Just the idea is daunting: How to sell an advisory practice that may have taken you a lifetime to build.
Sales and mergers within the registered investment advisory space have rebounded since the market crash of 2008, said David Selig, the chief executive of Advice Dynamics Partners. So this is a good time for owners who have put off preparations but want to sell to start taking steps to get the best price for their firms and to make a sale go more smoothly, he said.
About $156 billion of assets under management changed hands in M&A deals involving independent registered investment advisors in 2010, according to Schwab Advisor Services. Selig, whose firm is a consultancy that works with middle-market advisory firms, said he expects the number of deals to rise by at least 10% this year.
What can owners do in the short term to get their businesses ready for sale? "Reduce the perceived risk to the buyer," Selig said. If the practice has multiple owners, he said, it is crucial to get them all on board with the sales strategy.
Selig recently worked with two partners who said they wanted to sell their practice but who turned out to be conflicted: Faced with a strong offer from another firm that seemed a good fit for their clients, one of the partners conceded he didn't really want to cash out. He was younger than the other partner, wasn't ready to retire yet and had misgivings about going to work for another company.
The older partner decided to keep working. The offer was rejected. "When owners have divergent objectives, deals die on the vine," Selig said. A potential buyer may well sense this ambivalence and be scared away, he said.
Selig said he also advises his clients to make sure the contracts of essential employees are up to date and have nonsolicit or noncompete clauses. Buyers are likely to seek a big price discount if there is a risk that key employees will leave with the firm's clients.
Any advisors who think they might sell their practices in the next few years also should thoroughly vet advisors they bring into their firms to make sure the potential new hires don't have criminal records. A compliance consultant can help in checking out potential hires, Selig said.
Then there is price. Before putting their firms on the block, advisors should figure out what their financial goals are for the deal. They should put their targets in writing, along with a description of the type of advisor to which they would sell and with which they would trust their clients.
Buyers will appreciate sellers who are certain about their goals. "It's hard to create a winning deal structure with a moving target," Selig said.