RIAs embrace the collegial world of study groups

From Black Friday Focus Group to the Goddesses of Financial Planning, it's about sharing ideas

Jan 9, 2017 @ 2:06 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

One might assume the last thing a busy financial adviser would want is another meeting on the calendar. But when it comes to organized study groups with industry contemporaries, it seems RIAs can't get enough.

“The RIA market is extremely fragmented, and most of the businesses are home grown, so for the most part they have nowhere to go,” said Marty Bicknell, president and chief executive a Mariner Wealth Advisors, which has $44 billion under management.

Mr. Bicknell has been part of a five-person RIA study group for eight years. And even though it requires cross-country travel at least three times a year for two-day meetings, he finds the time spent invaluable.

“I personally know of close to three dozen people involved in study groups, and almost everybody that I know of is as passionate about it as I am,” he said.

While Mr. Bicknell's group, dubbed the Blind Leading the Blind, rotates meetings and agenda responsibilities to the members based in Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City and Austin, Texas, there is no official structure for study groups across the RIA industry.

Kathleen Longo, president of Flourish Wealth Management in Edina, Minn., belongs to an all-women study group known as the Goddesses of Financial Planning.

Ms. Longo, who advises on $95 million in client assets, joined the group of about a dozen other female RIAs 16 years ago when she was still working for a larger firm.

The group, which meets for two hours on the last Friday morning of each month, was instrumental three years ago in helping Ms. Longo realize she could launch her own advisory firm.

“When I joined, I was still at a larger RIA and I thought I'd be there forever. But seeing these other women, and having the inspiration and support of this group made me realize I could go out on my own,” Ms. Longo said.

Whether the group is made up of RIAs from the same city or spread across the country, the idea of competing against each other is one of the first things taken off the table.

In many cases, it's taken off the table through formal confidentiality agreements. But sometimes, as in the case of the Goddesses of Financial Planning, it just comes down to old-fashioned trust.

“People have submitted specific business plans and growth plans for the group to review,” Ms. Longo said. “There is definitely a trust factor.”

While some study group meetings and agendas are more formal than others, the common theme is to skip past the idea of casual socializing and get into specific topics to help RIAs better run their firms.

“If they're not structured, you could just be hanging out and talking,” said Daniel Lash, partner at VLP Advisors, which manages $500 million.

“You want to make sure, as part of the agenda, people are bringing things to the meeting,” he added.

RIA study groups tend not to be networking or social gatherings, which also helps explain why they are generally kept to between five and a dozen group members.

Mr. Lash founded his group in the Washington, D.C., area 10 years ago when he was looking for ways to connect with other RIAs in the area.

The group, which has no official name, includes five members, all of whom sign confidentiality agreements.

“The things I've gained include ideas about compensation, benefits, technology, procedures for dealing with clients, and onboarding clients,” Mr. Lash said. “We're a 12-person firm, and we know that everybody in the business is doing things differently, and they're still successful.”

Some study groups are more open than others to inviting guests and outside speakers.

Leon LaBrecque, managing partner and chief executive officer at LJPR Financial Advisors, said his study group has even brought in wholesalers to present to the RIAs.

Mr. LaBrecque's Black Friday Focus Group, which was established in 1997, includes 19 RIAs located in and around Detroit, and meets for lunch on the third Friday of the month.

“We have sandwiches, we talk about our portfolios, regulations, practice management,” he said. “It's noncompetitive, very friendly, and anything goes.”

Mr. LaBrecque, who advises on $680 million in client assets, said there are few restrictions for his study group.

“You can't be a broker, but if you're an RIA, you're in,” he said.

David Canter, executive vice president for practice management and consulting at Fidelity Clearing & Custody Solutions, has worked informally with about a half-dozen RIA study groups over the years.

Like other custodians working with RIAs, Fidelity views its support of study groups as an informal extension of its services. That support often includes having somebody like Mr. Canter attending as a guest speaker.

“Some study groups operate loosely, and others will form LLCs and operate with confidentiality agreements,” Mr. Canter said. “The underlying theme is advisers are finding people they can turn to for advice to help them get better at what they do.”

That essentially sums up the origins of the MN Wealth Management Masterminds, a Minneapolis-based study group founded 10 years ago by three local RIAs just getting started in the business.

“As it was originally created, we were all independent, we didn't really have bosses, and needed some sort of structure to help us with creating and sticking to a business plan,” said James Bryan, principal of Cahill Financial Advisors, which manages nearly $40 million.

“We all took a couple days off, working on plans and presenting plans, then kept meeting periodically to give each other feedback,” he added. “Now our group [of eight RIAs] is quite informal, but I do see it continuing. We all enjoy each other, respect each other and value each other.”

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