Succession Planning

Veteran adviser locks down a succession plan that lets him stay involved

Leon LaBrecque's deliberate venture into succession planning landed him and his 1,400 clients in a good place

Feb 15, 2019 @ 4:42 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

It took a while before it became a top priority, but Leon LaBrecque can finally rest easy knowing that at 63, his business succession plan is in place.

After about eight years of weighing his options, and 18 months of grinding out the details, last year Mr. LaBrecque sold his $776 million Troy, Mich.-based firm, LJPR Financial Advisors, to Akron, Ohio-based Sequoia Financial Group.

For Mr. LaBrecque, who is now the chief growth officer at Sequoia and plans to work for between three and seven more years, the decision to combine his practice with a firm with nearly $5 billion under management was easy, once he found the right match.

But until he was introduced to Sequoia founder Tom Haught through his Charles Schwab custodian, Mr. LaBrecque was doing what a lot of advisers do when it comes to succession planning.

"I initially thought I would sell the business internally, but there would have been cash flow issues doing it that way," he said.

"Doing it that way, there was no risk mitigation and no liquidity," he said. "I would have gotten more money for eight years, while gradually working less, but after eight years there would be nothing."

Like any responsible owner, Mr. LaBrecque wasn't just worried about himself. He was also considering what would be best for his 24 employees, including three minor partners, and more than 1,400 clients.

"We looked at two different aggregators," he said. "We even looked at mergers with smaller firms and younger people, but we didn't have the firepower to make it happen."

In his 30 years of running his own firm, Mr. LaBrecque had brought on a couple of advisers with their own books of business, but he had never been involved in a merger or acquisition.

Sequoia, meanwhile, was looking to expand its Midwest footprint at the same time Mr. LaBrecque was looking to step away from some of the day-to-day duties of running a large advisory firm.

Even though Mr. LaBrecque said he was immediately impressed by the way the Sequoia culture matched that of his own firm, he wasn't ready to just sell his business and walk away.

"Leon saw an opportunity to make a more durable organization, together, but he was reluctant to just merge into Sequoia," said Mr. Haught, 54, who founded Sequoia in 1991.

Sequoia, which already had offices in Ohio, Michigan and Florida prior to the acquisition of LJPR, had acquired four advisory firms and sold a business unit since 2009.

Details of the transaction between the two private firms were not disclosed, but Mr. LaBrecque confirmed that the value of his firm in the cash and stock deal was based on a multiplier of transferrable earnings.

Mr. LaBrecque said that agreeing on the final price was a matter of "Tom and I haggling for about two hours in one intense meeting."

Considering they were combining 24 employees from LJPR with more than 60 at Sequoia, both parties thought it was important to keep everyone in the loop as much as possible. And to help ensure a smooth transition to the new company, LJPR employees "got generous pay packages, better fringe benefits, increases in base versus variable compensation," Mr. LaBrecque said.

Once the financials were agreed upon, the next step was to present the news to clients by announcing a "soft close" about three months before the deal became final.

"We gave the clients almost 100 days to figure out what it would look like," Mr. LaBrecque said. "We didn't want to surprise anyone."

By the time the sale closed in December, LJPR had lost just three clients and one employee.

"It's very important to do things to keep people on board, because you don't want to disrupt the relationships with clients and you want to keep the team very much intact," Mr. LaBreque said. "We made sure it was very transparent to everybody on the team where we were going. And Tom came out and said we're going to try to sweeten the pot a little bit, because you don't have earnings if you don't have good employees."

From Mr. Haught's perspective, the communication could have been better with Sequoia's employees.

While he said he wouldn't change anything about the way he kept the LJPR team informed, he said he might have overlooked the need for the folks at Sequoia to also know what was happening along the way.

"The next one we do, I will communicate more to both the current and new teams, so they can be as comfortable as Leon and I were along the way," Mr. Haught said.

To handle the technology and systems integration between the August soft close and the official closing of the deal in December, three-person teams from Sequoia and LJPR worked together and met in person weekly to combine the systems and troubleshoot scenarios.

The one thing Mr. LaBrecque said he would have done differently is running more thorough pre-close tests on the systems before switching everyone over the Sequoia.

"We didn't test-drive the switch, and we found out some clients logged in and couldn't get into their portal for a couple of days," he said. "If I was doing it over, I would have been a little more diligent on the integration system, and I would have tested to know exactly what was going to happen on the close date."

Mr. Haught said that in order to learn something from the process and make the next deal even smoother, the firm is conducting a "military review" with teams from both LJPR and Sequoia looking at what went right and what went wrong.

"Culture is the most important thing, and I think we could have gone faster in closing this deal," he said. "When you find the right fit, you can accelerate the process."

Two months after the official close, with the firms now fully integrated, Mr. Haught and Mr. LaBrecque acknowledge there are a few points on which they agreed to disagree.

"I'm never going to root for the [Ohio State] Buckeyes," Mr. LaBrecque said.

"I'll never root for the [University of Michigan] Wolverines," Mr. Haught said. "But we don't have a hockey team in Ohio, so I can root for the Detroit Redwings."

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