The newly-installed president of Focus Financial gives his first interview since being named in the role. The business, now under private equity ownership, has been one of the most high-profile players in the RIA sector.
Focus Financial Partners, newly retooled after being bought by private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice last year, will be walking a tightrope as it tries to execute a new business model.
The holding company wants to transform from a loosely affiliated network of around 90 advisory firms into a much more integrated model revolving around several big “hub” firms that absorb smaller Focus partners.
The challenge, say industry insiders, is how to balance rolling up as many firms as possible to achieve scale while still accommodating RIAs who signed up with Focus in the first place because they wanted to stay autonomous.
Focus’ priority is to “promote greater interdependence” among partner firms, retain the company’s core fiduciary values and “stimulate progress,” said newly-appointed president Michael Nathanson, in his first interview since being named, while not forcing advisors “to do anything they don’t want to do.”
Easier said than done, according to wealth management consultant Jamie McLaughlin. “The only way to create the expected financial leverage of a roll up of any type is integrating as many shared services across the independent firms as possible,” McLaughlin explained.
One Focus partner firm CEO put it this way: “I mean, we know they want to own every one of us.”
Sell out or hold on?
So what’s the incentive for RIAs to sell their management companies to Focus?
Greater growth, scale, access to more capabilities and the ability to “do more for clients and team members,” said Nathanson, who will remain CEO of The Colony Group.
And money, of course. After valuations are determined, most transactions will be an exchange of sellers’ equity for equity in Focus, Nathanson said. “It’s not about cashing out,” he said. “It’s about believing in the Focus business model and that equity in Focus will grow faster.”
Focus has established two hubs to date: the holding company bought out the management teams of Kovitz Investment Group, a $7.3 billion Chicago-based RIA and The Colony Group, Nathanson’s $21 billion Boston-based firm.
Going forward, Focus may stick with having just two hubs but could also expand to having four or five hubs, Nathanson said.
M&A and debt
Focus will also “continue to pursue external mergers,” he said, but most likely not under the terms of the company’s previous model of buying an RIA’s assets and a preference in its cash flows, while allowing it to operate independently. “Ideally, we would buy 100 per cent control,” Nathanson said.
Focus’ debt levels were a concern when the company publicly traded, but Nathanson said that he was “not concerned at all” by current debt ratios. Debt remains “a useful tool” for the now private company, he added. “Relative to our peers, we are being very responsible regarding the level of debt we utilize.”
Existing partner firms will have to decide whether to stay on
their own or join a hub. “We’re still figuring it out,” one CEO
said. “There may be synergies that make growth faster, but a lot
us like running our firms and don’t want to be an employee.”