Without a doubt, 2018 was a big year for M&A in the independent wealth management industry, and robust activity is expected to continue this year.
Fidelity recently gathered nearly 40 leaders from across the industry at our fourth annual M&A Leaders Forum to talk about just that — M&A trends and outlook for the months ahead. There was a consensus that it's still a seller's market, but that potential sellers need to prepare and make the right moves to attract buyers.
So what should firms that are considering a sale be thinking and doing? Here are five key things:
1. Define your culture and evaluate the right-fit buyer. Both buyers and sellers are paying more attention to post-deal integration now than ever before, so a good cultural fit is important. But before you can find the right match, take time to look internally to identify, then showcase, your firm's key values. What defines who you are and how you operate? Articulate specifically what you want to preserve or emphasize in the new organization. Then, identify a range of ways that you could achieve those top priorities, and share those upfront with potential partners.
One of the benefits of a seller's market is the tremendous range of buyer business models that exist and continue to emerge, but too often sellers do insufficient due diligence at this stage. Develop a process to evaluate the right-fit buyer, such as utilizing a brief but consistent checklist of your priorities, and discuss hypothetical client service and operating cases to get a sense of what is truly important to a buyer.
2. Think through your ideal outcome. Firm owners who are thinking about selling need to clearly define what outcome they want, now and several years down the road. Historically, selling primarily meant succession and retirement, but as the industry becomes more complex and capital-intensive, the most attractive and visible transactions are focused increasingly on addressing organic growth, technology, compliance and the operating needs of an improved platform.
You're likely emotionally invested in your business, so define what you truly want to get out of the deal, apart from the financials. How will you integrate? What role do you want to play in the firm once it's acquired — and for how long? And are you prepared to change how you and your firm operate today to make this a successful partnership? Yes, it's a seller's market, but it's still important to be prepared to express how you and your team will contribute to improved performance of the potential buyer's business, particularly how you will contribute to performance and growth.
3. Involve the next generation. It is equally important to get everyone, especially your next generation of talent, on the same page early on. Leaders at our forum stressed the importance of knowing "who is the future" and "having all key stakeholders involved in due diligence" leading up to a deal. And many of the most active acquirers regard M&A as a talent acquisition strategy. Increasingly, a smooth integration that capitalizes on a scalable platform and service model is the goal, and aligning expectations at the onset can help you achieve that.
4. Be ready to compete for talent. The market for talent is increasingly competitive, so it's important to remain focused on retaining your key advisers and highlighting what makes your firm and its future attractive — especially in a time of possible change. During the forum, we heard that post-deal, "ultimately, people will stay because they like your environment." Make sure you're listening to advisers about career and operating concerns and how the sale can improve the culture. It can be easy to get caught up in preparing for a sale, but don't lose sight of retaining and engaging a strong talent base.
5. Maintain organic growth. Leaders in our session also shared that firms demonstrating at least some level of organic growth are more attractive to buyers. Continue to focus on growth and creating a culture of business development as you prepare for a potential sale — and expect and plan for market volatility.
When it comes down to it, every firm needs to think about each of these factors regardless of whether they're ready to sell in the short term. They should also consider engaging experienced third parties, such as wealth management-oriented investment bankers and transition consultants, to help identify issues and options that they may otherwise overlook.
Firms that understand and take control of the process, involve all parties from the start and evaluate their breadth of options will be better prepared to find their best-fit buyer when the time is right.
(More: 10 biggest RIA acquisitions of 2018)
Scott Slater is vice president of practice management and consulting for Fidelity Clearing & Custody Solutions.