A recent Schwab survey asked RIA principals to rank their firm’s top priorities in the coming year. We were disappointed but not surprised to discover that developing a succession plan was dead last. This is unfortunate because 62% of RIAs are still led by their founders, with only about a quarter of them sharing equity with other employees to support succession planning. Not much progress has been made, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a push to resolve this issue any time soon. Brent Brodeski, CEO of Savant Capital, describes this predicament more crassly:
“The average RIA founder is over 60 years old, and many are like ostriches: They stick their heads in the sand, ignore the need for succession planning, ignore that their clients are aging, let organic growth slow to a crawl or even backslide, and have increasingly less fun and a waning interest in their business.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many viable exit options for RIA principals when it comes to succession planning:
- Sale to a strategic buyer. In all likelihood, the strategic buyer is another RIA, but it could be any other financial institution hoping to realize certain efficiencies after the deal. They will typically pay top dollar for a controlling interest position with some form of earn-out designed to incentivize the selling owners to transition the business smoothly after closing. This scenario often makes the most economic sense, but it does not afford the selling principals much control over what happens to their employees or the company’s name.
- Sale to a consolidator or roll-up firm. These acquirers typically offer some combination of initial and contingent consideration to join their network of advisory firms. The deals are usually debt-financed and structured with cash and stock upfront and an earn-out based on prospective earnings or cash flow. Consolidators and roll-up firms may not always pay as much as strategic buyers, but they often allow the seller more autonomy over future operations. While there are currently only a handful of consolidators, their share of sector deal-making has increased dramatically in recent years.
- Sale to a financial buyer. This scenario typically involves a private equity firm paying all-cash for a controlling interest position. PE firms will usually want the founder to stick around for a couple of years after the deal but expect them to exit the business before they flip it to a new owner. Selling principals typically get more upfront from PE firms than consolidators but sacrifice most of their control and ownership at closing.
- Patient (or permanent) capital infusion. Most permanent capital investors are family offices that make minority investments in RIAs in exchange for their pro-rata share of future dividends. They typically allow the sellers to retain their independence and usually don’t interfere much with future operations. While this option typically involves less up-front proceeds and higher risk retention than the ones above, it is often an ideal path for owners seeking short-term liquidity and continued involvement in this business.
- Internal transition to the next generation of firm leadership. Another way to maintain independence is by transitioning ownership internally to key staff members. This process often takes significant time and financing, as it’s unlikely that the next generation is able or willing to assume 100% ownership in a matter of months. Bank and/or seller financing is often required, and the entire transition can take 10-20 years depending on the size of the firm and interest transacted. This option typically requires the most preparation and patience but allows the founding shareholders to handpick their successors and future leadership.
- Combo deal. Many sellers choose a combination of these options to achieve their desired level of liquidity and control. Founding shareholders have different needs and capabilities at different stages of their life, so a patient capital infusion, for instance, may make more sense before ultimately selling to a strategic or financial buyer. Proper succession planning needs to be tailored, and all these options should be considered.
If you’re a founding partner or selling principal, you have a lot of exit options, and it’s never too soon to start thinking about succession planning. You will have a leg up on your competition that’s probably not prioritizing this. You’ve likely spent your entire career helping clients plan for retirement, so it’s time to practice what you preach. Please stay tuned for future posts on this topic and give us a call if you are ready to start planning for your eventual business transition.