Mindy Diamond started her career as an accountant. By chance, she was interviewed by the head of the firm who, after hearing Mindy describe what was wrong with her current job, told her she wasn’t cut out to be an accountant, but would make a great recruiter, and offered her a job with the recruiting firm.
Within a year, she was the top recruiter in a firm of over 100 recruiters. In seven years, she was an officer in the company and director of training. By then, her husband Howard had a successful law practice; they wanted kids, so Mindy left her job to be a stay-at-home mom.
Fast forward to 1997; Mindy and Howard are having dinner with friends, one of whom is a branch manager at Morgan Stanley, who’s lamenting the pressure he’s under to hire new brokers and the lack of good recruiters to help him do it. Even though she doesn’t know anything about retail financial services, Mindy thinks perhaps she could be of assistance.
Working off her bedroom floor, she takes a shot at finding some new brokers for her friend. Within three months, she’s getting calls from Morgan Stanley branch managers all over the country asking for recruiting help. Two years later, she moves her office to the basement, and hires two more recruiters.
Today, Mindy and Howard Diamond (who burned out on corporate law after 20 years, and now serves as her COO) and 15 employees work out of a beautiful old mansion in Chester, N.J. Together, they run one of the top search and consulting businesses in financial services, and the only firm that is equally expert in working with wirehouse brokers, independent advisors and RIAs.
That gives Mindy a unique perspective from which to talk about the unprecedented wave of brokers currently “breaking away” from Wall Street these days, as well as the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls for existing independent advisory firms to grow by absorbing them. Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle to independent firms capitalizing on this once-in-a-generation migration is not the difference in cultures—it’s a striking lack of business acumen in the independent world.
According to a May 2009 TowerGroup study, from 2002 to 2009, wirehouses and bank BDs each lost 20% of their brokerage force, while regional BDs lost 31%, and insurance BDs saw their ranks decline 40.6%. Where did those “breakaway brokers” go? For sure, some left the industry altogether (the total number of all financial advisors declined 9.5% during this period), but the vast majority went independent: Independent BDs increased their advisors by some 21.4%, while independent RIAs grew from 25,000 to 41,500—an increase of 66%.
What’s more, this broker diaspora is far from over. In its August 2008 survey of financial advisors, the Aite Group found that over one out of three (35%) of the 10,000+ brokers at major wirehouses were considering independence. Sixty-two percent of those have an average client size of over $200,000, with 21% averaging more than $1 million in client assets. No longer can breakaway brokers be written off as failed producers.
Unlike the commission brokers of years past, along with today’s breakaway brokers come client AUM: According to Aite, just under half of today’s breakaways earn between 25% and 50% of their revenues from fees, while another 33% get more than 50% from fees. Their reason for leaving? More independence: 67% of breakaway brokers cited “more freedom to make business and advice decisions” as the primary reason for leaving their current firms.
All this spells opportunity for advisors affiliated with independent BDs, and for independent RIAs. According to Cerulli Associates, in 2008, the major wirehouses accounted for about $4 trillion in retail advisor managed assets, which means we’re probably looking at close to $1 trillion dollars in the process of migrating into the independent side of the street. Estimates of the current size of the independent advisor channel seem to vary widely, but a best guess looks to be somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion.