Birds do it. Bees do it. Planners with complementary philosophies should do it. Coupling up, in the business sense, can goose your income by 32% or even more, according to a recent Fidelity study as well as Financial Planning interviews with teamed planners.
Just ask planners Jeremy Kisner, 43, and Robert Luna, 38, of SureVest Capital Management in Scottsdale, Ariz. The two say they have both more than doubled the size of their previous separate practices since joining forces about five years ago.
"If you want to get the $2 million to $5 million accounts," Kisner says, "you have to have a team. You have to have credibility."
The Fidelity study identified advisor teams as a trend that will become increasingly important to "the future of the advice industry." The survey of 1,207 advisors in all types of firms (RIAs, B-Ds, banks, insurance companies and wirehouses) found that although the majority (52%) still work alone, advisors in teams were "generally more successful," with both higher revenues and AUM.
SPURRED TO ACTION
One possible reason: The survey also found that advisors in teams take more action, from participating in industry groups and networking events to adopting new business strategies and firing low-margin clients. (See "Kiss 'Em Goodbye," p. 71.)
Although just 13% of respondents told Fidelity that they were working exclusively in teams, another 35% were working in teams part-time. "Our thesis is that [they] were trying it out," says Alexandra Taussig, a senior vice president of marketing at Fidelity.
There's also a generational component to the shift, she adds: Teaming up is also becoming a significant trend as Gen X and Gen Y advisors emerge as a real force.
Childhood friends Derek Holman, 40, and Brian Parker, 39, started out as a team, co-founding EP Wealth Partners in Torrance, Calif., 14 years ago. The partnership has proved so successful that the firm, which has $1.3 billion in AUM, has since added a third "spouse": planner Patrick Gosh-tigian, now the firm's president.
"At the end of day, it's more than just a marriage," Holman says. "We spend more time with [each other] than we do with our spouses."
Wirehouses discovered the partnership payoff years ago. Wirehouses routinely urge their advisors to work in teams, pairing up individuals and, sometimes, directing them to engage in daily huddles to discuss strategy, says Winnie Sun, 39, the co-founder of rapidly growing Sun Wealth Group in Irvine, Calif.
Sun and her co-founder, Brandon Chang, 36, met more than a decade ago while working at Smith Barney, where they became friends and discovered they had complementary skill sets. At Smith Barney, both Sun and Chang were expected to find their own clients - and Chang, a natural analyst and numbers-cruncher, knew he needed help, recalls Sun, who comes off as a natural people person.
"He had a prospecting opportunity that he knew he needed a partner for," she recalls. She accompanied him to that meeting, and then others. The two ultimately found they worked so well together that they decided to start their own firm, with Sun as the majority partner.
Chang is now director of investments for the five-person firm, while Sun spends most of her time on business development. "We are almost complete opposites in every way," Sun says, "except that we have similar ethical standards and a similar value core. We get along and we have a lot of trust in one another."
Sun and other advisors offered several pieces of advice for planners looking to build their practices by finding partners.
1. SHARE VALUES & PHILOSOPHY
As with romantic relationships, successful business partnerships require real trust, planners say.
Christina Mangino, 34, joined Kisner and Luna as a third partner at SureVest a couple of years ago, after leaving two other failed partnerships. In both of those instances, she had teamed up with older planners in insurance firms who had promised mentorship.
"They said, 'I'll do the investment planning and you can do the financial planning,'" Mangino says. "'Come join me and kumbaya.'" But over time, the relationships fell short; one partner didn't actually want to share control, she says, while in the other union she felt like she was doing the lion's share of new business development. "I was bringing everything in," she contends.
Mangino says her partnership with Kisner and Luna has been a big improvement. "With previous firms, I thought there was trust there, but there wasn't."
At SureVest, "we all respect each other immensely for our talents and our knowledge. I know that they really know what they are doing, so there's definitely a confidence there in their skills."
It's critical to share ethics and values, Holman says - but shared beliefs must extend to investment philosophy, as well. "We both agree that active management can outperform passive management, for one, and that market timing is extremely difficult to impossible."
2. FIND MATCHED SKILL SETS
Although values and philosophies must align, many advisors say it's critical to partner with planners who have different skill sets. Holman oversees investments for EP Wealth, while Parker runs business development. Luna and Kisner have a similar breakdown: Luna spends his days analyzing investments, while Kisner is the marketing guy.
The two met at a top-producers conference for their former broker-dealer more than six years ago. Kisner said he had decided to go around to all the old-timers and ask their advice for what a young person in the profession should to do expand his business.
"I was not gaining insights," Kisner recalls. Then he started talking to the guy sitting next to him: Luna, who had been a derivatives trader and a risk analyst for TD Ameritrade's precursor, Waterhouse Securities. "I quickly found out that he knew more than anyone else in the room," Kisner says. Luna's analytical skills proved a strong combination for Kisner's managerial and promotional ones, he says.
3. DEFINE RESPONSIBILITIES
Just saying that one partner will handle analytics and the other marketing doesn't guarantee that a firm will run smoothly.
"People don't spend enough time talking about goals and responsibilities within a partnership," Holman says. "There's a lot of time that needs to be spent on this subject. There's a lot of nuance."
Continually discussing and redefining the roles of each partner will clarify and help the relationship evolve, he says.
4. TAKE IT SLOW
Sun and Chang had worked together at Smith Barney for several years before starting their firm. Parker and Holman actually met in middle school in San Diego when they were 15.
"We had a very long interview process, so to speak," Holman jokes.
Kisner and Luna got to know each other for about a year before they considered working together. And they began their partnership tentatively - sharing just one client, with Luna working from his offices in Scottsdale and Kisner still based in Las Vegas.
"I said, 'I'll bring on the client and you manage the money,'" Kisner recalls. "But I still had my own company and my own company name. And then, over time, we started doing all our business together."
5. SPELL IT ALL OUT
Kisner and Luna also wrote up a contract specifying what would happen if one of them became disabled or died. The contract also stipulates that the surviving member would continue to pay income to the injured partner or his widow in the case of death.
Then they did the same for Mangino, when she joined the firm. "I know if, heaven forbid, I got hit by a car tomorrow," she says, "there's someone who can take care of my clients."
6. CONSIDER A THIRD
Successful partnerships often expand and morph into teams, with multiple partners and increasing numbers of support staff. EP Wealth now employs more than 30 people.
Having multiple partners is working for SureVest, too, and Sun says it's the next step for her firm: "I need another me."
7. NURTURE COMPETITION
One reason why partnerships foster growth may be the way pairs or groups of advisors naturally push each other.
"There's a feeling of not wanting to be outdone by the other person," Holman says. He and Parker grew up playing pickup basketball together; today, they are both runners who try to outpace each other.
That sense of competition spills over into the workplace, he says: "If one of us is bringing in new business, that leads the other one to wanting to bring in new business."
8. BE GENEROUS
While they were growing SureVest incrementally, Kisner and Luna took pains to show each other good will, Kisner recalls.
"At one point [Luna] said let's split all the relationships, no matter where they came from," says Kisner, who remembers he was impressed and touched by this offer. (He agreed to the split.) "If you have people who look at a relationship as a negotiation - and think, 'What can I get out of it?' - that doesn't work well," Kisner says. "You don't want to be in a marriage like that."
9. HANG OUT
Kisner and Luna often spend weekends together with their families, as do Holman and Parker. Chang and Sun have taken everyone in their small firm, along with their families, to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas for weekend fun.
It's important to do something social together as often as once a week, Sun says.
"You have to really, really like each other," she says. "If you don't get along, it's not going to work."
Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.