What will the financial advisory practice of the future look like? No, we’re not talking about George Jetson flying to work, and once there, finding all his tasks fully automated. Instead, we’re asking how advisory firms will be different five or 10 years from now. Because if you can see the trends developing, and understand why things are moving in that direction, we think you’ll have a much better chance of building tomorrow’s firm, and reaping tomorrow’s benefits, today.
Like any good futuristic model, ours is firmly rooted in the present, and in the past. For five years now, Moss Adams has been working with SEI and the Financial Planning Association to study trends in the development of independent advisory businesses. This year’s publication, The 2005 FPA Compensation and Staffing Study, provides the most dramatic picture yet of how the independent advisory world is changing, and what the practices of the future are likely to look like. It’s a view that quite possibly will change the way you think about your firm and the business of delivering advice.
The most striking nugget from our data is that in 2004, the advisory business was up–way up. In our 2001 Study, the typical firm had 1.5 employees, including the owner. Today, the average firm surveyed has 4.5 employees and generates over $1 million in annual revenues. That’s a revenue increase of 25% over 2003, and it was accompanied by an average of 21 more clients and an additional $30 million in assets under management. On those revenues, the average advisor’s total compensation increased 12%, to $133,000. What’s more, not only are most firms growing like Tiger Woods’s endorsement contracts, there are a lot more firms generating in excess of $2 million a year, finally providing solid data on how and why these larger firms operate with almost irresistible efficiency and productivity–powerfully suggesting that they are, indeed, the future of independent advice.
Consider that the top 14% of firms surveyed (the elite ensembles) average $3.5 million in annual revenues, compared to $1 million for other ensembles. And that these leading firms post profit margins of 21.5%, vs. 11.1% for the rest. Of course, top firms naturally generate more revenue: that’s what makes them top firms. But it’s the far better profit margins (double the percentage points of profit on far greater revenues) that makes these firms compelling case studies. What’s more, $1 million in annual revenues may be the point where a firm’s operating margins start to improve (see Breaking the Barrier, IA November 2004), but a quick look at Owner Compensation as Percent of Revenue (see chart below) shows the real Holy Grail: at $5 million in revenues, owners’ compensation as a percentage of those revenues finally rebounds, and in a big way–back up to 24.5% from a low of 16% at $2 million to $3 million. The message is hard to miss: principals in bigger firms make more money.
Sure, we hear you say, that’s all good for them, but the real questions are how did those large firms get that way, and can other firms use the same strategies to achieve similar success? We’re glad you asked. Our 2005 Study shows that successful advisory firms are making dramatic long-term changes that fuel their explosive growth. These strategies fall into three general categories: 1) Redefining the roles of their owners, that is, gaining broader expertise by allowing owners’ to focus on specialties rather than overlap as generalists; 2) Adding non-owner professional help in unprecedented numbers; and 3) supercharging their recruiting efforts to find and retain those professionals.
Redefining Owners’ Roles
Common wisdom tells us that as firms get larger (that is, add more clients and generate more revenues), they add more professionals. That makes sense, because comprehensive financial advise is what business consultants call “labor intensive:” the more revenues you generate, the more people it takes to do it. And somewhere in that thought is the hazy notion that if you have more professionals, sooner or later, you’re going to have to let some of them become owners. This year’s data takes that vague career track a quantum leap further–it reveals a surprising relationship between the size of advisory practices and the number of owners (or principals) it has. As the second chart below (Number of Principals by Revenue Size) shows, other professionals and support staff notwithstanding, advisory practices generate a remarkably steady $1 million in revenues for every owner.
Why would this be the case? We think it boils down to span of management control. Only 17% of the owners of the firms we polled said they didn’t have any management responsibility. It seems that while an advisor can leverage herself with more staff and more professionals, there is a limit to how many people one owner can supervise and still advise some clients. To grow beyond that point, a firm needs to add owners to share the management burden. In fact, we are starting to see some patterns that suggest that a firm should expect to add another owner for every five professionals. Once those owners are added, the firm can even further increase its leverage–and revenues.
One way this works is that multiple owners are able to diversify their roles to cover all the bases of firm management–strategic planning, business development, compliance, staff management, rain-making, etc.–and still have time to work with clients. This is particularly important as even owners who assume the role of CEO (usually given to the largest shareholder) on average continue to also manage 109 client relationships–more than most other principals. In fact, as the third chart (Number of Functions Performed) on the bottom right demonstrates, larger firms with more owners allow those principals to greatly reduce the number of functions for which they have responsibility. We’ve identified 17 tasks that professionals in ensemble firms perform, such as new business development, delivering advice to clients in a primary advisor role, preparing financial plans, setting up and maintaining client accounts, and so forth. Firms generating at least $3 million in revenue with an average of three principals reduce those tasks to just over eight for the CEO down to under four for owner/managers.
To manage this growing number of owners, we see leading firms formalizing compensation to drive the behavior of their principals and focus the internal economics of the firm. The first principle of owner compensation in a small business is to separate the rewards an owner receives for his or her ownership from that received as an advisor, manager, compliance officer, or other employee function. Not only does a clear distinction between the two forms of compensation enable a firm to determine its true profitability (and other operating margins), it also allows each partner to be fairly compensated for the role they play in firm operations and in generating revenues. The distinction may seem subtle at first, but with an average of 23% of firm revenues (not counting ownership distributions) going to owner compensation, the impact of properly allocating those costs can be huge.
The return on equity that owners receive for their investment in the firm can vary widely with the profitability of that firm, but compensation for the specific jobs owners also performed inside the firm should be calculated at the going rate for those tasks. It’s true that principals in most advisory firms wear multiple hats, and sorting out who does what can be a little complicated. But that sorting-out process itself can reveal inefficiencies in how a firm works and major discrepancies in overworked and under-worked owners. That’s why we see a clear distinction between owners’ comp and ownership distributions as a key step in the maturation of advisory businesses.
To some advisors, such complications in compensation and organization may seem unnecessary after a decade or more working closely with their partners. There are many firms where the initial arrangement of splitting everything equally and everyone jumping in to help works very well. But consider the impact of the first “stranger” you invite to the ownership table–a person with whom you don’t share the long history, who may have different motivations, may be from a different generation, and who, surprisingly, may not think that they can fully rely on the “trust me” system. Owners fully recognize the impact of the first new owner and we believe the fear of the “stranger at the table” is delaying the admission of a whole new generation of principals. The firm of the future will have to deal with that fear today. Remember how and why you started your firm. Chances are you did it because some other organization would not let you take control and ownership of the practice you created. Is it possible that someone in your firm may be feeling the same way?
The Emergence of the Employee Advisor
Perhaps the most important statistic to come out of our 2005 Study is that for the first time, the number of non-owner professionals in independent advisory firms exceeds the total number of firm owners. Put another way, there are more non-owner advisors than there are owner advisors. Sometime during 2004, the advisory business reach a watershed moment: the transition from a profession of predominantly sole proprietors to one of ensemble firms.
As the top chart on the right shows, in firms with under $1 million in revenues, 60% of the advisors are owners; but in practices with revenues from $1 million to $3 million, only 45% of the professionals are owners. In firms with revenues of more than $3 million, only 33% are owners–which means two-thirds of the advisors in the largest firms are employees. The business of ensemble firms is quickly morphing from one of coordinating groups of principals to one of managing teams of non-owner advisors.
The impact of this dramatic shift can be seen in the Median Staffing chart at right. Notice that somewhere around $3 million in revenues, the number of non-owner professionals exceeds the number of principals, and then doubles the number of owners in larger firms. In fact, in today’s large firms, the ranks of non-owner advisors comprise one-third of the total staff including owners, and it’s fair to say that the success of these firms depends in no small part on them.
Non-owner professionals in advisory firms fall into three categories: support advisors, who write financial plans or track investment portfolios but have little client interaction and no responsibility for recommendations or advice; service advisors, who deliver advice and work with clients but are supervised by principals or lead advisors; and lead advisors, who have ultimate responsibility for all client deliverables and service decisions with no supervision, and who may or may not be principals in the firm. It is the advisors in this last category–the non-owner lead advisors–who comprise the most intriguing trend is this year’s Study.
For years, we and other consultants to the advisory community have extolled the advantages of leveraging owner/advisors through hiring support and service advisors to perform more menial professional tasks, thus freeing principals to focus on high-level, revenue-generating client service and marketing. It seems the industry has done us one better, creating a class of non-owner professionals who need little or no supervision or management and therefore can greatly increase the leverage of the firm’s owners.