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6 'Must-Know' Items When Selling Your Practice

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As a financial advisor you’re a pro at helping others manage their money over time. But you might not be as savvy about selling your practice, which is one of the most important steps in your career.

This is a good time to sell. Over the next 10 years, aging advisors are expected to flood the market with their practices, according to Cerulli Research. Today, though, prices may be reaching a peak.

But even when selling in a good market, it pays to plan. If you sell under duress — because of a death or disability — the price tag for your practice could drop as much as 30%. Here are six points of consideration when selling a practice that should help you get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime event.

1. You can remain engaged after you sell your practice Especially if you are an independent advisor, you don’t have to ride off into the sunset. You can structure a deal that allows you to focus on the business activities you particularly enjoy. For instance, you can remain with the buyer’s firm and shrink down your book to that of a lifestyle practice, shift to a rainmaker role or join the firm’s investment committee.

“Selling a business is not the same as retiring,” observes David Grau, Jr., founder and CEO of Succession Resource Group in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Advisory firms consult with Succession Resource Group on everything from practice valuation to acquisition and succession planning. Grau recommends that sellers envision their role in the new firm after the sale and include that in their negotiations with prospective buyers.

Wirehouse advisors are usually required to exit the firm within a few years, once they begin to transition their business to a younger advisor.

2. Bank financing has boosted down payments for sellers It’s used to be that sellers received a down payment ranging from 10% and 30% of the purchase price and then the buyer would pay the seller earnouts (the remainder, based on the performance of the business) over a three- to five-year period.

Sellers are now getting 65% to 100% of firm valuations upfront, according to data compiled by Succession Resource Group, because banks are willing to lend most of the purchase price. Banks also give borrowers up to 10 years to repay the loan, and this generous financing is boosting prices. Of course, in many deals, there are clawback provisions to protect buyers in the event that revenues disappoint.

For RIA practices with less than $1 billion in assets under management, multiples rose to about 2.7 in 2018 — up from 2.2 in 2017, SRG says. Multiples for commission-based practices, though, slipped slightly — to 0.88 from 0.90.

3. Capital gains tax treatment is a key item to negotiate Typically, sellers who’ve owned their practices for more than one year can realize the proceeds from the sale at a capital-gains taxation rate rather than at the costlier income rate.

But take note: Savvy buyers may try to structure deals in which they are paid as consultants by the seller. These payments can be written off as a business expense by the buyer — which means the seller can’t claim a capital gain.

“Everyone talks about price and terms, but no one talks about taxes … until it’s too late,” Grau says. “All three components are critical to consider, as buyer and seller work together to create a win-win.”

4. Sellers need to help buyers see where they can trim overhead Sellers aren’t always well tuned into their overhead and may not know which expenses would be assumed by the new owner and which would not, says Michael Wunderli, managing director at Echelon Partners, an investment banking firm in Manhattan Beach, California, that specializes in the wealth management industry.

The right information can boost the profitability of an advisory practice being sold. You can make your business look more valuable, for example, if you point out that the new owners won’t have to pay for a company car. If a CEO had a $500,000 salary, perhaps a successor might be paid less, Wunderli points out.

In such discussions, transparency and full disclosure are essential. Discuss any and all issues openly and honestly.

5. Sellers should be ready to defend the depth of their client relationships Buyers will review the size and revenue generated by the firm’s top accounts to ensure that relationships are profitable and that the account base is diversified.

They also will want to know about the firm’s relationships with adult children and other family members. Does the firm have relationships with multiple family members, and how often do advisors interact with clients? What services does the practice have that speak to the next generation?

6. Sellers need to be confident the buyer can handle the transition “This is one of the biggest hang-ups that stop deals from happening,” explains Wunderli. Does the buyer have a dedicated transition team with sufficient bandwidth to ensure a smooth transition process? Does he or she have enough staff to properly service additional clients?

The sale of an advisory practice is an extremely important event for a financial advisor. The better informed you are, the more successful you’ll be at maximizing the sales price and realizing your lifestyle objectives.

Mark Elzweig is president of executive search consultant firm Mark Elzweig Company, Ltd.


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