Independent registered investment advisors seem to be having a good post-recession period, but gains have come at a cost in terms of more work and less pay.

At the typical RIA, revenue rose 18% in 2010 after falling 11% in 2009, according to a survey of 820 firms by Charles Schwab Corp. On average, the RIAs' assets under management rose 27% last year, compared with the S&P 500's 13% gain.

Bernie Clark, head of Schwab's RIA-support unit, said that after struggling in 2008 and 2009, RIAs are putting more time and money in growth strategies. This has resulted in sharper marketing plans, more recruiting and a longer-term view of strategic development to include early succession planning.

This discipline is having an effect on operations as well. That stands to reason. Asset attrition during the recession and rising compliance costs linked to financial reform legislation have led firms to take on more clients than before the downturn — 13% more, according to Schwab. And per-client revenue is still below prerecession levels.

To offset these pressures, Schwab says, RIAs have kept costs under control in recent years by cutting compensation, trimming employee benefits and either renegotiating office leases or finding cheaper spaces.

VanceGray Wealth Management in Bangor, Maine, is a case in point. The RIA has five employees and manages a little over $50 million.

"We run a pretty tight ship," says the firm's founder and senior advisor, Vance Gray. So when it comes to technologies that promise to eliminate busywork, he says, "I'd feel guilty if I didn't look at what's out there."

Deighan Associates, also of Bangor, manages about $130 million. Like most of the firms Schwab surveyed, it has added clients since the market slump of 2008. And its principals are seeing opportunities to add more in the recovery period.

"But we only want to grow if we can maintain our standards of service and if we can maintain the lifestyle we've made for ourselves," says Deighan's co-founder and executive vice president, Jenifer Wilson. The firm brought in a new operations chief late last year and made it a senior position for the first time in its 17 years in business.

"We changed the way we think about that role," Wilson says.

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