Building an independent advisory firm is like running a marathon-it takes a long time, it is painful and it drains you of every resource and ounce of mental energy you had. It is competitive but it’s more of a competition with yourself, a test of your plan and your will, than it is a race against others. It tests your limits but it gives you a sense of achievement like no other. For many owners of advisory firms, surviving the financial crisis has felt like running their first marathon-long, hard and draining, but ultimately rewarding.
It is hard to imagine when you finish your first marathon that you might find yourself at the starting line of another. Unfortunately, that may be what happens to every firm-we (the independent financial advisory industry) may have to go through another test. I have no insight into the market or the economy, but I believe most advisors would agree that the probability of a double-dip recession is higher than 0%. As daunting and scary as it may seem, we may have to prepare for another marathon. Still, this time we have the lessons of the first one and we know how to prepare better. The time to prepare, though, is now-not when we are in the middle of it. If we prove too cautious and the market surges ahead, then the most we risk is spending too much time on improving our business-how can that be bad?
The possibility of a double-dip recession is very frightening because so many of the business plans, so much of the emotional energy, and the credibility of almost every firm in the industry is heavily invested in the notion of recovery and return to prosperity. Another period of defending client relationships, reducing employment and compensation and having low profitability is not just disappointing-it might change the nature of many firms, threaten their existence, cause them to sell, prompt their people to change careers and undermine the credibility of the industry. I am not trying to be alarmist in my prediction but I remember vividly how many of those decisions were on the table in February and March of 2009. And that was just the first one-the easy one.
Running your second marathon is nothing like running the first one. When you run your first one everyone is cheering for you and all your family and friends line up along the course to support you. When you run your second one everyone is just wondering what is wrong with you-why do you keep doing this? There is no one cheering from the sidelines, but the bar is set higher because now you have to run faster. Worst of all, you know exactly how bad it is going to be.
The 2008 and 2009 crisis was all about survival-just staying in business felt like an achievement; after all, it was the worst crisis since the Great Depression. What is more, the owners of advisory firms had the full support of their staff-employees were very understanding when their compensation had to be reduced and when some of their colleagues had to be let go.