"We’re in a bull market for advice,” Mariner's Bicknell explains.

Marty Bicknell, the CEO of Mariner Holdings, is above all an innovator who knows how to build a company from the bottom up, extending its reach in ways that don’t follow the standard models in the financial advisory industry.

For example, Mariner Holdings, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and has exploded in size from $300 million to over $30 billion and has never had a minimum requirement for its wealth advisory operation known as Mariner Wealth Advisors.

Also, its advice givers “have no responsibility to get new clients,” said Bicknell. That’s the job of business development professionals — “to drive clients to the firm,” he said.  “Instead of having one advisor to serve everyone, we have them becoming a specialist in a certain area.”

It’s an approach that has helped Mariner not only serve and attract clients but also recruit advisors as well as trust officers, CPAs and other financial professionals who serve clients. Each is talented in their specialty but not necessarily as good at bringing in new business, according to Bicknell.

Separating Wealth Advice from Investment Advice

Underlying it all is a founder who is very entrepreneurial but doesn’t micromanage, and a firm that is “very planning centric — separating wealth advice from investment advice,” said Bicknell. “Investments are a just a component. We want our advisors to be planners.”

To that end, Mariner Holdings, based in Leawood, Kansas, is organized around three primary buckets: Mariner Wealth Advisors, founded in 2006, which has $14 billion in assets and 160 advisors; Montage, an asset management firm with $19 billion in assets; and a Customized Solutions bucket that includes an investment bank, wealth advisor for the mass affluent and other entities. Altogether, Mariner Holdings has 31 firms under its umbrella and about 650 employees.

There are also buckets of specialization within the wealth advisory business, based on the amount of client assets: under $1 million, $1 million – $10 million, $10 million – $25 million, and $25 million and above. The idea is that each group of clients has different needs, which require advisors who are especially adept at servicing those needs such as estate planning for clients with millions of dollars in assets. “We think all clients deserve the same service but not all need the save advice,” said Bicknell.

Bicknell’s Background

Bicknell was very familiar with the services that wealth advisory clients need before he founded Mariner Holdings in 2006 because of his professional and personal experience. He had already spent almost 16 years as a financial advisor at A.G. Edwards where he was a senior vice president of investments, leading a staff of consultants who provided customized wealth management solutions for high-net-worth individuals and their families as well as public and private corporations and charitable organizations.

He also helped manage his family’s wealth. His father, Gene Bicknell, was the largest franchise owner of Pizza Huts and sold his franchise to Merrill Lynch in 2006 for a reported $615 million.

Bicknell named his company Mariner Wealth Advisors as a metaphor for the services the firm provides clients, namely assistance to navigate their financial future.

In recognition of its success, Barron’s has included the firm in its list of Top Independent Financial Advisors every year from 2009 through 2014, and Forbes included the firm in its 2015 list of Top Wealth Managers.

Taking Advantage of Opportunities in a Changing Industry

Mariner Holdings, the parent company of Mariner Wealth Advisors is opportunistic. Mariner Holdings, created Montage, its asset management division, in 2010 to serves advisors outside Mariner Wealth Advisors, which continued to serve its own individual investors. Although the divisions are run separately, there is some overlap. Mariner Wealth Advisors can invest clients’ funds in Montage products, but about 85% of Montage’s business comes from external sources.

During the financial crisis and soon afterward, “the world of financial advisors changed, and large Wall Street firms were forced to make decisions to stay alive,” said Bicknell. “We started acquiring firms like crazy. We couldn’t have attracted that level of talent in a normal environment.”

A few years later when it became clear to Bicknell that mass affluent clients outside of Mariner needed financial advice but weren’t necessarily getting it, Mariner created a new firm, FirstPoint, to serve that population. It didn’t develop a robo-advisor as other firms had done, but created a full-service advisory firm as a “solution for the advisor who doesn’t want to reduce his or her minimum,” said Bicknell. All they have to do is refer that business to FirstPoint.

“I’m a firm believer that we’re in a bull market for advice,” said Bicknell. “Clients of all makeups and sizes want advice, but the way we’re going to deliver it over time will change.” Millennials, who are tech-savvy, want advice from human advisors, but they want it delivered differently, with 24/7 access to financial plans online, for example, explained Bicknell.

Retaining and Recruiting Advisors, Clients

The company is also focused on retaining its people and its clients. “Rule No. 1 is client retention,” said Bicknell. “Rule No. 2: employee retention. It’s easier to keep the client if you keep the advisor.”

To that end, every office of Mariner Holdings operates as a separate entity within the larger organization, with local leaders who “control the outcome” of each one. That has helped retain advisors, which in turn has helped retain clients.

But the reality is that “the average financial advisor is 57 years old and less than 5% of advisors are under the age of 30,” said Bicknell. “This is a concern we have.”

And like other problems needing a solution, Bicknell did something about it. He started the Mariner School of Financial Planning, which partners with several universities to provide paid internships for college students, providing the experience of working in financial advisory business and the opportunity for Mariner to hire some of them.  

Many other advisors also have internship programs, but Bicknell said Mariner’s “is not your typical internship program. They have to write white papers and deliver them or make presentations in front of clients.”

Clearly, Mariner Holdings and its subsidiaries are not your typical financial services firm.

— See the full 2016 IA 25 in the May issue of Investment Advisor, and find ongoing coverage of the honorees, including extended profiles, all month on the IA 25 homepage.