Brokers Steven Fine, Steve Prendeville and Tim Lane

The squeeze is on for smaller practices in 2021 according to advice business brokers, who say larger practices are pushing to fold more revenue into their business and build by acquisition.

As businesses fight for scale, advice firms with small yet healthy client books are becoming highly sough after, with practices that bring in $1 million or less in client revenue remaining attractive for acquisitive players like CountPlus and AZ NGA who will either take the business outright, buy a significant slice of it or fold it into one of their established practices.

“The large practices running heavily focussed bolt-on integration games are going to be the dominant players in the marketplace in 2021,” says Tim Lane from Centurian Market Makers.

Increased compliance costs have made it tough for smaller outfits to remain profitable, Lane says. While some have the ability to carry out their own acquisition, increased competition among buyers is making the option of selling to a larger party more and more attractive.

“The guys who have around $1 million in fees are often coming to a realisation that they’ve got to double that or get out” he says. “Good profitability is really about $1.6 million to $1.8 million now, it’s gotten progressively harder.”

Lane reveals 85 per cent of the phone calls he’s had in the last six months have been from smaller forms looking to “resource up”.

Decision point

According to Growth Focus managing director Steven Fine, principals at smaller practices are at a “decision point” because margins have been eroded by increasing costs and excised commissions.

“If you’re a one-man show you’re not making the money you were two or three years ago,” Fine says. “Some of the smaller guys have been able make an acquisition but they’re up against the bigger guys so it’s tough.”

When acquirers are looking at the value of client books they aren’t necessarily put off by low-paying clients, Fine says. Some firms are better equipped to service these clients at a lower cost or willing to risk the arbitrage and increase fees.

“There’s no real cut-off point,” he says. “Some people say that clients paying under $2,500 are not profitable but we’re finding that’s not true. It depends on the acquirer’s structure and their processes and their ability to serve the client.”

It’s not only well-capitalised, high-profile acquirers that are on the hunt, Lane says, with firms at the $3 million to $6 million revenue mark just as keen to grow. “All the guys around that size are ready to roll,” he says. “A lot of them are also looking to run a more converged model by acquiring accounting and broking businesses.”

While the high-profile acquirers are often reticent to take on practices with less than $1 million in revenue, Lane reckons growing  medium-sized advice businesses are more than willing to kick the tyres on firms with as little as $500,000 coming in. “Absolutely, there’s a market for them,” he says.

Mutual benefits

What’s becoming clear as more firms look to bolt on smaller outfits is that there are positive sides to this development, says Steve Prendeville from Melbourne’s Forte Asset Management.

While smaller firms are an essential part of the system, he says, a strong middle market means a proliferation of businesses with robust governance, capable leadership and a level of professionalism that bodes well for the industry.

“We’re seeing firms build around particular niches and a lot more brand development as well,” Prendeville says, adding that the growth of middle tier also decreases key person risk and allows for dedicated business leadership and strategy roles to open up.

“You get better corporate governance, the creation of boards and general managers that are focussed solely on the business, whereas smaller businesses are often forced to wear all those hats.”

The benefits should also extend to clients, he says, especially when converged models are employed.

“Client outcomes are enhanced as well, and with that you have better retention because there are multiple adviser touchpoints, so you’re ringfencing the client and increasing value.”

4 comments on “Million-dollar advisers at a ‘decision point’: M&A experts”
  1. Avatar
    Michael Gershkov

    With all respect to these very good and successful brokers – I call “rubbish” or choose another more creative word. They have an agenda, which is fine. I do too.

    In my humble opinion (and almost 30 years industry experience), growth through acquisition comes more pain and almost always comes with a few headaches or stuff ups and I can says this with absolutely conviction having been involved in more than 20 such mergers, JV’s or staged succession plans. There is room for everyone and every adviser can choose what is best for them at the time.

    If you do not like the choice you made, choose again as long as you did not sign a stupid deal out of greed or fear which leaves you exposed.

  2. Avatar
    Christoph Schnelle

    If the premise of this article is correct, then being a sole practitioner is not viable due to the massive compliance regime.

    In other words, the bedrock of any profession, the sole practitioner lawyer, accountant, doctor is not viable in financial planning.

    If you look at lawyers and accountants, sole practitioners usually deal with the low and medium end of the market. Sole practitioner doctors are in areas that are unviable for large practices and hospitals.

    The same may apply to financial advisers. Individual services for the low and medium end of the market are getting less and less available. Yes, the larger firms can manage low-value clients, but they can do that in any individualised way?

  3. Avatar

    Very topical article Tahn. Steven Fine sums up the M&A activity catalyst well, i.e. “margins have been eroded by increasing costs and excised commissions”.
    At HPH Solutions, we are in that “middle market” and agree that smaller firms under $500k have a market, including for us.
    Our main motivation is to create depth so that everyone has just one hat to wear.

  4. Avatar
    Jeremy Wright

    There is a resonance and undeniable truth around growing, to build efficiencies and profitability.
    One area that is falling through the cracks for many Investment focused Advisers, is the Asset and Revenue protection component of the clients planning needs, which is the foundation of every Australian who has Business and or personal / home loans, who also rely on income from personal exertion to pay for their current and future needs.
    Life and Disability Insurance is boring for everyone, except those who suffer an illness or injury that renders them unable to bring in sufficient income to pay their bills.
    The missing link for nearly all Financial Planning practices, irrelevant of their size, is a profitable and client centric Life/Disability risk advice and implementation model that enables clients to decide exactly what they are paying their fees for and to enable them to decide what they are prepared to pay for risk advice and Investment advice, which are two completely different worlds in the eyes of clients.

    The current LIF (Life Insurance Framework) and education requirements are an anchor that slows down a Planners ability to properly provide this crucial service and if clients were told the real cost to provide risk advice and the real cost of implementation, then given a choice of fee or commission to pay for ALL the work required, the VAST majority of Australians will and already do, prefer the Commission model.
    My goal is to continue pushing for a separation of Insurance from Investment advice and to bring in commercially viable, Regulatory requirements, so every Financial Planning Business can have the choice to profitably provide risk advice, either as an in-house service, or as a referral service to specialist risk advisers.
    The current maze of complexity and restrictions of trade, is driving specialist risk advisers to exit the Industry, which has NIL benefit to anyone or the Australian economy.
    Talk to many Financial Planning practices and they will tell you that there is a golden opportunity to GROW and employ more staff in the risk area, conditional that there is a better LIF and training regime that encourages growth, which is currently the antithesis of today’s Regulatory environment.

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