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Carson Sees Monolithic Branding as a Key to Growth

By Thomas Coyle October 2, 2017

Carson Group Holdings has rebranded its subsidiaries to bring them in line with the “Carson” name. In so doing, the Omaha, Neb.-based company hopes to strengthen its attraction for industry talent and clients alike in a push to shape its own destiny against a backdrop of rapid consolidation.

In late September, Carson Group’s Peak Advisor Alliance, a training business launched in 1993, became Carson Group Coaching, and five-year-old Carson Institutional Alliance, an outsourced wealth management business platform, became Carson Group Partners. Carson Group’s RIA, established in 1983, remains Carson Wealth.

The company’s direct-to-client unit manages more than $4 billion.

In a bid to “own the space” as the firm “most trusted for financial advice,” Carson Group CEO Ron Carson says the rebranding “brings us a step closer to making that dream a reality” by making “the complex simple for the advisors we serve and, by extension, their clients.”

Besides being – at least arguably – emblematic of the group’s overarching mission to simplify the lives of FAs and their clients, Carson Group’s rebranding makes solid marketing sense in any business context, says Kip Gregory, an expert in that field.

“With three distinct business entities it’s a good idea to reduce the noise and clutter that can build up — especially with social media — around any confusion over names,” says Gregory, whose Washington, D.C.-based Gregory Group provides marketing and sales training to advisors and investment product vendors. “Anything that creates confusion leaves space for competitors to fill the void.”

Carson says the initial brand disparity, most glaring with the Peak Advisor Alliance, was simply the result, back in 1993, of wishing to differentiate an advisor training spin-off from an associated RIA — and of not seeing with 20/20 clarity what the future would bring. Now though, with the coaching business catering to over 1,200 firms, an outlier brand didn’t make sense with stablemates Carson Wealth and Carson Group Partners garnering headlines for attracting advisors in an industry-wide race for talent.

Goosed by a $35 million investment in mid-2016 by Long Ridge Equity Partners for which the venture firm got 29% of the business, Carson says his company is primed to tuck RIAs into Carson Wealth, add more institutional takers for its turnkey business and get more FAs to use its training and education resources.

For Carson, these efforts are a matter of long-term survival. In his view, the RIA-focused M&A activity that has been breaking records in recent quarters is merely the crest of a consolidation wave. And when this tide recedes, “there will be just 10 or 15 — or, I don’t know, 20 or 50 — firms that can really compete on their own,” he says.

Ron Carson

Mark Hurley also thinks the RIA business is in for drastic consolidation, though the precise timeline is tough to predict. The founder and CEO of Undiscovered Managers, a mutual fund company he sold to JPMorgan Chase in 2003, and now head of Fiduciary Network, a financier and consultant to RIAs that are changing ownership, says survival in the industry calls for scale.

And in his view that’s something most private client RIAs can’t even dream about.

“We’re talking about 19,500 firms, more or less, with 200 to 250 that are sustainable and have the potential to be around for a while, and another 1,000 that may have the scale for now but aren’t doing anything to keep it,” Hurley tells FA-IQ.

“That leaves about 18,000 that are just barbershops,” Hurley continues, using his term for practices without enterprise value. “When they’re done they can sell their chairs and scissors, and that’s it.”

The real consolidation process starts when the 200 or so top-tier firms start merging with each other rather than targeting only second- and third-tier outfits as they’ve done so far, according to Hurley. Meanwhile some of the roughly 1,000 will merge with each other and with bigger players, “but most will become barbershops.”

As a firm that wants to be in the elite group of RIAs, Hurley says it’s helpful Carson Group rationalizes its branding, especially if it helps pull FAs under its banner.

But it’s not as important as pulling in top advisors.

“The real fight is around talent, not branding,” says Hurley. “Brands will be important in the future but even then, we’re not talking Coca-Cola here.”