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M&A Activity Among RIA Firms Remains Steady but Aligning Strategic Objectives More Important Than Ever, Pershing Report Says

One in four advisory firms was involved in a transaction within the past five years.

Registered investment advisor firms (RIAs) continue to initiate the bulk of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) of RIAs, but the success of these transactions increasingly rests on the alignment of the strategic objectives of the firms involved, according to a report released today by Pershing LLC, a BNY Mellon company. The report, Real Deals: Achieving Purposeful Growth with Purposeful Transactions, analyzes RIA deals and offers guidance to firms for determining if or when a transaction is the optimal course of action.

According to the report, one in four advisory firms was involved in a transaction within the past five years. During this period, nearly half (48 percent) of all deals involved RIAs transacting with each other. RIA-RIA deals now account for twice the proportion of industry transactions compared with 10 years ago, when banks and other institutional buyers tended to dominate transactions. Although the total of 42 real deal transactions in 2014 is slightly less than the 48 recorded in 2013, the numbers represent a largely consistent level of M&A activity over recent years. Real deal transactions are defined as those mergers involving an RIA or acquisition of an RIA that is retail-focused, and manages $50m or more in assets or earns $500,000 or more in annual revenues.

"RIA deal-making will invariably continue and grow in frequency," said Gabriel Garcia, director of relationship management at Pershing Advisor Solutions. "Firm owners are increasingly aware of the potential benefits of a transaction and are more confident in initiating one."

A transaction can result in a host of strategic advantages, the principal of which include: greater economies of scale, accessing new markets, accessing new expertise and facilitating an ownership or management succession solution. But in order to gain any one of these advantages, Garcia urges firms to consider both organic and inorganic growth approaches. Organic growth is achieved from maximizing existing business capabilities such as growing the firm's existing client base, improving efficiency to increase profitability and reinvesting profits to increase service capacity. Inorganic growth is achieved as a result of a merger with, or acquisition of, another firm.

"While M&A activity is highly regarded as a means of expansion, it is important to recognize that a transaction is not necessarily the only way to achieve growth," said Garcia. "RIAs must first understand the strategic context of a potential transaction."

To evaluate whether a transaction is appropriate, the report provides a four-step course of action:

  • Define objectives: The personal objectives of shareholders, the strategic objectives of the firm, and other clearly defined objectives serve as valuable guideposts. Without them, it is impossible to adequately determine whether a transaction is in the best interest of the firm and its shareholders.
  • Identify the problem: Firms are often tempted to pursue any deal opportunity that presents itself. However, a purposeful transaction should help firms address a specific problem such as the need to scale, access new markets, or acquire new capabilities, etc.
  • List all options: While a transaction may take the firm in the direction it wants to go, another initiative might do the same but more effectively. Identify all practical options, inorganic as well as organic, for achieving the objectives of the firm.
  • Analyze and discuss: Conduct a thorough analysis of each option to determine which solution will be most effective for driving the firm's growth strategy. Review and evaluate the best options for achieving the firm's objectives from the perspectives of cost, risk, timing, business continuity and associated distractions.

Industry data and executive interviews, combined with a decade worth of knowledge accumulated by FA Insight through direct consultation with many advisory firms formed the basis for the findings and recommendations posed in Real Deals. The report features five case studies based on a series of interview sessions with executives from a cross-section of leading advisory firms. This edition of Real Deals is the sixth in a series of reports published by Pershing since 2006.