Murphy Capital Advisors is a small, fast-growing firm that didn’t have to try very hard to expand its business over the last three years.

It scooped up clients who were fed up with wirehouses, and who sought them out because they operate under a fee-only model.

The tricky part is how to manage those clients under a business model that was unfamiliar to them.

The Glendale, Ariz., company, might get a good sense of how it is doing after Schwab Advisor Services, its custodian, sends the company its complimentary Peer Benchmarking Report as a follow up to its 2010 RIA Benchmarking Study that came out Tuesday.

The study, conducted in February and March, polled 870 independent registered investment advisors, looking at their businesses at the end of last year. It found that 84% of respondents hope to grow their businesses aggressively or moderately in the next five years.

Anecdotally, respondents said they are being more disciplined about using marketing and business development strategies to grow, said Scott Slater, managing director of business consulting for Schwab Advisor Services, a division of Charles Schwab [SCHW].

“Principles are increasing their efforts to get others in the firm—the ones who serve clients—to contribute to growth,” Slater said. “They are saying ‘we are institutionalizing how we grow.’” A lot of firm principles realize that referrals from clients and other types of professionals power their growth, and are committed to finding out how to maximize that. “It is a positive sign for the industry.”

Revenues at firms slipped 11% last year, bringing in a median $1.2 million in revenue compared with $1.3 million a year earlier. Median operating income for RIA firms also slipped, hitting 10.1%, compared with 15% in 2008. Revenue per client was $6,900 in 2009, a slide from $7,800 in 2008. Yet firms remained positive, saying they hoped to revenues would be 10% higher this year.

The study also found that 95% of advisors plan to use technology more efficiently, and that 88% of them have purchased technology to enhance client service. Respondents said investing in technology is a strategic priority, as 73% described them selves as moderate or aggressive adopters. They use technology to increase efficiency and serve clients better, plus scaling their business for the future (85%), reducing risk and potential for error (84%), differentiating from competitors (50%), and adding systems to serve new types of clients (30%).

Advisors in the study said technology saves 18% of their time, and that the most commonly used systems are ones designed for portfolio management (95%), client relationship management  (84%), and email retention software (78%). In particular, advisors said that their satisfaction with CRM software increased as they used more applications in the systems.

Murphy Capital Advisors, which grew its assets under management by 107% to $50 million since mid-2007, participated in the study. Like many of his peers, company president Matthew J. Murphy, CFP, thinks using technology plays an important role in practice management.

“The key advisors and principles here are wearing multiple hats, so you have to be strategic about how you meet clients,” Murphy said. The challenge in using technology is not the initial outlay, Murphy said. Setting up the system and learning how to use it effectively takes a lot of time. In the end, though, it is worth it, he said.

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