Anyone familiar with independent advisors knows the pioneering roles played by James Budros and Peggy Ruhlin in everything from sharing their insights with their peers to birthing the Financial Planning Association.
What you may not know is how prescient those planners were in transforming their Columbus, Ohio-based practice into a juggernaut of a business with $2.2 billion in assets under management and 55 employees. Even 30 years ago, they weren’t just building a successful planning firm for today; they were planning for when they wouldn’t be running the firm.
Budros, Ruhlin & Roe’s succession plan has worked because of the “generosity of Jim Budros,” says Brian Jack, vice president of operations for BRR, who’s been with the firm for 18 years (people tend to have long tenures there: co-CEO John Schuman is also an 18-year veteran).
Budros sold his stake in the company to several younger employees as part of a 30-year plan, Jack reports. “We’re executing the same plan with Peggy [Ruhlin] now”— Ruhlin becomes chair on July 1 — and “in 12 years we’ll do the same with Dan,” says Jack, referring to Dan Roe, co-CEO and chief investment officer.
The company’s leadership isn’t averse to bringing in leaders from outside the firm, however. Earlier this year it named Scott Rister, a veteran Charles Schwab & Co. executive, as president.
But it’s not just executing a thoughtful succession plan that sets BRR apart. About 20 years ago, Ruhlin decided to focus on the company’s business side rather than serving individual clients, despite her initial misgivings. Budros and Roe followed her path away from day-to-day client interactions, though Jack points out that all three continue to attend client meetings when appropriate.
Ruhlin’s sense that it was “important to be running things as well behind the scenes” as in front of clients informs BRR’s strategy, says Jack. “And that’s when we started to transform from a practice to a business,” he recalls.
Another difference is that when new clients are onboarded, they don’t become a client of any particular advisor. Rather, they become clients of the firm, served by teams. The team approach is part of a highly collaborative culture at the firm, Jack says. While BRR does have a business development officer, all employees are encouraged and incentivized to bring in more clients. They’re also encouraged to collaborate across teams.
One example is a new service BRR is beta testing now that focuses on attracting HENRY (High Earners Not Rich Yet) clients like younger doctors.
That service was hatched by employees from different teams who decided four years ago to investigate if BRR should adopt a robo-advisor service. As operations director, Jack became involved in the project, and while they couldn’t come up with a customer value or business case to add a robo, Jack says the HENRY project was born to tap into the potential client base of such professionals, whose income growth “looks like hockey sticks,” flat at first before increasing at a rapid rate.
Part of operations’ involvement was to ensure such an expansion could be accomplished without adding too much overhead. BRR determined it needed a certified financial planner to run the program, but also needed a new custodian for the service. It needed to build a credit card structure since HENRY clients will be charged a monthly fee, while operations had to build processes and workflows for client onboarding and offboarding.
There’s a final differentiator to the firm: Long before it became a thing in many industries to focus on the client experience, BRR did so, and operations plays a key role in delivering that client experience.
In fact, if you want to deliver a consistently meaningful experience, building good processes using the best technology, guided by a collaborative culture, is a sine qua non.
James J. Green, a former editor of this magazine, is editor of Jamie Green Reports, an advisor-focused writing, editing and shepherding service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.