When Jeff Concepcion launched Stratos Wealth Partners, a Solon, Ohio-based wealth management firm, in 2008 he had a staff of two people.

Concepcion had recently been fired by Lincoln Financial Advisors, where he worked for almost 23 years, and he wanted a fresh start.

Now, Stratos has a leadership team of about 30 advisors, over 100 affiliate advisors, and more than $6 billion in assets under management in combined client advisory and brokerage accounts.

More impressive is the rate at which the firm is growing.

In 2012, combined AUM increased 55% from a year earlier to $5 billion. This year, Stratos expects to set another record, already drawing in over $1 billion at the end of the first quarter.         

Much of this growth can be attributed to its hybrid RIA model, with LPL as the broker-dealer to the commission side of the business. According to a Cerulli Associates report, hybrid RIAs represent the fastest growing segment of the advisor market. Even so, Stratos’ growth overshadows the 19.1% average growth within the segment last year, according to the report.     

So what went right with Stratos? It may be better to first ask what went wrong.

PHILOSOPHICAL DIVIDE

“I had a wonderful career at Lincoln, but the industry was broken,” Concepcion says. “It seemed to me like the enterprises were taking far too large a bite out of the pie.”

He believes that many other advisors knew it too, but didn’t want to leave largely because of comfort and the value in the brand they were associated with.

“It’s inertia, the longer you stay, the easier it is to remain,” he says.  

By late 2008 and early 2009 – having felt the effects of the financial crisis – the brand had deteriorated, and advisors were becoming more open-minded, Concepcion says. A growing number were leaving to become independent, attracted by the top-line payouts.

“They didn’t realize that by going independent, they had to think about compliance, benefits, staffing, technology – everything they didn’t have to worry about when they were in a big wirehouse,” he says.

Little by little, Conception says that he saw that a market was being created.

“Advisors were starting to leave wirehouses in larger numbers, and so I thought, what if someone could tangibly help them grow their business?” he says.

That’s when he decided to structure his firm around a hybrid RIA model that gave affiliate advisors shareholder equity.

GO BIG OR GO HOME

From a financial standpoint, launching Stratos was a conundrum.

“Do you build the model before looking for advisors, or do you tell advisors that you’ll build this amazing model for them if they join?” Concepcion says.

The firm decided to build the model first and recruit later.

“We ended up spending money before getting revenue,” he says, adding that “the first year or two could have gone either ways.”

Thankfully the timing was perfect, and the firm managed to take off.

“The ramp up for the revenues to support the overhead and investments we made took a longer time than we had liked,” he says. “But now, it’s like a runaway freight train.”

MY BUSINESS IS YOUR BUSINESS

A large part of the success of the firm’s growth is in its equity offering.

“Much of our success comes from the fact that the advisors are shareholders, so our business is their business too,” Concepcion says. “By helping us succeed, they are also helping themselves.”

The firm offers two separate models. The full service/ plug and play model offers advisors technology, administrative, and coaching support similar to what they were receiving in the wirehouses, while giving advisors the flexibility to run their own business, according to Concepcion. In the independent model, advisors still receive the firm’s support, but they hire their own staff.

“It’s not just earning more, it’s unleashing the equity value of your practice,” he says. “What we’ve seen is that many independent advisors are willing to sacrifice some revenue for support.”   

EXPANSION THROUGH REFERRALS

Although the firm now has advisors in 15 states, Concepcion says that there’s never been a targeted design to go to certain markets.

“We don’t have a particular value in AUM that we want to reach, and we don’t have a strategy in terms of which cities and states to be in,” he says. “For us, it’s all about doing good business with good people with businesses.”

So far, the bulk of the firm’s advisors have come through referrals – and he doesn’t see it changing anytime soon.

“The main challenge is to continue to deliver on our value proposition, and continue to do it better than in the past,” he said. “Our greatest challenge will be internal, but right now, I fell like all that’s limiting us are the hours in the day.”

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