8 years on – what has changed?

I recently passed the 8th anniversary of leaving corporate life and setting up StepChange, with the aim of helping financial advisers to grow their businesses and to build durable, long-term value in them. So what’s changed in the last eight years?

 

The market is fundamentally different today

Eight years ago, the term financial planner didn’t exist. Then it became a fashionable title for people to use. But today it perfectly describes what so many within the advice community do every day. So many firms have actively shifted their business model from one centred on product sales, to one where the financial plan developed by the planner sits at the core of the client proposition. And this has resulted in a whole new breed of advisers; those who are adding significant value to their clients and are now confidently in control of their business, not dependant on product sales and not exposed to the whims of the market and the changes in product strategies by providers.

 

Less clients being brilliantly served

Eight years ago, the most common question I was asked was, “How do I get more clients?” I’m rarely asked this today, in fact on balance I’m actually asked the opposite more frequently! The aim of many advisers today is to deal with less clients and to serve them brilliantly. The challenge is in the last bit, and that is where we are helping firms every day, helping firms develop excellent and valued client retention strategies as opposed to the race for new business.

 

Investor behaviour rather than investment expertise

A big change over the last 8 years has been the approach to investments by advisers. Back then lots of advisers worried about selecting the best investment for clients, beating benchmarks and worrying whenever performance dipped. You spent your life tweaking asset allocations and fund choices for that extra ounce of performance, that more often than not evaded you and your clients.

Today I see advisers focused on getting the right portfolio in place for their client and then spending their time focused on stopping the client from blowing it up through their constant meddling! Some of the even more forward-thinking advisers are formally recognising where they add value, don’t see themselves as investment specialists or don’t want to potentially damage client relationships through poor advice, and as a result are outsourcing the investment expertise to 3rd parties.

 

Technology is critical…but not everything

It’s funny, how do you feel about robo advisers now? According to some “experts” 8 years ago, they were going to herald the death of financial advisers… Excellent financial planning requires deep, trusted relationships built upon meaningful and highly personal conversations. Yes, a machine can hugely help to improve part of an adviser’s value chain, but it hasn’t as yet replaced this most critical piece of the relationship…and I say it never will.

But technology also plays an enormous role today. What would your financial planning proposition look like today without future cashflow planning? Many of you I know would say that it wouldn’t exist.

 

Having a clear target market makes your life so easy

If you can easily identify and reach your target market, you can then focus your client value proposition, your sales activities, your marketing messages and indeed your whole support infrastructure around meeting the needs of these specific groups. Some only see the risks involved in this – narrow groups of people to target, missing broader opportunities etc. As a result, some advisers continue to try to appeal to everyone. And as a result, they don’t really connect with anyone. Yes, your target market must be big enough to sustain you. But if you then focus your efforts on them, you gain the opportunity of creating a real standout positioning for yourself.

 

Pricing and justifying your charge are still big challenges

One of the most common questions I’m asked are still about charging. However, the conversation has definitely moved on a bit. Many of you are happy with what you are charging clients – often but not always being paid by a provider or platform. The change though is that lots of you are now equally focused on how to justify your charges to clients. As long-term value is being built up in your business, you recognise that this value is only locked in for as long as you retain your clients. To do this, you must be able to justify what you charge. And this is one of the main areas where advisers seek us out – helping them to build their propositions to a point where they can clearly and confidently communicate what they charge, with little risk of losing the client in the process.

 

So, eight years on, what has changed? I see a far more confident, professional advice sector that is clear about the value that you add. You recognise your role is as a mentor or a guide to your clients, helping them plan their future and achieve their goals. It’s funny; while you work in financial services, the money is only one part of your focus today.

Turbo charge your business in 2020

What am I doing, talking about 2020 already? Well I’m not asking you to wish your life away, but quite a number of financial advisers have observed that July and August are quieter times for them. And this quiet time offers an opportunity to do some planning for your business.

You should always be thinking short-term about your activity planning and how you are engaging and strengthening your relationships with every existing and potential clients. However now you have an opportunity to do some longer-term thinking and more strategic thinking about broader areas that will stand your business in good stead over the next few years. While it’s not an exhaustive list, here are a few areas to think about now.

 

Make sure your team are with you

When’s the last time that you gave structured thought to the development needs and engagement of your team? Now might be the time to consider their coaching needs that will help them improve, grow and ultimately benefit your business. And maybe also now is a good time for some team building, a day away from the office. This can be used to work through some of the challenges facing the business, while also mixing it in with some downtime and building a stronger team spirit.

 

Make sure you are fit for purpose yourself!

How are your own skills as a business leader, mentor, manager, business generator, client executive and everything else that you do? Now is a good time to give some thought to gaps that you might have in your own toolbox and to look at how you might close the gaps. Have you trusted people, either staff members or other business contacts who will candidly help you to identify any areas that it might be useful for you to work on? Getting help and coaching shows a desire for improvement rather than an admission of shortcomings!

 

Make sure your clients are with you

When did you last review your Client Value Proposition? It’s important to ensure that you continue to deliver the appropriate levels of service to different groups of clients at the right price. And this is an ever-moving target. So even if you previously segmented your clients, are clear about who you are targeting and have your positioning identified, this needs to be regularly reviewed. The world of financial advice is constantly changing. Your business needs to change with it.

 

Review your communications

How good are your communications to your clients? Now is a good time to stand back and look at the quality of what you produce, your client meeting inputs and outputs, your other individual communications to clients and also your (hopefully) regular marketing communications. Are your messages getting a bit tired, or are they really engaging your clients? Seek feedback – both from any analytics that are available to you and also from feedback that you seek from people who are on the receiving end of what you send and say.

 

Review your processes

Give some time to picking apart everything that you do within your business. Could you be easier to do business with, is there an opportunity to really wow your clients? At this stage, look to identify the gaps in your processes. Then put a plan in place with your team to overhaul the processes and set your business up to deliver a much better client experience in the future.

 

There are many other areas that you can think about during these quiet months – the key is to make sure that July and August don’t just slip by without much work being done. If you can make a start on some of the areas identified here, you’ll thank yourself when 2020 eventually comes around.

What impact would 0% asset management fees have for advisers?

Are we seriously talking about 0% asset management fees? Well maybe not yet in Ireland, but Fidelity recently announced the introduction of two core equity index mutual funds covering the U.S. and international markets without any management fee.

If we saw a similar development in Ireland, what would it mean for financial advisers? And even if we don’t, what impact will the downward pressure on investment manager fees have for advisers?

 

A forensic analysis of fund management charges by clients

The two big asset manager stories over the last year or so were first of all when Vanguard announced a flat 0.3% management fee, regardless of how much an investor has in their account. This fee includes access to a CFP professional who will provide financial planning and investment advice. This was followed this summer by Fidelity’s announcement of 0% fees on two of their funds. These price developments will inevitably move closer to Irish shores over time and when they happen, they will be (rightly) trumpeted loudly by providers. This in itself will bring a keen focus from clients on the level of fees that they are paying into their existing funds.

We are certainly not advocating that fund management fees are the only factor for investors to consider – far from it in fact. But should fees reduce substantially, the reality is that investors will more regularly raise this issue with their adviser who will need to be prepared. The adviser will need to be crystal clear about their rationale for guiding clients towards higher charge funds. Higher cost funds make sense for many clients – you just need to be ready to clearly articulate the reasons!

The bottom line is though, fund management fees are likely to come under ever-greater scrutiny.

 

A lower overall fee creates adviser opportunities

One of the most common refrains I hear from advisers being unable to charge 1% (or even 0.75%) trail for their own services is that the current fund management fees don’t allow it. They argue that when you add 75/100 bps on to  a high management charge, that the overall charge is simply too high.

If the fund management fee went to 0%, surely this problem goes away? Now the only charge that would apply would be your 0.75% / 1%, which would not overly impact the returns achieved by clients. Could you charge a higher trail then and justify it to your client?

I’m not so sure that a reduction in fund management charges would be the silver bullet that some think it might be. The argument of fund management charges being too high sometimes hides an underlying issue of some advisers being unable to engage and convince clients in the value that they themselves (the adviser) are adding.

 

Can you articulate and demonstrate your value (and justify higher trail)?

How do you actively demonstrate to your client that you are worth paying 1% per year to? How clearly do you set out to your client the value that you add and the difference that you are going to make in helping them achieve their lifestyle and financial goals? How do you demonstrate the expertise that you bring to the table to help them, and both the quality and amount of work that you do on their behalf? How do you convince your client that they are fortunate to have found you, and that your 75/100 pbs charge is worth every single euro?

If you are not able to do this, even with reduced fund charges your client will still baulk at the charges. Now they will realise that most / all of the ongoing management charges are going to you and will really want to understand what they are paying for. Your fee won’t get “lost” any more in an overall charge.

To be able to articulate and demonstrate your value, you need to take a step back from your business and spend time identifying the value that you add and the difference that you make to the lives of clients. You need to articulate that value, your advice methodologies and be able to demonstrate the structure and rigour of your approach.

Only then can you justify your trail amount, irrespective of the direction of fund management fees in the future.

How can you improve the value of your business?

We wrote last month about the different ways in which a potential buyer will look to value your business. This is a follow-up piece about how you might increase the value of your business, to ensure you extract the very best price possible. Obviously your recurring income is a crucial starting point. However a good business is about a lot more than a simple multiple of your recurring income. There are a number of ways ways that you can demonstrate additional value in your business, which will allow you drive up the price.

 

Work through all the valuation methods yourself

As set out last month, financial advice businesses can be valued using a number of different methods. The oldest (and simplest) model is the multiple of revenue model. However this is being replaced today in some cases by buyers using a multiple of the profitability of the business (usually excluding the business owner’s earnings) as this takes account of both revenues and costs within the business.

It is really important that you consider all of the potential valuation methods, as a purchaser most likely will do so! If a particular valuation method is proving very difficult in justifying the value of your business, are there changes that you can make that will improve the picture? Doing the calculations yourself and being prepared are really important to achieving the price that you want.

 

Drive up trail & other recurring incomes

Obviously there is no point just a year or two before you want to sell up, to really start trying to make the switch from upfront commissions to the flatter income structures that are far more prevalent today. A purchaser will want to see a steady and increasing recurring income stream over a prolonged period. If a sale of your business is on the horizon at all, now is the time to start making that shift to increase your recurring income stream – the StepChange “Getting to 1%” programme could really help you here!

 

The persistency of business is crucial

Of course the size of your business is a main factor. But so equally is the persistency of your revenue. Lapse rates have become a major issue for life companies and advice firms alike, so obviously persistency will significantly impact the price someone is willing to pay for your business. There is little value in a firm that can’t demonstrate an ability to build up a durable revenue stream.

There are a number of steps that you can take to help address any purchaser concerns in this area. Preparing the ground for an effective “earn-out” period will really increase the confidence of a potential buyer – one of their concerns will be your commitment in this area. Also reducing the reliance of clients who seek to deal exclusively with you will also help. If you can demonstrate that clients deal with your business rather than just you, a buyer will feel more confident about those clients staying with the business.

It is also worth looking at the remaining advisers in your business. Having them tied into solid contracts with clear non-compete clauses should they leave, will again help you in your negotiations with a buyer.

 

Have a winning business proposition

A buyer will want to believe that he or she is getting more than their money’s worth when running the rule over your business. A very compelling business proposition will help to provide this comfort. For example, this may be strengthening the buyer’s position in their chosen market or indeed giving them access to a new market. It may be a unique expertise that your business offers or strength in attracting a particular target group of clients. A strong position within a niche market can be a very attractive proposition! If you own a brand that is really well known in an attractive target market, this is a very valuable asset. However on the other hand, if you’re not clear about what’s unique about your business and be able to demonstrate this, you cannot expect a prospective buyer to see this potential.

A buyer will also want to be purchasing clients who are engaged by and committed to your organisation, and are likely to stay with the firm going forwards. To achieve this, you’ll need to ensure that your processes for ongoing client engagement really stand up to scrutiny.

 

Your service and compliance systems are very important

Potential purchasers also want to minimise the headaches involved in a purchase. They want to buy a well-run business that looks after its clients in a professional and engaging way and is compliant in everything that they do. In fact better still, they want to buy a business with potentially better processes and systems than their own, that they can then leverage for their now expanded business. There’s a real opportunity to make your business more attractive to a buyer through utilising excellent business processes.

 

Your people are the heartbeat…

While your clients are at the core of your business, your own people are the heartbeat of it. They have the strong relationships with your clients, the expert skills that potentially are sought by a buyer and the capability to deliver brilliant service to attract and retain your clients and valuable income stream. A highly skilled, cohesive team is an enormous asset when selling.

 

These are just some of the factors you might think about as you prepare your business for a potential sale. If you have any comments in relation to the above or indeed can identify any other factors, please leave your thoughts below.

What’s your advice business worth (to someone else)?

This is the first in a two part-series of articles that examines the sale of financial advice firms. In this initial article, we consider the various valuation methods that can be used to place a value on your business. Next month we’ll take a look at some of the ways that you can (positively) influence that value.

How to value your business

There are many methods that are used to value businesses, however the most common methods are,

  1. A multiple of recurring income
  2. A multiple of EBITDA

We’ll examine both of these in turn.

 

A multiple of recurring income

This is still the most widely used valuation method, and it is certainly the one used in casual conversations among advisers. This is the basis that is quoted in relation to any “buy back” agreements in place in the market. This basis is popular because of its simplicity, and also because a potential purchaser will be satisfied that they are buying a future income stream. The value of the business is not skewed by a huge uplift in new business sales (and attaching initial commissions) in the year or two before the sale of the business.

Of course the next question is – what’s the multiple! And that’s really where the negotiations start. This will be determined by a whole range of elements including;

  • The business retention strategy in place and the actual retention record of the business. This is a critical factor for would-be purchasers.
  • The compliance profile of the business – are the systems in place robust or is it all a bit lacklustre, with potentially significant hidden problems down the road?
  • The synergy between the seller’s business and that of the purchaser. This includes target markets, systems and the ability to easily integrate the two firms. These factors may make one potential purchase a better prospect than others, as the purchaser may gain more from synergies and be willing to pay a higher price.

 

Multiple of EBITDA  

The simple calculation based on recurring income is not deemed sufficient in all situations. For larger firms, a more refined calculation method is often deemed necessary, and this is where the multiple of EBITDA (Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) comes in, as this takes a much broader view of the business as a whole and looks at the actual profitability of the business.

When this calculation method is used in relation to smaller firms and where the business owner’s salary is the main overhead, EBITDA is often adjusted by removing the owner’s salary from the calculation as this can often significantly skew the EBITDA figure. With the salary excluded from overheads, a prospective purchaser can get a clearer picture of the real profitability of the business.

 

Payment Terms

Usually when an advice business is sold, there is a handover period where the previous owner remains with the business for a year or two to ensure a professional handover of the clients to the buyer, and to assist in the retention of those clients.

As a result, the payment terms usually include some of the purchase price to be deferred – maybe with half paid up front and the remainder paid in tranches over the following two years. There will typically be penalty clauses if the retention turns out to be lower than anticipated. These terms are really important, as they align the interests of both the buyer and seller towards a smooth handover with high retention rates.

 

Make the process easy

Due diligence before a sale is key. Once any confidentiality agreements are in place, it is really important that the required information is easily accessible to a prospective purchaser. If they feel they have to drag the information from you, they will wonder what you are hiding. So make sure you are capable of providing the required information before you start seeking out a buyer.

Equally, be realistic in your price expectations. While of course you may not choose to take the first offer that comes your way, don’t hold out forever for that elusive windfall sale price.

 

These are thoughts solely on the financial side of selling your business. In a follow-up article, I’ll look at steps you can take to actually increase the value (and more importantly the price!) of your business.

Just bought a business? Turning 2 into 1

So you’ve made the big move… Your business is in growth mode and you’ve decided to accelerate that growth by acquiring another advice business that’s for sale. The price has been agreed, as has the structure of the deal relating to the earn-out period and terms for the owner of the acquired business.

While this is a big step and great progress to get to this stage, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Because according to a 2017 Harvard Business Review report, the failure rate for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) sits between 70 percent and 90 percent! A very scary figure… Now of course this figure applies across all industries and you can argue that’s it’s different when buying another financial advice business. But there is still lots to consider if you want to integrate the acquisition successfully and maximise the value of the deal. So where do you start?

 

Have a very clear strategy

Of course you likely will have given this a lot of thought before you get anywhere near the integration phase. Hopefully you have a very clear vision of what you are setting out to achieve. Does the acquisition simply increase the number of clients of your business, or is it opening up new markets? Is it giving you capabilities in new areas of financial advice, or is the acquisition delivering significant cost savings when the two businesses are put together?

Know where you are going and what it is that you are trying to achieve, as your strategy should be the guiding “North Star” for your integration process.

 

Build a very robust plan

You need to have an integration plan for every area of the business. If you want the integration to be successful, this plan has to be developed carefully and thoroughly, building a clear roadmap for every key service area – your advice process, your service proposition, your compliance process and right through to your HR processes. You have to ensure that you have the required resources in place to actually develop and follow through on this plan.

If instead everyone just blindly “hits the ground running”, there is a strong likelihood of a significant fall-off in performance and even chaos a little bit down the road! To avoid this, give some thought to the following areas before you set out to integrate the two businesses.

 

Consider culture

This is an area that the leader of the business needs to consider carefully and be very involved in. Are the cultures of the two organisations similar or are they quite different? What is the desired culture of the merged operation going forwards and what are the main steps to help you to start building this culture? This will need clear leadership and involvement of all of the staff.

 

Good integration takes time and focus

It won’t just blindly happen. Your carefully developed plan will need to be delivered in a structured way. This will take the time and focus of some key people – maybe you, maybe members of your team. You need to recognise the cost of this as the focus of these people for a period of time will be on integration of the two businesses, rather than increasing the income of the business. However this short-term cost will definitely pay dividends in the longer-term.

 

Who are the right people to carry out this work?

If you want the integration to happen successfully, you need to have the right people carrying it out. There can be a temptation for the leader of the business to lead the integration work. However it may be that their attention is better spent elsewhere, for example leading the commercial focus of the business for a while and guiding the expectations and requirements of clients and business partners. The leader of the business should be close to the integration, but does not necessarily need to lead it. Sometimes there appears to be an “easier” solution and the integration process is passed to someone who “is not that busy”, but who may be completely unsuited to the role. This is a recipe for disaster.

The integration role is best carried out by someone who is very structured in their work and who is capable of keeping a project with multiple strands on track. If they have very high credibility in the office and strong relationships with colleagues, this again significantly enhances the likelihood of success.

 

Follow through

Finally, don’t get side-tracked by current business pressures, see the integration through to the end. That is not to say of course that you won’t change tack at times, but when this happens, tweak your integration plans rather than leave them behind.

 

A good integration process will help you ensure a successful result after your acquisition. Follow it through relentlessly and you can reach out confidently towards your goals.