets and affiliated advisors have both almost doubled to $125 billion and 2,500 RIAs, respectively. It’s true that when you start small, growth figures can appear fantastic, but those are pretty heady numbers by anyone’s standards. So, particularly in light of the lack of any helpful information from Fidelity itself, one has to ask what sort of corporate malfeasance has Mr. Lanigan been involved in?

None at all is what I’m hearing. In fact, the word on the street, from sources close to Fidelity and advisors who know Lanigan, is that while rapid, his departure was almost amicable. The buzz is that despite those stellar growth numbers, his boss at Fidelity Brokerage Group, president Ellyn McColgan, has her sights set quite a bit higher: challenging Schwab’s dominance of the RIA market, by boosting assets above $300 billion. She just didn’t think that Lanigan’s scrappy, boot-strapping style was strategic enough to get FRIAG there. Or at least to get there fast enough. So Lanigan’s out, and Fidelity’s looking for someone who can get the bigger job done.

That may finally mean some good news out of Boston for financial advisors. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been very impressed by the Schwab executives I’ve met. Schwab as a company has been on the cutting edge time and again: Schwab’s OneSource singlehandedly forced the financial services industry to open mutual fund platforms; Schwab Institutional made fee-only advice economically viable; the Schwab Advisor Network referral program has helped grow many practices, and the list goes on. Yet in my view, Schwab’s virtual unchallenged dominance of the RIA custody market has led to arrogance on the part of the San Francisco giant, and unease among many advisors who feel they are at Schwab’s mercy without any viable alternatives. It’s not a new story: a monopoly is rarely good for the growth or the health of an industry.

So, for almost 15 years now, I’ve held out great hope that one of Schwab’s competitors–Fidelity or TD Waterhouse have been the most likely favorites–would step up to the plate. When TD Waterhouse bought Jack White Financial, I hoped the Wall Street firm, backed with Toronto- Dominion Bank’s financial might, would make a giant out of Jack White’s advisor-friendly approach. Instead, TD Waterhouse seems content to pick at the smaller scraps Schwab doesn’t want. As far as I can tell, a substantial portion of Waterhouse’s assets come from advisors who derive psychological comfort from diversifying some small portion of their clients’ assets away from Schwab.

Then there’s Fidelity. The Manchester United of mutual fund companies, with over $2 trillion in assets and cash flow that must approach $10 billion a year, who could deny that Fidelity has the resources to dominate the advisor market anytime it wants? The only plausible explanation for why it hasn’t must be that it hasn’t really wanted to. Until now. Maybe, just maybe, if the rumors hold some grain of truth, McColgan, the brass at 82 Devonshire, and the Johnson family have finally decided that it’s time to make a play in the independent advisor marketplace.

If it’s real, FRIAG’s wake-up call couldn’t have come at a more propitious time for advisors. While assets under management and the numbers of clients are on the rise, the challenges independent advisors face today are enormous. Yet a firm like Fidelity certainly has the resources to smooth the bumps in the road, if used effectively. Here are a few modest suggestions of what FRIAG might do to quickly become a megaplayer in the advisory world (most of which I’ve mentioned to FRIAG execs at one time or another):

Play up the Fidelity connection. The last time I talked to Jay Lanigan, he made a comment that led me to realize what has been at least part of FRIAG’s problem. He seemed to think that the custodian’s relationship with Fidelity was a problem for advisors, and therefore FRIAG was doing everything it could to downplay its corporate lineage. The only way FRIAG is going to be a player is with Fidelity’s resources, and everybody knows it. So if the parent is really going to put up this time, then shout it from the rooftops. Perhaps more importantly, Fidelity has considerable expertise in wealth management that could be tapped to help advisors become better wealth managers themselves. Heck, we’re way past the days when companies tried to ram their proprietary funds down the throats of captive sales reps. Even Merrill Lynch has an open mutual fund platform. If Fidelity has no intention of pushing its own funds on RIAs, and I’m sure the folks in Boston are far too smart for that, then as long as it doesn’t, the advisors will see that and believe it. But in the meantime, there’s far too much good at Fidelity to ignore the connection.

Make a strategic acquisition. Virtually everybody in financial services these days wants to be a fee-only advisor. But a lot of folks can’t figure out how to economically make the transition economically. One way to add a lot of assets quickly would be to buy a firm that’s rife with that kind of advisor, and help them make the transition to fees. And one of the only independent broker/dealers left, Linsco/ Private Ledger (LPL), is right in Fidelity’s backyard. LPL’s Todd Robinson has had a good run; maybe it’s time he stepped aside and let someone take his reps into the 21st century. Even if FRIAG doesn’t make such a strategic acquisition, launching a major initiative to help brokers go independent and convert to fees could attract a lot of client assets in the next few years.

Create the killer platform. Technology continues to plague independent advisors. While the Internet is clearly the solution for many of the challenges they face, the advisor market just isn’t big enough to get the attention of the likes of Microsoft or Sun Microsystems to build a real solution. Schwab’s tried it. Morningstar took a shot with very limited success. Advent continues to be the leader. But nobody offers an integrated online system that securely stores client documents, and offers seamless client management, portfolio management, trading, financial planning, wealth management, tax preparation, and business management. We’re not talking about rocket science here. It’s only a matter of resources. Which Fidelity, has, of course.

Build a compliance solution. The current bugaboo for independent RIAs is compliance. With the SEC writing new regs as fast as they can be printed, complying with their massive requirements threatens the economic viability of many firms. Moreover, many knowledgeable compliance insiders believe that it’s only a matter of time, probably a short time, before the SEC requires RIAs to conduct and pay for an independent compliance audit every year, just as public companies get accounting audits. The solution to this gathering nightmare is technology; electronic storage of client documents, files, transactions, e-mails, and so forth that can be remotely accessed by the clients themselves, advisors, and most importantly, compliance auditors who can do their business online for a fraction of the cost of office visits. This maybe is a little closer to rocket science, but it’s still only a matter of resources to get it done–and attract billions in AUM looking for shelter from the storm.

Create a serious practice transitions program. I’ve talked to both FRIAG and Waterhouse folks about this, but so far the only firm that seems to take it seriously is Schwab. Here’s the point: Any number of sources will tell you that roughly 50% of the principals in independent advisory firms today are over 50 years of age. Another 20% are between 45 and 50. A quick and dirty calculation reveals that something on the order of $1 trillion in client assets are going to change hands in the next 10 years or so. These days, advisors don’t have to just shut their doors when they decide to call it quits. Thanks to FP Transitions, there is an independent market where hundreds of practices are bought and sold every year. It’s an efficient market, with consistent valuations, and huge demand. Maybe it’s just that I’ve worked with FP Transitions that I see this so clearly, but sooner or later a broker/dealer or custodian will offer a transition program that will attract hundreds of billions of dollars in client assets and change the status quo in the advisory world. Such a program will go far beyond the largely informational succession planning that Schwab is offering, which I have on good authority has been a great success. This killer transition program will offer economic incentives–in the form of commission buy-downs and loans for down payments–as well as transition consulting that will cause advisors throughout the industry (inside and outside the firm in question) to think first about selling their practice to one of the firm’s existing advisors. Seems like a no-brainer to me: I can just see the chips falling from the pile in San Francisco to the one in Boston.

Are these pie-in-the-sky solutions for Fidelity? Probably. But, hey, I’m just a journalist. If I can come up with a list of ideas like this, I’m sure the geniuses in the Boston World Trade Center can think of much better strategies. It’s only a question of how badly they want to do it. Heaven knows, financial advisors could use the help. Maybe this time they’ll get it.

Bob Clark, a former editor-in-chief of this magazine, sagely surveys the advisory landscape from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected].


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