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Breakaway Advisors Absolutely Love Their Independence

By Thomas Coyle December 22, 2017

It’s almost comical. One hundred percent of former wirehouse or regional-brokerage advisors in the independent RIA channel are happier for having made the move. That’s according to a blind survey of 450 FAs by Dynasty Financial Partners — a sponsor that, as an infrastructure provider to breakaway RIAs, has to be pleased with the result.

Indeed, Dynasty’s CEO Shirl Penney says the survey confirms “advisors who choose independence are happier, less stressed and better able to serve their clients.”

Supporting this claim, no less than 96% of those polled think they “have greater upside” in their “earning opportunity” as a result of going independent; 96% say they now “have the ability to realize their business vision;” 93% agree they “have greater opportunity to build equity value;” and 93% reckon they “have more control over important business decisions.”

And the big numbers keep coming. Eighty-two percent of ex-wirehouse FAs now in RIAs say the transition is directly attributable to their ability to “provide conflict-free advice," and 72% believe their independence “allows them more freedom to focus on clients’ unique needs,” according to Dynasty’s Independent Advisor Survey.

Of course poll outcomes like that are bound to raise eyebrows. So we asked some breakaway advisors for their views on the lopsided feedback their peers provided in the Dynasty survey.

All we got was confirmation.

“We’re much happier at Summit Trail,” says Jack Petersen, a co-founder and managing partner of Summit Trail Advisors, a New York-based RIA with regional offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Chevy Chase, Md. “It was stressful in the first six months” after the firm’s mid-2015 launch, he admits. “But after that we started hitting our stride.”

“You feel re-engaged, like you’re part of something bigger, and you can see it in your clients’ reactions and responses.”
Blake Pratz
Icon Wealth Partners

Of Summit Trail’s 39 employees, Petersen says “34 of us came out of the wirehouse world,” so he figures the firm, which manages about $5.5 billion — including about $1 billion brought in this year organically — has a keen sense of what it’s like providing financial advice in different business models.

The biggest strike against major brokerages like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and UBS Financial comes down to “the law of large numbers,” says Petersen, who began his career with Morgan Stanley before joining Lehman Brothers’ wealth management division and its post-meltdown successor unit at Barclays. “That’s no one’s fault: they have to make sure they’re protecting the firm by creating consistent policies and procedures.”

Though that’s a prudent course for trillion-dollar companies, it’s tough to provide truly customized services from a monolithic platform. Working from an RIA, however, allows for such tailoring, which Petersen sees as necessary to providing fiduciary services.

Advisor Blake Pratz, who left UBS early this year to co-found Houston-based Icon Wealth Partners, which manages about $650 million, agrees with that assessment.

Further, says Pratz, the Dynasty survey result of 100% agreement among breakaways that they’re in better boats now is nothing to wonder at given conditions at the wirehouses — “whether you want to look at compensation, the fact they’re devoid of cultural spirit or the fact that management there is out of reach.”

And though at breakaways the peripheral parts of life at a wirehouse might be missed — for example, some aspect of a particular reporting interface — Steve Schwarzbach, who left Morgan Stanley with FA Mark McAdams to co-found Icon with Pratz, says “You don’t make this kind of move if you’re going to focus on minor details.”

Rather, says Schwarzbach, “You do it because you have a strong feeling you’re going to make more money and you’re going to serve your clients better.”

Jack Petersen

And when an advisor puts their career on the line and takes action on that belief only to see it confirmed, the result is a surge of relief and happiness. “That’s what I think the survey points to,” says Schwarzbach.

“But,” cautions Pratz, “that doesn’t mean there aren’t frustrations” that come with independence. “That could be the two clients you thought of as sure things hesitating to follow; it could be the Friday morning call saying the system is down and you’re responsible for getting it back up.”

For all that, though, running your own firm means you’re likelier to head home at the end of the workday having given “good advice, and solved problems for clients,” according to Pratz. “You feel re-engaged, like you’re part of something bigger, and you can see it in your clients’ reactions and responses.”

Summit Trail’s Petersen understands that feeling. Since going independent, he says he’s “never been this excited to come into work every day.”

The unanimity on that score among breakaways reflected in the Dynasty survey makes sense to Jeff Spears as well. The president and head of wealth management at Fort Point Capital Partners in San Francisco used to run Sanctuary Wealth Services, a Dynasty-like support-service provider to independent RIAs.

Ex-wirehouse advisors who have joined or started RIAs “are happy to not be associated with the brand and management of their old firm,” Spears tells FA-IQ.

For some FAs, especially at a certain level of seniority, being tied to a big brokerage is simply a drag on business, Spears explains. Continuing in the relationship past that point exacts an “emotional toll” on advisors who stick it out. Conversely, advisors who go independent at that stage are apt to feel relief and happiness as their employer-related stress diminishes, he adds.