Emily Larsen – I do know how much you enjoy IMPACT®, and last year it was great to listen to both episode 67 and 73, which were recorded around the event. If you’ll be at IMPACT® this year, please be sure to swing by our booth or attend our showcase presentation. We’ll see you there.
Ben Jones – As you may be aware, the independent RIA channel is growing remarkably fast. More and more advisors are breaking away from larger, traditional wirehouse firms and embracing independence.
Emily Larsen – We are excited to discuss the changing landscape for RIAs today with Bernie Clark, Head of Schwab Advisor Services.
Ben Jones – I caught up with Bernie at his office on what I felt was a very hot Phoenix, Arizona day. However, Bernie informed me that it was actually cooling off for fall. I wanted to hear more about the RIA landscape right now and how it will develop into the future. Bernie was the perfect person to ask. He told me that when he started working for Schwab, he felt passionate about the noble work being done by the independent RIAs. So I asked Bernie, how did Schwab get involved in this space?
Bernie Clark – It’s actually a fabulous story, and it started well before I had arrived on the scene. But as the fable goes, in 1987, and we all remember 1987 being one of the first big crashes of our era in the stock market, our compliance department was looking and found an awful lot of power of attorneys that were on different accounts. And they came to realize that something different was happening. Well, that difference was the beginning, in our company at least, of finding RIAs who were helping other people with their financials. That almost three decades ago. From there, we started building a business around it. We started recognizing the need, and it’s really interesting to think in those early days it was really hard to be independent.
Ben Jones – You had to want to do it.
Bernie Clark – You had to want to do it, and you had to piece things together and you had to find providers. We all know that at that point in time Excel probably wasn’t the means of doing it, it was blotters and those types of things. And words evolved through this highly sophisticated ecosystem of support around these independents where it’s relatively easy to come out into the independent space.
Ben Jones – Yeah, and you know the RIAs have gone from, as you mentioned, like those cottage industry to I think the last Cerulli report I saw for 2019 was about $4.5T of AUM in the RIA space. Why do you think the channel continues to grow much faster than, say, other advisor channels?
Bernie Clark – It’s, I believe, a better approach, more transparent. It uses open architecture of products, which we hear a lot from our clients. When we survey our clients, they don’t jump to the economics. What they talk about is wanting to serve their client better, and that’s why this channel has worked so well for them.
Ben Jones – And so is it really the client’s desire for a fiduciary advice model that’s driving the growth, or is it the advisor’s desire to be independent and kind of entrepreneurial?
Bernie Clark – I think there’s a little bit of both, because people come into this space have always had their client’s best interests in mind. But a fiduciary model is important, and you’ve seen all the work that’s been going on between the Department of Labor and the SEC. So having good standards certainly are there. But also advisors, they’ve become tired of being treated as the least common denominator in their firms, coupled with having to work with proprietary product.
Ben Jones – Yeah. IMPACT® is coming up in a couple of weeks, which is one of my favorite events year. It’s certainly one of the premiere RIA events in the country. And I’m curious, there’s a lot of work and planning that goes into it today. It’s a very large and impressive event, but what was the original idea. Who said, hey, we should have this annual gathering of independent RIAs, and what was it like in the beginning?
Bernie Clark – You know, we’re 30 years plus into it, and it was small in the beginning, as the advisor community was. It was a cottage industry. But I think the key thing about IMPACT® has always been bringing the community together. So important that people feel not alone in their independence, and from there, as I mentioned before, the ecosystem of support around it has grown. This year we’re really excited to have probably close to 2,200 advisors, we’ll have 100 students from universities coming to join us along with faculty, and probably about 1,500 providers. So it’s a big event. The fun part about IMPACT® is more next generation advisors are coming. So, in some cases, firms we know really well but getting to meet the next leaders of those firms is good fun.
Ben Jones – Wonderful. Okay, so given the RIA market has grown into this pretty large segment of the marketplace, there’s a lot more interest in the RIA space. And that’s created a lot more competition, a lot more solutions. When you think about your leadership team and building and future proofing your business, what new challenges does this create for you and the team here at Advisor Services?
Bernie Clark – It is interesting, because I would argue it’s still early days for the industry, the independent side of the industry. And so lots more to come. But you’re spot on. It has grown at such a pace. I think we’re growing at an 8.2% rate since 2001, and we can see since probably about 2012-13 we’re growing at almost 12%, our advisors here. So private equity is interested. There’s a lot more investment capital, some professional management coming into the space. It’s evolving it, but it’s growing it. There’s more assets still outside the independent space than inside, and so I think all this money is helping it to grow faster.
Ben Jones – And so in a lot of circles these days there’s the buzzword scale, and everybody talks about scale whether you’re an advisor. I’m sure at Schwab as a platform you think about scale. How critical is scale for your business, and would you be willing to share an example of where scale matters and maybe where it doesn’t?
Bernie Clark – My observation sort of as I would like to say, it’s an opinion I have, is that our challenges are exactly the same as our clients challenges, which is really neat because we’re very much aligned in solution set. We have to serve more clients and more assets with similar cost structures. That’s what scale is, right? And while doing it, we want to bring more services, and advisors have been doing this for well over a decade. The idea of money management purely or even just planning, now we have trust work that’s being done, estate work that’s being done. Life coaching has come onto the forefront. And all of these things have been done at the same fees. So, compression has begun already, and I think the idea of being able to scale and operationally be efficient, not only serves the client better but it also helps you to serve more assets without raising that important cost structure.
Ben Jones – And so for an advisor that’s trying to scale their business, what I see is a lot of firms are starting to add or value add their way kind of into a fee that’s been pretty stable for 25 years.
Bernie Clark – Extremely stable, yeah.
Ben Jones – So they’re maintaining their overall gross revenues, but they’re adding all these services to enhance the client experience, which is lowering margins. How do advisors think about this challenge of scale, and is it more important to grow that business or can you start scaling at a smaller level now, and I see a lot of discussion about this idea of the lifestyle practice. Where do you fall on that discussion?
Bernie Clark – Yeah, it’s an interesting one because I think we saw more of it in the past than we’ll see in the future. Lifestyle is a concept that people are welcome to grow their business that way, but more firms are being aggressive at trying to grow assets and clients and services and differentiate themselves in that way. Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to be pervasive.
Emily Larsen – For RIAs who are thinking about going independent, giving up the security of a large firm can seem daunting. Ben made sure to ask Bernie for some actionable advice for advisors who are considering making the jump.
Ben Jones – I wanted to ask you a little bit about advisors out there that are thinking about going independent. How should they think about both considering to move independent and what they should be looking for in a custodian partner?
Bernie Clark – There is no one in this space that’s here to plateau. Plateaus are not great places to live, right? Now, the markets may flatten out at different periods of time, but those are only opportunities for us to create change and to do different things. That’s how I think you see advisors thinking about things, too. And what advisors really want in a custodian is a partner. And more than a partner — a relationship. They know they’re out there on their own. You said before, these are relatively small firms. They don’t have the resources we have. I got a call one day that said, hey, we have our first person retiring. How do you handle that? Right, that’s an interesting conversation for a small firm to have with a big firm that has more resources. They’re continuously wanting to tap into our human resource philosophies and think about how you can utilize sometimes our finance philosophies. So we’re a partner. Our consulting and practice management, so important to their strategies. These are the areas of opportunity, and I think we will always be a great custodian because they come to us for the safety of asset, right? They come to us to make sure we can execute well, but that’s become price of entry. If you’re not doing that well, you have no chance. If you do that as well as we do it, then they invite you into more aspects of their business.
Ben Jones – So it’s really the ecosystem of services and experience they can tap into it.
Bernie Clark – Yeah. And again, we’re always out there on the forefront looking for good third party providers as well and bringing them into our platforms.
Ben Jones – Now, what type of advisors — I’ve always wondered this, because you still, as you mentioned, independent is the fastest growing channel, but the majority of the assets still rely on that traditional broker/dealer model.
Bernie Clark – That’s right.
Ben Jones – And so what type of advisors are a good fit to move independent, and who actually might not be?
Bernie Clark – It’s hard to pick a profile of somebody. There is a certain amount of inertia of assets with clients as well as advisors. Highly successful people, many of them doing well for their clients, and there’s no reason to disrupt that. But for those who want more, those are the people who come out. I’m not going to even say it’s an entrepreneur, but I am going to say it’s someone who is tired of the status quo and realizes they could do more for their clients. Think about — go back a little bit, Ben, and think about 2008. When you sat there as a successful wirehouse broker and the name on your business card changed through no effort of your own, right? Mergers of firms, selling of practices. These are concepts of the old. The new needs to be transparent. It needs to be fee-based. It needs to be a relationship driven business that’s augmented by open architecture of products and great technologies.
Ben Jones – And it sounds like a lot of what you’re saying about that 2008 is a little bit more control over your own destiny.
Bernie Clark – Absolutely.
Ben Jones – Yeah. Makes a lot of sense. Now, what are the barriers to entry to going independent today? They’ve come down. At least it seemed like they came down for about 20 years, and they’re starting to go back up in my perception, not any empirical news. But what are the barriers to entry today for someone who says it’s time for me to go independent?
Bernie Clark – It is still — I’ve talked about all the opportunity and the ecosystem. It’s still a big move, right? Making that decision to jump out of a very successful situation, because that’s who goes independent, the most successful of the group. They’re getting larger as they come out, too, in average size. They have to think about their client base. They have to think about the longevity of their firm. Keep in mind, though, that the only way to go independent is not simply to come and hang your own shingle with your name. You can come out and join a firm now. You couldn’t do that 20 years ago. That’s opportunistic.
Ben Jones – Yeah. While you’re on that topic, it seems like there’s been a lot of move from kind of the captive market to the independent market. What are the opportunities today for someone to start as a RIA not at a firm? Is that a possibility today, or is that still a big mountain to climb?
Bernie Clark – Yeah, it’s a little bit of a bigger mountain. Typically what we do see today a little bit more is some folks will start in the independent broker/dealer space. They’ll have a contractual or a 1099 relationship with a firm, and they’ll grow a little bit of their practice in that kind of way before they come into the fully independent space. For those who don’t yet have a practice, they may join a firm.
Ben Jones – Yeah, because it is interesting that it seems now like when I started in this business, and we’re all dating ourselves here, but when I started it was friends, family, and anyone who could fog a mirror, go have conversations with them. Hopefully if you run fast enough and hard enough for three years or four years, you’ve established good relationships, done good work, and you’ve built a practice. That’s really evolved today where I see a lot of people mentoring and coaching people, taking on paraplanners and bringing them up through their organizations. I’ve always wondered, can you even do the old model of getting out and hustling?
Bernie Clark – Well, you know the captives still are. The captive still is subscribing to the hire 100 people and 20 will make it. That is not this industry. You’ve hit on something that’s incredibly important, though. How do we grow the talent of this industry, and as it’s grown I think there’s some 800,000 people employed in it. As it’s grown, it’s getting a little more scarce. You’ve been around a while, I’ve been around a lot longer than you. We still have a diversity issue of gender, of ethnicity. Quite honestly of age. So it’s important that we continue to grow that and mentor people. Create opportunities within firms. This is something that’s going to have to be a part of independent future.
Ben Jones – Yeah, I like that a lot. And I think diversity is a really important topic, and those firms that embrace diversity get also a lot of different perspectives that help grow those organizations, viewpoints and create better outcomes ultimately for both the client and the firm. That’s my personal belief.
Bernie Clark – We’ve seen — because it’s independent, you’re spot on. Because they’re independent, they can also try things. It’s harder to do in big firms. We’ve seen firms hire people in apprenticeship programs where they work four years at a firm and know they have an end date. That’s kind of interesting, right? Internship programs. We have an internship program. We won’t hire the people. We want advisors to hire the people. That’s different. So we’ll keep trying things.
Ben Jones – That is really different. Now, when someone does decide to go independent and they are looking to make that decision and they’ve evaluated the ecosystems available, at the end of the day you said there’s a lot more competition. How often does it get down to economics? Is it just economics for the advisor after they kind of get comfortable with all the other partnership and ecosystem stuff?
Bernie Clark – Yeah, economics are the obvious thing, but it’s the value for the services that you’re actually getting. And I think that’s what’s really winning the day. We’ve got a lot of new partners we haven’t really talked much about in the area of trying to bring firms into independents. These firms provide services, and they often look for the best custodians who can partner with and do those things. It’s been very successful for us.
Ben Jones – Can you share an example?
Bernie Clark – An individual will think about coming independent but won’t quite have their model right. They’ll go out to one of these third parties, Dynasty Financial is an example of one of those firms, and we’ll partner in a tri-party way to make sure that person and come independent in the best possible way.
Ben Jones – Support them through the process.
Bernie Clark – Yeah.
Ben Jones – Talent. This is an important takeaway I wanted to put a fine point on. I believe one of the key forces that will separate and differentiate firms over the next 20 years is talent, both recruitment and development. Now is the time that you should be thinking through and experimenting with your approach to talent.
Emily Larsen – Over the summer, Schwab released their annual advisor outlook survey. One key finding was the worry of a possible economic downturn on the horizon. Consequently, advisors are looking for ways to recession proof their business. Ben asked Bernie to give some insights on what approach advisors are taking to weather the coming storm.
Bernie Clark – So advisors, I would argue they’re almost doubling down now. They understand how important growth will be in the future. The other little fun fact, too, and I’m sure you’ve noticed this, is that when there’s a recessionary time, it’s harder for investors. So they tend to grow their businesses more. They get better referrals from their existing client base to grow their business more. And so that’s opportunistic for them as well. But they’re growing themselves and building themselves into this recession. The other thing that’s interesting, and you mentioned the advisor outlook study, which I was around for version one, and we knew one day we would have a lot of data that would make a whole lot of sense and would be fun to use. But advisors are always a little more leery of the market than their clients. I like that. So they’re instilling confidence in their clients. Again, it’s hard not to go back to a period like 2008 and their jobs really became to be caretakers of their client’s financial well beings and talking about planning a lot more than investing.
Ben Jones – Yeah. I remember ’08, and I would argue that a lot of them spent a lot of time counseling.
Bernie Clark – Yeah. That’s a great point.
Ben Jones – There was a lot of counseling and counseling of the counselors as well. It was a tough period.
Bernie Clark – I’m pretty sure it permanently changed the way they thought about their business at that point in time, and counseling didn’t become an event. It became part of the practice even more so.
Ben Jones – Yeah. We say a lot, and people who listen to the show are probably sick of hearing it, but advisors really add a lot of value in that intersection of life and money. That’s really where a lot of the most value is, all those messy things of family dynamics and group dynamics and emotions really get tossed together and advisors can add a lot of value there.
Bernie Clark – But I think that’s why our benchmarking study would tell you year after year that they retain about 95% of their assets and relationships. That’s unheard of in our industry as you know.
Ben Jones – Yeah. The other thing, too, is now you’ve got this longitudinal study or set of data, it really provides a lot of insight into the direction or the way things are going. As long as I’ve worked in this industry, which is as you point out not as long as you —
Bernie Clark – Thanks for that.
Ben Jones – But as long as I’ve worked in this industry, advisors have always been interested in growth. It came out again loud and clear in your survey this year, and so I wanted to talk about a handful of kind of observations, which is first of all you alluded to this, that people are realizing the need to grow is really imperative. Growth can be pretty expensive. How are advisors managing the margin impact as they’re trying to grow those businesses and add their value added services and add staff, etc, to grow those practices.
Bernie Clark – I think they’re being really prudent in understanding that they’re meant to be legacy firms, right? And if you’re going to set yourself up that way, future generations to come, buying into equity supporting the growth of the firm, they’re going to want to keep that sort of multiple going, and they really — if they don’t, if they stop, it’s not something you can easily turn back on. Right? So their worry now is not the cost of the margin, it’s finding the talent, making sure they can support the growth they see in the future and making sure they’re staying deep with their clients, but also with the next generation of their clients. So the cost they feel is well spent. I had an interesting conversation with a client the other day and it was in an area that I hadn’t heard before. But many of them are coming to recognize that there will be a downturn. It’s inevitable. A cycle. Some period of time where things won’t be quite as good as they were. And they’re beginning to work on hedging their firm’s profitability to make sure they don’t have to disrupt their hiring.
Ben Jones – Oh, wow.
Bernie Clark – That’s a really interesting concept. Another firm jumped in and said yeah, we’re doing that also. I don’t think that’s become the norm. I think it will become the norm.
Ben Jones – Wow. That’s a really innovative approach.
Bernie Clark – Yeah. Leveling out your revenue stream just a little bit. Maybe at some points in time not getting as much of the upside, but certainly not having the period of the downside.
Ben Jones – You mentioned that finding the talent is becoming a big challenge for advisors. You talk to clients a lot, so what are some of the innovative ways you’ve seen that they’re able to either attract or find new talent to bring into the business.
Bernie Clark – They are significantly maturing their internal compensation systems. It’s so critically important. Compensation is often thought of as a cash bonus kind of thing. I am talking about equity programs. These are the kinds of things that are becoming of meaning to next generation individuals. These are not hierarchical firms, they’re very flat. People want to have a say at the table and they also want to have a part of the profitability that goes forwards. Many, many firms are doing those things — many firms participating, quite honestly, in their own internship programs, trying to look to next generations of individuals. Some firms actually looking at M&A as a way to grow their talent.
Ben Jones – Okay.
Bernie Clark – So finding a firm who has great talent but maybe not as much asset, or maybe had turned a little bit towards the lifestyle firm and bringing them in and re-igniting the growth.
Emily Larsen – This is another important takeaway. Growth is becoming important for firms for the foreseeable future. Do you have a growth strategy for the next decade? If not, now may be the perfect time to develop an approach. Another key trend from Schwab’s outlook survey was the adoption of new technology. The question is what kinds of new technology are advisors investing in?
Bernie Clark – It has a lot to do with client connectivity and integration. I’d argue we’re still early days of the real digital movement, which talks a lot about scale and efficiency. Efficiency probably even more so, which of course leads to scale. But it’s a matter of having single points of entry, portals that make it easier to do business. Better connectivity and easier connectivity with their clients. I think it will move and migrate as time goes on to where maybe we’ll start to see the appreciable difference of artificial intelligence starting to come into the equation. But I think it’s early days for many advisors. And they are embracers of technology. It’s just, again, they’re small businesses and they look for a lot of help around this. We have a technology consulting group that actually goes out and helps advisors with those types of things to think, make the decisions they can around CRMs, trade order management systems, rebalancing tools, the many things that they’re using in their desktops, and trying to make sure they’re doing it in the most efficient way possible.
Ben Jones – Last year at IMPACT® we had Paul on the show to talk about cybersecurity —
Bernie Clark – Great. There you go.
Ben Jones – — and some of the challenges that advisors really face around getting their cybersecurity protocol in line, because as you introduce more portals there’s more opportunity for cyber breaches.
Bernie Clark – We just had an advisory board meeting with 21 of our best, biggest, and sophisticated advisors. The conversation really around cyber, it’s a hard one. Because everybody wants to check the box. There is no checking the box, as we all well know. You just have to be at the forefront of what’s best. Several years ago we launched a preparedness consultative engagement for advisors to help them not just get through the SEC audits, but also to help them educate their clients and their firms to make sure that they are aware of the best practices. As you would probably agree, so much around cyber right now is storytelling.
Ben Jones – Yeah.
Bernie Clark – Here’s what’s happening. So are you prepared for that, can you protect against that.
Ben Jones – It almost seems now like it’s not so much how you protect against it, but when it happens how do you react to it quickly and correctly.
Bernie Clark – That’s a great point as well.
Ben Jones – So with technology, what do you foresee becoming kind of crucial for advisors, say, in a decade from now. What’s going to change? Technology that maybe already exists or maybe doesn’t exist today. But 10 years from now, where are the places advisors are going to need to focus time and energy?
Bernie Clark – The gurus of the industry will tell you the technology of 10 years hasn’t even been thought of yet, and I think they’re right more than wrong on that front. But we have firms now — you talked before about counseling and those types of things and additional services. We now have — we have, if you will, advisors starting genius bars within their own firms so that when clients join them they can get them set up technologically. They want their advisors and their clients to be able to connect in that kind of way. Get together when they need to, want to, but also to be sort of 24 by 7. So I think we saw a major shift in our clients’ thoughts around technology. Use of mobile technologies versus big web type technologies. We’re moving in that direction clearly. Advisors want to see that happening. They used to see technology as a differentiator. I think they’re starting to understand, and I very much agree with the point that technology is an arms race. You are going to continue to add, it’s going to get better, you’re going to be ahead, even, and behind, and then you’re going to have to jump the curve again. It’s going to change. If you — our perspective as a firm is it’s going to change far more rapidly than it ever did in the past. The idea of having 30 year old legacy systems is gone. As we move to the next generation you’ll see a renewal period that’s much more mid-single digits than anything that could go decades.
Ben Jones – That’s a really interesting point and one of the things I was curious about is from Schwab’s perspective, have you done any research on like how much of an RIA’s budget should be allocated to just, like you said, maintenance and upgrading with their technology budgets? Is it as easy as marketing where there’s like a percentage of revenue?
Bernie Clark – I don’t know that I can put a dollar on it for you, but I will tell you in our surveying, whether that’s benchmarking surveying, IOS surveying, technology is always either number one or two. And if it’s not number one, then talent is number one and technology is number two. Those are the areas of focus for advisors.
Ben Jones – And another thing that’s interesting about technology is it used to be — or at least my observation was that advisor practices were very geographical. So you had big RIAs that presences geographically. Today with technology it seems like they’re able to serve clients in different niches across the whole country. So they might focus on pilots or thoracic surgeons or whatever. You see a lot more niche focus and that technology allowing them to work with clients everywhere. Does that create any new challenges for advisors as far as loyalty?
Bernie Clark – The funny thing about it is if you and I were talking several years ago you would be wanting to ask me about national firms. And now my belief is all firms are national, because technology has taken them there. Not only that, but the generational shift that’s happening, the retirement movement that’s happening, they’re finding themselves in places they might not have thought they would be in, and many are following with offices, or at least representation in those areas. So I think, again, it’s an opportunity to extend it out further, and the relationships are staying loyal to the advisors based on the retention that we’re seeing. We are undergoing something right now which you’ll be hearing more and more about, you’ll hear a little bit more about at IMPACT®, but we are now eliminating the word regional from our vocabulary because we don’t think it’s meaningful any longer. Maybe territorial is even a better word.
Ben Jones – Okay. That’s interesting, because there’s a lot of use of the word regional in various different aspects of the supply chain, so that’s a very interesting —
Bernie Clark – Yeah, that’s so 2010.
Ben Jones – My wife would say I stopped in 2010. One final takeaway: technology will be critical for advisors of the future. What’s your current approach to technology? What’s missing from your tech stack? Where are you going to learn about new technologies and the potential application to our industry?
Emily Larsen – We wanted to take a moment to think Bernie and the team at Schwab for making time to share their insights with you. We’ll make sure to link to several of the Schwab reports referenced in the episode on our show notes page, including the advisor outlook survey. We’ll encourage you to read that over cover to cover.
Ben Jones – To wrap things up, I asked Bernie to rub his crystal ball and give me his most outlandish predictions on the RIA space for the next 10 years.
Bernie Clark – You need to understand I come at this question from the position of being an ultimate optimist. I’ve got real passion and belief in this industry and I do think it has been a disrupter and needs to continue to disrupt. I think the asset flow that we’re seeing in the fast growing independent space; the scales will tip heavily towards more assets obviously residing within that space. I do think you’re going to see consolidation, but not to the levels that some would have predicted a couple of decades ago in a mass consolidation, because it is a relationship business. The growth will continue. I love when the analysts like to ask me questions, is the trend over. It’s not a trend. This is a way of doing business. Technology is certainly going to become more important to it. We thoroughly underestimate how much artificial intelligence can mean within this space, and probably holistically across financial services. And certainly the value added services of the future are going to be different than today. Many feel it will be the complexity or the higher complex functions that rule the day and the depth of the relationship. You might be talking to estates and tax and those kinds of things as opposed to portfolios, which is a significant shift from where this industry had started. And I think where some of the captives still live, in the return space as opposed to the life well-being space. The key thing that I would say the next generations need to embrace, and it was the same with the Boomer and probably the Silent and everybody, is that when in need is not the time to create the relationship. You need to start it sooner. That’s I think what advisors — quite honestly that’s what Charles Schwab deals in, is creating a lifetime of relationship, that you can have a continuum of services that will help people when they need little all the way through when they need a lot. And you need to have it at the ready.
Ben Jones – Thank you for listening to Better conversations. Better outcomes. This podcast is presented by BMO Global Asset Management. To access the resources discussed in today’s show, please visit us at www.bmogam.com/betterconversations.
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