Though buying a tax and financial advisory practice is an unusual step for a major bank, Wells Fargo & Co.’s deal to buy H.D. Vest resembles an increasingly common strategy for smaller ones.

In recent months several of them — including $14.9 billion-asset Synovus Financial Corp. in Columbus, Ga., and $1.7 billion-asset First Niagara Bank of Lockport, N.Y. — have bought financial planning practices as a way to reach wealthy investors.

Wells’ deal, announced last week, would give the San Francisco company a chance to sell banking products to the 1.8 million customers of the 6,000 financial advisers who work as independent contractors for H.D. Vest, in Irving, Tex.

The number of community banks interested in buying financial planning practices is “unbelievable,” said Mark Tibergien, a principal of Moss Adams LLP, an accounting and financial services consulting firm in Seattle that calculates practice valuations.

Mr. Tibergien said that he has received a call in each of the past five weeks from a community bank negotiating with a financial planning firm, compared with only 10 to 15 over the past three years. “Community banks recognize that financial planning brings in predictable and consistent income,” he said. Buying a practice gives banks a ready-made track record, infrastructure, and customer base, and lets them start generating cash flow immediately, he said.

First Leesport Bancorp Inc., a $394 million-asset company in Leesport, Pa., bought a financial planning and investment management practice a little over a year ago to realize fee income and to provide a full range of services, said Raymond Melcher Jr., the company’s chairman, president, and chief executive officer.

Mr. Melcher said that buying the firm has allowed him to ensure that key financial planners stayed on board by offering them employment contracts and seats on the banking company’s board of directors. In addition, the financial planning and banking operations are “100% aligned with the same goals and objectives, so we’re growing faster, and we’re more profitable,” he said.

And the financial planning practice’s relatively affluent clientele “make great bank customers,” he said. State Bank, a subsidiary of $380 million-asset Texas United Bancshares in La Grange, Tex., is buying a financial planning practice to attract more of its customers’ money, said Don Stricklin, president and CEO of the bank and the holding company.

Though the bank already offers fee-based investment management services, the holistic approach used by financial planners create more cross-selling opportunities, he said.

The practice is not yet widespread, but buying a financial planning firm makes sense for community banks that want to pick up new clients as well as add new services, observers said.

“It’s a way of targeting high-net-worth individuals to offer products resident in the bank,” such as trust and private-client services, and also expanding the bank’s client base, said Jean Sullivan, a consultant at Cerulli Associates Inc. in Boston.

Kenneth Kehrer, president of the Kenneth Kehrer Associates consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., said that alternatives to buying a financial planning practice — such as working with a third-party marketer, setting up a joint venture with a financial planning firm, and even hiring a financial planner — do not necessarily bring new clients to the bank.

“If the price isn’t that big, it’s a way to acquire both customers and their assets,” Mr. Kehrer said.

Mr. Tibergien of Moss Adams said that the typical price for a small financial planning practice — one with two or three professionals — is one to three times revenue, although he pointed out that three times would be very high.

SunAmerica Securities Inc., a financial planning broker-dealer owned by SunAmerica Inc., which was bought by American International Group Inc. of New York in 1999, has set up a division, called iValue, that matches financial planning operations with buyers.

James T. Sinyard, a vice president of the year-old operation, said that some community banks have been willing to buy a financial planning operation — the usual price is about 1% of assets under management — to ensure a “seamless” transition when the financial planner already working in their branches decides to retire.

So far two community banks have made purchases with iValue’s help, and another sale is in the works, Mr. Sinyard said.

Financial planners selling an operation typically stay on for about a year while they break in a successor, and SunAmerica Securities provides products and back-office support, Mr. Sinyard said. The alternative would be to start all over with a new financial planner and a new brokerage, which would mean transferring customer accounts, he said.


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