17 MIN PODCAST
Before advisor Ben Wong sold and consolidated his billion-dollar advisory business with Mariner Wealth Advisors in 2022, he did a lot of careful thinking about his exit strategy. His ensemble team had a big impact on his decision. He wasn’t merely selling a book of business, but an operation. He wanted a way for his team to benefit and continue to grow. And he wanted to make himself happy in the coming years.
In part two of our discussion, Ben describes his path to succession and why it works so well for his ensemble practice. You’ll also hear about how this self-described workflow nerd thinks about staffing and hiring, along with tips for how other advisors can future-proof their practices. (For more on how he does it, find part one: Future-proofing a practice with a strong team and “over service,” with Ben Wong.)
A win-win succession plan
Ben recently sold his firm and consolidated with Mariner Wealth Advisors (a large national firm). A lot of consideration went into this decision, starting with what he calls the “traditional succession plan in this business,” where you find another advisor to buy your book. This model worked well in the past, he says, when advisors thought of themselves as having their own standalone practices.
“I think what you've seen in the last 10 years, at least for our office, is that we actually have a business. The ensemble is a business; it's not a practice,” he says. This made the idea of having one individual or team buy the practice less feasible.
At the same time, he couldn’t see a pre-exit path for himself in this option. “I also wanted to think about, what did I really want to do for the next five years? ... I could build out an RIA, I could go back and rebuild a database, Portfolio Management System, billing systems, all those things that I did in the past. It's not really what I wanted to do.” This made him realize that he wanted to continue the work he was doing, maybe leveraging another firm’s infrastructure to continue to grow.
But he also wanted to factor in the needs of his own team. In an industry where, traditionally, the “wins” come with owning client accounts, he sought a way to reward his hard-working team. Consolidating his firm was the answer. “It provided me a method to provide them a win, provide me a win, and a way for them to continue even after I'm gone,” he says.
Focus on soft skills and increased efficiency
When asked what he would recommend to other advisors to future-proof their practice, Ben recommends soft skills and spending more time on financial planning. “The investment process, so many pieces of our business can become a commodity with time,” he says. “I spend so much more time doing financial planning than I ever did at the beginning of my career. A lot of it is ‘My daughter needs to buy a house. What's the best way that I can loan her money or him money and still make them appreciate it?’ You know, it's all those kinds of soft things.”
However, he says it’s also important to run an efficient shop. “I think that an advisor is going to have to be able to handle many more clients than they used to, many more relationships than they used to. And the only way you can do that is if you can scale.” Much of that is paying attention to workflows, he says. Ben suggests focusing on how long it takes to get each step of the process done, and questioning if you are staffed with the right people to complete each component.
“I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at workflows,” Ben says. “I'm a little bit of a nerd that way.” He and his team were early adopters of customer relationship management (CRM) technology and workflows. For each project, such as opening a new account or onboarding a client, a workflow gets built on the computer. Jobs are assigned to the different people that need to get it done: sending a welcoming package or onboarding kit, setting up the accounts, transferring accounts, etc.
The process makes things easy, but building out the workflows can be a challenge. For example, in the transition to the new company, the team had to reestablish online access for all clients. “So, if you think about just from a numbers standpoint, if you have a thousand households, they're all used to getting their online information from a portal. And now you're switching them,” he says. This process alone required hiring a full-time position.
“But that takes measuring the time for each component, each job. Figuring out if you have the staff. Is it going to take away from other things?” he says. “And you really can't have wealth advisors or your advisory team doing it, but you can get the right person in that job, and then those that can be handed off.”
Whom you hire can matter as well. For example, in Ben’s firm, there is someone on the team who reaches out to clients to schedule annual reviews and check in on clients regularly. This person has some past experience working with the Institute of Aging, and during the pandemic, she made it a point to reach out to elderly clients just to check in and make sure they were OK.
“In some cases, what she found was that some of them just needed to talk. They felt like shut-ins. And so she just put that on her list and made that part of her job for a couple months,” he says. “It wasn't a top-down type thing. But it was just somebody on the team seeing the need and taking it upon themselves to do it.”
Hiring the right people
While he admits to not always being the best at hiring — favoring people based on personality rather than fit for the job — Ben’s team improved the process over time. One change he made early on, for example, was letting his team interview candidates first, allowing him to act more as a final signoff. Furthermore, Ben learned not to prejudge applicants, which is something he keeps in mind with clients as well.
Within the past 15 years, the team also adopted a screening software to help filter candidates. A company they work with developed a program to find ideal candidates according to their specifications. “That helped me whittle it down to where, if you got 100 resumes, we would send them the link for the test. The test results would come in and give you an idea about the qualifying qualifications, but also their personality traits and so forth, that will make them good or bad for the job,” he says.