The breakaway broker trend, which gained momentum in the aftermath of the financial crisis, has been underway for several years now. And in an environment where many 7- to 9-year post-crisis retention deals are expiring at the same time that wirehouses are reigning in their signing bonuses, there is a fresh wave of interest in potentially breaking away from wirehouses and transitioning to the independent RIA channel for the potential of greater income. However, there are many motivations which may lead to a desire to break away, and pursuing a greater “payout” alone is actually not the best reason to break away.
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, we discuss different motivations for breaking away from a wirehouse to become an independent RIA, as well as the team characteristics – including revenue, AUM, and desire for independence – that tend to lead to better break away outcomes for advisors!
First and foremost, it is important to recognize the different ways that “take-home pay” are calculated in a wirehouse versus an independent RIA. In the wirehouse environment, brokers at the low end might take home 35% of GDC, while the biggest producers and teams may get to 50% to 55% in some circumstances. By contrast, independent advisory firms typically follow a “40, 35, 25 rule”, that 40% of gross revenue goes towards paying advisors and the investment team, 35% goes towards overhead and administrative staff, and 25% is the profit margin left over. For a solo advisor, this may effectively equate to a 65% payout, by paying themselves both the “employee advisor” compensation and the profit margin. For a larger team, the calculation is messier, but in the end advisors are often able to keep 10% to 20% more of their gross revenue after making the switch.
That being said, there’s a really important caveat to the comparison between wirehouses and an independent RIA. When you’re at a wirehouse, a lot of those cost decisions – about staffing, overhead, compliance, office leases, technology, etc. – are made for you. At an independent RIA, though, the responsibility is on you, as the owner-advisor. The flexibility of being able to make those decisions is what gives advisors some more operational leverage as an independent RIA, but it is also a lot of additional work – or at least responsibility – for you as the advisor. That’s the double-edged sword of going independent, and it’s the reason why most advisors who break away don’t do it for the money.
However, if they are independently minded, want to control their own destiny, want to be the owner of their business, and want to make all the decisions that go along with that… then breaking away may just be a small sacrifice to make for the long run. But if you’re happy to have a firm make those decisions for you, then you’re not going to be happier getting a few more points of take-home on your GDC but being required to shoulder the burden of all the responsibilities and decisions.
It’s also worth noting that there are more and more options today for brokers who are breaking away and want assistance with the transition, to reduce the burden of responsibility. From platforms like HighTower Advisors and Dynasty Financial – who can recreate a lot of the infrastructure advisors are used to from their wirehouse – to consulting firms like Matt Sonnen at PFI Advisors that help with the transition, to technology benchmarking studies and compliance firms to help guide advisors, there are a lot of resources available. And the truth is that larger firms with higher levels of revenue (e.g., $5 million) can afford to hire staff to handle much of the responsibility, while solo brokers can also be successful in the transition, particularly those around the $50M to $100M of AUM level where brokers may be getting a 40% payout whereas successful solo RIAs are taking home 65% to 85% of their revenue (providing ample revenue to cover some additional expenses as an independent).
The key point in all of this, though, is simply to recognize that if you’re considering whether to break away from a wirehouse to an independent RIA, have a clear picture in your head of why you’re breaking away before you do so. And just trying to make a few more points on your revenue is not the best reason. It may work out okay, but the biggest success stories amongst brokers who go to the independent RIA channel are the ones who want to be independent. In other words, ultimately it’s not really a revenue or a size consideration that drives success during a breakaway – as it’s viable at almost any AUM or revenue level – but rather, an advisor’s desire for independence, with the burdens of responsibility and upside opportunity that comes with it!