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Practice Management > Succession Planning

4 Ways to Get Succession Planning Right

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Twenty-six years ago, I was working in the accounting department of a Fortune 500 hospitality brand when a close friend told me about a financial advisor who she had heard was searching for a junior partner.

Frankly I didn’t know much about the industry and wasn’t even sure it was something I was interested in, but I did know that I was tired of crunching numbers in a cubicle without communicating face-to-face with other people and decided to explore it.

That is how I came to meet Shelly Church, my now mentor and friend whose partnership and guidance led to me becoming her successor.

Through our more than two decades of planning for this change, I learned what it takes to create a smooth transition. While every practice is unique and there is no silver bullet, there are a few essential tenets I’d recommend to any advisor thinking about their retirement and succession plan.

The Initial Steps to Take

First, start planning as early as possible. In our case, I knew hardly anything about the industry, but Shelly and I made a good match based on our personalities and natural strengths, which complemented each other.

Because she started looking for a junior partner many years before she planned to retire, that time allowed me to work as her sales assistant to learn the business while studying for my Series 7 at night.

After a few years, I moved to more advanced roles shadowing Shelly during client meetings and slowly taking on my own clients. The growth happened more organically than we could have imagined and soon I had my own clients based mostly on referrals.

A perhaps unexpected benefit of starting the process early was that it became a tremendous selling point to clients and prospects. Because most clients don’t like change, knowing I was 20 years Shelly’s junior allowed for a long-term relationship with our practice continuing for 40-50 years.

This is a lifetime to some clients and left them feeling very comfortable with the continuity of their relationship.

Second, it’s essential to bring in a third-party expert to consult and plan for the succession. After working closely together for several years, Shelly and I became dear friends, so it was incredibly helpful to have an outside perspective for unbiased commentary from someone not emotionally engaged.

We were fortunate to have access to coaching and consulting through Raymond James that enabled us to create a 10-year roadmap for the transition as it drew closer.

What to Focus on Next

Of course, even with the best laid plans flexibility and communication are key. We had to negotiate and re-negotiate our vision as the practice changed.  When it became clear I was not only a successor, but also an asset gatherer, we decided to put together a very detailed agreement.

At the same time, we both acknowledged that despite our original roadmap, we would need to remain willing to compromise along the way and be open to continued adjustments.

Finally, I would urge advisors not to be afraid to invest in their practice and its legacy. To elevate me along the way, additional staff had to be hired, overhead increased and overall, there were many steps backward in order to move forward.

As we transitioned to a more horizontal team, it was my turn to make sacrifices so we could hire the right people. However, every single time an investment was made, it paid back in spades.

Two years ago, we set the date for Shelly’s retirement in January 2022 and began communicating it to clients. Our letter to clients was received very well, despite the wild markets of the past couple years, in part because we had been openly sharing this plan with them for so long.

That time allowed Shelly to slowly transition to a consulting type role while I met with her clients one-on-one to establish our own relationship. It also allowed us to consult specialists at Raymond James to assist us in executing the finer details of our deal structure.

We have now completed the transition, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity I was given so many years ago to enter this business with an excellent mentor. It’s bittersweet to see Shelly go but also exciting to be able to create a new roadmap and vision for my own succession plan.

While each individual practice will have a unique set of needs, starting early, remaining flexible, asking for objective coaching and consulting and being open to business investments that will benefit you in the long term have been essential for us through this process.


 Ilona Box is Senior Vice President, Investments, Concierge Wealth Management of Raymond James.


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